The Malaysian education system: An overview

05.07.17
7 minute read
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Whether you’re starting a business, getting a work visa, or just adjusting to life as a new expat in Malaysia, it’s important to understand the Asian country’s education system.This is especially true when you’re making decisions around schooling for yourself and your family.

Whether you’re moving to Kuala Lumpur, George Town of Penang, or any of Malaysia’s other cities, you’ll find yourself faced with an education system that looks similar to those in place in the U.S., UK and around Europe.

Education as a whole is overseen by Malaysia’s federal government, specifically the Ministry of Education, or Kementerian Pendidikan. However, it then falls to the individual states and territories to coordinate the details of the school system in their locality.

The total system is broken down into preschool, primary education, secondary education and post-secondary education. As is the case in most places, education is free up to the level of post-secondary. It’s possible to find great private schools or homeschooled children, but many English-speaking families choose to enroll their children in public schools, as classes are taught either in English or a combination of English and Malay.

Overall, expats are likely to find the Malaysian education system a pretty easy one to integrate into. But what are the advantages? How does it work?

Read on to learn more about the intricacies of the Malaysian school system.

What are the pros and cons?

For expat families, there are a number of pros that come with integrating into the Malaysian education system. The dual-language programs are obviously a huge draw, but schools in Malaysia are also well equipped and often have rather modern facilities. The country is also known for top-notch teachers and high exam scores.

That being said, there are some cons that should be considered if you’re thinking about entering your child into public school. For one, because the system is so exam-oriented versus analysis-based, students can sometimes lack critical thinking and leadership skills. Other criticisms lie in the teachers themselves who, though excellent, are often faulted for touting memorization over inspiration or passion.

The biggest con lies in the same category as one of the pros: the level of English proficiency. While Malaysian schools mostly teach bilingually or in English, depending on your exact region you may find all classes are taught in Malay, or that the teacher’s English proficiency is rather low. Not only can this stunt student learning, it can make it extra hard for expat children to adjust to the public school system.

What’s the general philosophy?

While citizens may not always feel it rings true to the current situation, the Malaysian Ministry of Education does have a published “Educational Philosophy,” written in and unchanged since 1988:

“Education in Malaysia is an ongoing effort towards further developing the potential of individuals in a holistic and integrated manner, in order to produce individuals who are intellectually, spiritually, emotionally and physically, balanced and harmoniously, based on a firm belief in and devotion to God. Such an effort is designed to produce Malaysian citizens who are knowledgeable and competent, who possess high moral standards and who are responsible and capable of achieving a high level of personal well being to contribute to the betterment of the nation, family and society.”

While this does feel like a balanced statement, many Malaysian residents might sum up the educational philosophy in a much simpler phrase: “Results-oriented.”

The Malaysian school system is known for placing the most importance on passing standardized tests, and emphasizes qualities like critical thinking, creativity and leadership significantly less.

Grading scale / system

While the grading system in Malaysia doesn’t quite track to other systems, it’s most similar to the one employed in the United States. Grades in Malaysia are broken down as follows:

Grade Letter Point Scale Grade Description
A 70-100 First Class Honors
B 60-70 Second Class Honors (Upper Division)
B- 50-60 Second Class Honors(Lower Division)
C 40-50 Third Class Honors
F 0-40 Fail

While the above scale is the one that's most often used, individual states and territories can and do employ their own different or modified scales.

Exam structure

Exams in Malaysia sometimes act as benchmarks to understand student achievement, while other times they're used to determine whether students are ready to advance to the next academic level. Some standardized test in Malaysia include:

  • Primary School Achievement Test (Ujian PEncapaian Sekolah Rendah, UPSR)
    • The UPSR tests whether students are ready to advance to secondary school by assessing their Malay comprehension, Malay writing, English comprehension, English writing, Science and Math. Specifically Chinese schools may choose to also test students in Chinese writing and comprehension, while specifically Tamil schools may elect to test students in Tamil writing and comprehension.
  • Lower Secondary Evaluation (Pentaksiran Tingkatan 3, PT3)
    • This examination is used to move students into one of three distinct tracks as they move into upper secondary school. The potential tracks are:
      - Academic Stream, focused on Science or Art
      - Technical and Vocational Stream, which encompasses a range of subjects
      - Religious Stream

      What’s the schooling structure in Malaysia?

School structure in Malaysia tracks almost identically to structures in the U.S., UK and much of Europe. School technically begins at age four, with pre-school, however this isn't considered to be a real “grade level” and isn't required of Malaysian school children. After that, children move through the following structure:

Level Equivalent Student Age Malaysian Form
Kindergarten 5-6
Elementary/ Primary 7-12
Middle School / Lower Secondary 13-15 Forms 1-3
High School / Upper Secondary 16-17 Forms 4-5
Post Secondary 17-18
University 18+

How does it compare with other countries?

According to the US News & World Report’s 2017 rankings for “Best Countries for Education,” Malaysia stands at #43 in the world, sandwiched between the Ukraine and Mexico. While this ranking stands way above some of the country’s neighbors, like Indonesia and Vietnam, it’s also relatively low-ranked among Asian nations. Japan, for instance, ranks at #10, while Singapore is #20, South Korea is #22 and China is #25.

As a result, many expat families choose to enroll their children in highly ranked international schools, which not only offers a more elite education, but typically grants easier access to universities outside of Malaysia upon graduation. There’s also been a recent surge in Malaysian families sending their children to international schools, both for the college opportunities and the increased exposure to foreign language, especially English.

What’s the cost of education?

As of 2012, government (public) schools in Malaysia are entirely free for residents. This typically includes grade levels from Kindergarten through high school graduation, however in some regions there may also be public preschools available. Included in that free education is the use of textbooks throughout the school journey, however extracurriculars and sports teams often come with separate costs.

If you’re hoping to send your kids to a private or international school, it’s a different story entirely.

Mont’Kiara International School (MKIS) in Kuala Lumpur offers American curriculum taught in English, a huge selling point for students hoping to apply to American universities. That being said, parents of a student attending the school starting in Kindergarten can expect to pay around RM 1,291,900.00 by graduation. That being said, Mont’Kiara is one of the most expensive international schools in the country. For instance, parents of students at Regent International School, also in Kuala Lumpur, are only required to pay around RM 156,000.00 over the course of their child’s academic journey. It can also be argued that the education between the two schools is comparable, though Regent teaches English Cambridge curriculum, versus US.

Overall, it’s possible to find affordable tuition at an international school in Malaysia, though due to the demand it may be difficult to get in.

It’s important to recognize that tuition fees aren't where the cost of international school ends. A single set of the required secondary school uniform, for example, might cost about RM 200 including shoes, which can add up when you consider that you may need up to have five sets. Parents are also often responsible for securing textbooks, the cost of which can sometimes be astronomical.

If you’re paying for your child’s education from your bank account overseas, you may need to add transfer fees to that cost as well. That being said, a service like Transferwise can help mitigate those costs by offering low-fee international transfers. You may also be able to save money on transfer fees by opening a Malaysian bank account.

What’s the typical school calendar and school hours?

The academic school year in Malaysia differs a bit from the typical terms in the US or Britain. The 2017 school year, for instance, started on January 3rd, and ends on November 25th with a month-long break in between. Students also have two mid-term breaks and one mid-year break, each of which lasts for about one week.

Another key difference is the observance of Friday and Saturday as the weekend, with schools back in session on Sunday. This, however, is regional, and isn't true of schools across Malaysia.

Children in secondary school typically attend class from about 7:30AM to 1PM, however some government schools have shortened those hours to allow for two “shifts” in an effort to manage overcrowding.

How do I register my child?

Typically the registration period for the upcoming school year begins in March of the previous year. Some documents you may need include:

  • Birth Certificate
  • Copy of Birth Certificate
  • Copies of siblings’ Birth Certificates (if attending the same school)
  • Mail or a bill to confirm the parent's address
  • A copy of the parent or guardian’s ID

For any child born outside of Malaysia, you’ll also need school transcripts, a copy of the parents’ visa(s) and work permits and vaccination records.

While it’s still fairly common for schools to require these documents to be submitted in person, more and more schools are moving to online registration systems.

Additional Resources

The Malaysian Ministry of Education’s website also has a plenty of information about policies, registration and other useful tidbits.

In summary, the school system in Malaysia is perfectly adequate for expat families, though it may be worth considering an international school. If you do decide on a school that comes with tuition fees and you’re funding your child’s education from your account back home, use TransferWise to get the real exchange rate and cut out expensive international bank transfer fees.

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