Latest government research confirms 2012 PISA and World Bank report that Malaysia will not produce the highly-skilled workers for the country to become a high-income nation unless there is an educational transformation in pursuit of excellence

The latest government research has confirmed 2012 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) and World Bank report on “Malaysia Economic Monitor: High-Performing Education” that Malaysia will not produce the highly-skilled workers for the country to become a high-income nation unless there is an educational transformation in Malaysia in pursuit of excellence and not just mediocrity.

Lee Chee Sung, the adviser of Institute of Labour Market Information and Analysis (ILMIA) – which comes under the direct purview of the Ministry of Human Resources - said at the launch of the official ILMIA portal in Kuala Lumpur yesterday that although more than 400,000 job opportunities were created last year, Malaysia is still not a high income nation because it lacks highly skilled workers.

At the same function, the Human Resources Minister Datuk Richard Riot Jaem acknowledged that at the moment, about 28 per cent out of the 12.7 million strong labour force in the country is made up of high-skilled workers and the government’s target is to bring the number of high-skilled workers up to 50 per cent of the total workforce by 2020.

However, both the two important international education benchmarks - 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the 2012 PISA – have shown that Malaysia is doing a poor job in developing the nation’s human capital although it is a fundamental driver of economic growth.

As pointed out by the World Bank’s latest Malaysia Economic Monitor, education systems build cognitive skills, equipping workers with knowledge that makes them more productive and allows innovation to emerge. From basic literacy to advanced engineering, the knowledge transmitted in schools is critical for a society’s economic and social progress.

The problem facing education in Malaysia is not quantity or access to education but quality or access to quality education, and the World Bank has described ensuring Malaysia has a high-performing education system as “a lynchpin of Malaysia’s transformation into a high-income, sustainable and inclusive economy”.

This is why all Malaysians must be seriously concerned about the crisis of the Malaysian education system when Malaysia’s performance in standard international student assessments is below what would be expected of a country with its income per capita or level of educational expenditures, and well below the performance of the high-income economies that Malaysia aspires to compete against for innovation and knowledge-based investments.

Malaysia faces a twin “miracle” problem in achieving a high-performing education system, to pull the education system up by its bootstraps to ensure:

  1. that Malaysia’s 15-year-olds who under 2012 PISA are below the international average in the three critical subjects of Math, Science and Reading, as well as three or five years behind their peers in the top performing PISA countries/regions in Shanghai, Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan could make the double quantum jump in 2021 PISA from the bottom-third to the top-third of PISA system; and
  2. a multiple increase in the percentage of students who are top-performers in math, science and reading.

In the 2012 PISA mathematics, Shanghai-China has the largest proportion of students who are top performers, i.e. at Level 5 or 6 (55.4%) followed by Singapore (40%), Taiwan (37.2%), Hong Kong (33.7%), South Korea (30.9). Between 15% and 25% of students in Belgium, Canada, Finland, Germany, Japan, Liechtenstein, Macao, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland and Switzerland are top performers in mathematics.

In contrast, only a mere 1.3% of the students in Malaysia are “top performers”, while more than half of Malaysian students (51.8%) do not reach basic proficiency levels in Mathematics (i.e. Below Level 2).

Even the top 5 per cent of Malaysian students perform only in line with the average Korean or Japanese pupil.

Noteworthy is that Malaysia’s performance is well below that of lower-income Vietnam, which participated in the PISA for the first time in 2012, registering 13.3% of the Vietnamese students as “top performers” with only 14.2% of the students below the basic proficiency level in Mathematics.

The comparative 2012 PISA scores for Vietnam and Malaysia deserve close study by Malaysian political leaders, education planners and parents:

Maths Science Reading
Vietnam 511 528 508
Malaysia 421 420 398

Has Malaysia the political will to transform the Malaysian education system into high-performing one in the pursuit of excellence and not just mediocrity so that Malaysia can achieve the goal of a high-income, sustainable and inclusive economy in 2020?

Lim Kit Siang DAP Parliamentary Leader & MP for Gelang Patah