Lamenting, yet again, on education in Malaysia



Lamenting, yet again, on education in Malaysia
By Zan Azlee

You might have read that a recent survey done by the well-known pollster Pew Research Centre has shown that in Malaysia, Muslims are considered the most educated compared to the rest of the population – formal education, that is.

According to the survey, it was found that Muslim men received an average of 10.6 years of formal education. This is slightly higher than men of other religions such as Buddhists, 10.4 years, Hindus, 10.3 years, and Christians, 9.6 years.

Similarly, Muslim women received on average 9.8 years of formal education, which is slightly higher if compared to Buddhist women, 9.2 years, Hindu women, 9.1 years, and Christian women, 8.4 years.

The Pew survey also found that the average schooling period is 9.9 years. When broken down, women received an average of 9.4 years, while men received an average of 10.4 years of schooling.

Before we move on further, it needs to be noted that data collected for this survey was from the 2010 national census and three groups were surveyed according to an age bracket – those born between 1936-1955, 1956-1975 and 1976-1985.

Why is the result so?

The majority of Malaysians are Malay, and by definition, all Malays are Muslims. So it wouldn’t be surprising to see that there are more Muslims showing up on the survey. But of course, I’m sure the survey takes a percentage comparison rather than the actual number.

Now the fact that there is a bumiputera quota when it comes to tertiary education should also be considered as an element of influence. The systematic affirmative action that is implemented in the country ensures that there are more bumiputeras in universities.

According to the Federal Constitution, Malays are bumiputeras and since bumiputeras tend to get more allocation in educational institutions, it would probably be why there are more Muslims who have more formal education than the rest.

This is a contentious issue seeing that it has been many years now where Malaysians have questioned if it would be better to have the local universities accept students based on meritocracy rather than on a racial quota.

What if the quota system is abolished? Would we see a decrease in Muslims having tertiary education and a boost in non-Muslims? And the next question is – would that even matter since it would be based on meritocracy and the best Malaysians would be graduating anyway?

I went to a fully residential boarding school and then received a scholarship and completed my tertiary education at a local university. I’m not saying that I’m not grateful, but it does sting a whole lot thinking that it could just be because I am registered as a Malay in my birth certificate.

Of course, during that time, I was just an apathetic teenage idiot. But after that, I realised and started thinking that maybe I have something to prove. So I went overseas – a neutral ground – and see if I could hack it. Thankfully, I didn’t flunk out and came back with a Master’s degree.

A disturbing fact

It is also interesting to note that in Malaysia, the normal compulsory schooling period for children is really 11 years. There are six years of primary schooling and five years of secondary. All Malaysian citizens between the ages of seven and 17 have a right to attend government school.

Knowing that the average time spent in school is much lower than the primary and secondary schooling time available to Malaysians is disturbing. Of course, there will be drop-outs and the cause could be a myriad of reasons, which could range from economical to even physical.

In context of the larger international community, Muslims still lag way behind when it comes to education. According to the survey, Muslims globally receive an average of 5.5 years of formal education, way below the average of 7.7 years, and behind the Jews, Buddhists and Christians.

This is attributed to the fact that many Muslims live in parts of the world that are considered less developed. However, Muslims are the second largest religious group behind the Christians. They are also the fastest growing religion in the world.

Also, women are still lagging behind compared to men in all religions in Malaysia. In this day and age, this is a problem. In other countries, the gender gap has started to reverse. However, it is good to see that Malaysian women are more likely to have tertiary degrees.

For the non-Muslim Malaysians like the Buddhists, they would seem to fare better being Malaysians seeing that this group have a higher percentage of tertiary degree holders compared to Buddhists in other countries like China and Nepal.

But I guess all this doesn’t matter for us Malaysians when we’re still debating on the quality and inconsistencies of our education system, be it from the basic primary level, right up to our universities. Oh well.

[This article was originally written for and published at]

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