Students bear the strain of Malaysia's school 'crisis', amid leak of test questions

KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) - Bowing before an altar in a Hindu temple, 12-year-old Dharmishta Ramachandran prayed for strength and wisdom before taking high-stakes Malaysian school exams that have huge bearing on her future.

She looked weary, and for good reason: It was the second time in weeks that nearly 500,000 students took the exam, after initial results were invalidated when test questions were found leaked online.

The fiasco has incensed families and spotlighted mounting criticism of a government-run school system seen to be in disarray.

The Primary School Evaluation Test taken by nearly 500,000 pupils can decide coveted access to elite government-run secondary schools or private-school scholarships, and the re-examination has only magnified that pressure. "My fear is I may not perform well," said a pensive Dharmishta, primly dressed in her Kuala Lumpur school's blue uniform. "I've had trouble sleeping and eating the past few weeks."

Re-examinations were held last week, with additional subjects set for Thursday, despite wide complaints that children were paying the price for official incompetence.

Around a dozen people have reportedly been arrested over the leak, mostly teachers.

While the authorities have released no details, many parents attribute the scandal to fierce jockeying to stand out in an education system they say is failing to prepare students for the world.

"It's a crisis. It's 'code red,'" Mr Sivaraman Sabapathy, a public relations consultant with a school-aged son, said of the school system.

"It's sad. The government is unable to provide a good education for its citizens."

The school system was respected during and after British colonial times, credited with aiding Malaysia's growth from agrarian backwater to regional economic standout.

It has some of Asia's highest per-capita education funding, and access is near-universal.

But in 2012 standardised tests, Malaysian 15-year-olds were the worst in East Asia, outperforming only Indonesia.

Of 65 countries worldwide, Malaysians ranked no higher than 52nd in any subject, and were 39th out of 44 countries in problem-solving skills.

Universities also have slipped in global rankings over the past decade, and employers frequently lament the quality of graduates.

English skills, long a Malaysian advantage in attracting foreign investment, have "deteriorated" as well, the World Bank said in a report last year, adding to an erosion of national competitiveness vis-a-vis regional rivals.

It said student abilities were "not on par" with ambitious government development promises, citing poor administration, the standard of teachers and excessive bureaucracy.

Malaysia's race-based politics also loom large.

The ruling Umno has long imposed controversial policies favouring majority ethnic Malays - Umno's political base - including quotas that ensure Malay numbers in the best secondary schools and in public universities.

This often shuts out better students from the large ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities, contributing to a much-chronicled "brain drain" overseas of some of Malaysia's best talent that has economic planners worried.

"Perhaps the most serious problem is that (education officials) see their role as ensuring the well-being and interests of Malay students," said Mr Lim Teck Ghee, head of the Centre for Policy Initiatives, a Malaysian think-tank.

"Teacher recruitment has been politicised for over 30 years and we are paying a heavy price."

Deputy Education Minister P. Kamalanathan denied any racial bias, but said criticism of schools was "quite accurate".

However, ambitious reform plans announced last year will, by 2025, address key problems including student performance, teacher quality, school management, and excess bureaucracy, he said.

"The aim is to empower parents and teachers while creating an educational system that brings out the potential of students to meet global standards," he told AFP.

But Mr Lim said the government, frequently accused of corruption and misrule by critics, has a "bad record" on institutional reform.

"The most we can hope for is not to fall further back," he said.

Meanwhile, many parents complain of unqualified instructors, or none at all for extended periods due to chaotic administration. Poor students often receive passing marks despite learning little.

Policy flip-flops, including a recent move to abandon English as the medium of instruction for math and science, sow confusion, they add.

The government had switched to English in 2003, hoping to enhance students' high-tech competitiveness. The latest reversal is widely seen as an admission that English levels were insufficient for that.

"(Students) may get straight-As but when they enter university they have poor problem-solving and writing skills, especially in English," said Tengku Azita Tengku Aziz, a telecommunications lecturer at Universiti Kuala Lumpur.

"Many parents want their children to enter (elite government-run) boarding or private schools, a clear indication of deteriorating standards."

Mr V. Ramachandran, Dharmishta's father, hopes to enrol her in an expensive private school and, eventually, university in Singapore, another drop in Malaysia's "brain drain".

"She can live there and not come back," he said.