Education Challenges in Malaysia: Low Quality of Education in a Rising Economy

Written by Müge Çınar

The Country Profile 

Malaysia, which gained independence in 1957 from British rule, has successfully transitioned its economy from an agriculture-based economy to robust manufacturing and service sectors. This economic diversification pushed the country to become a leading exporter of electrical appliance parts and components (World Bank, 2022). 

During the last two decades, this culturally diverse country has become an upper-middle-income country. The growth in poverty reduction has been made, with income poverty falling from 50 percent in the 1970s to 0.4 percent in 2016 (UNICEF, 2022). Since 2010, it has grown at a 5.4 percent annual rate, and it is predicted to move from an upper middle-income economy to a high-income economy by 2024 (World Bank, 2022).

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge negative impact on Malaysia, mostly on vulnerable households. Following the revision of the official poverty line in July 2020, 5.6% of Malaysian households now live in absolute poverty (UNICEF, 2022). The pandemic caused issues that directly affected adolescents, children, and women in many ways. 

Group of school children. Photo by Kamusal Alan.

Education System in Malaysia

According to the national education system, six-year education is required to start after children reach the age of six. Public schools offer 11 years of free primary and secondary education. Early childhood education (ECE) is not mandatory in Malaysia; however, preschool is accessible to children aged 4 and up. According to the Ministry of Education’s 2017 Annual Report, national preschool enrollment for children aged 4 and up was 84.3 percent (Ministry of Education of Malaysia, 2018).

Enrollment in primary and secondary education in Malaysia is generally high, with enrollment increasing at every grade level since 2013.  Secondary enrollment is lower than primary enrollment, and enrollment decreases by 10 percent between the lower and upper secondary levels. A variety of governmental, private, international, and religious institutions provide higher education (Ministry of Education of Malaysia, 2018). 

The Education 2030 Agenda’s Sustainable Development Goal 4 allocates at least 4 percent of GDP and 15 percent of national expenditure on public services to education (UNESCO, 2022). Government education spending accounted for 4.77 percent of GDP and 21 percent of total government spending in 2017. According to recent data, Malaysia has been reducing its education expenditure from 2011 by 5.8 percent to 2020 by 3.9 percent (World Bank Data, 2023). This is the highest of any ASEAN country. Education spending is also the Malaysian government’s largest single expenditure. 

Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013–2025 outlines five aims that motivate Malaysia’s educational system: access, quality, fairness, unity, and efficiency. To realize the objective of Education for All, full access to education and the closing of achievement disparities for equity must be met. The Ministry is committed to increasing primary school enrollment and decreasing dropout rates in distant areas (Abu Bakar, 2022). 

To achieve these two educational goals of “access” and “equity”, the government has provided additional support and programs over the years, including a financial assistance program, a program for Special Education Needs, and a special program for the Orang Asli communities. The Ministry of Education (MOE) has also incorporated ICT in the classroom to improve teaching and learning. Despite government improvements, many challenges impede the success of Malaysian education. 

Main Problems in Education in Malaysia

Quality of Education

Education quality is a huge concern, with almost 60 percent of 15-year-old Malaysian students failing to meet minimum competence standards (Anderson & Barrett, 2020). Although improvements have been made during the last few years, Malaysian students are still under performing compared to international averages. 

In the most recent PISA testing (2018), 54 percent of Malaysian students achieved minimum proficiency in reading, 59 percent in math, and 63 percent in science, compared to the OECD average of 77 percent (reading), 76 percent (math), and 78 percent (science) (OECD, 2019). This shows that the high amount of government spending on education may not be allocated to factors that have the biggest impact on learning outcomes.

Poor teacher quality is another barrier to quality and learning outcomes: 93 percent of those applying for a Bachelor of Education and 70 percent of those offered a place in the program did not have the necessary qualifications, and only 3 percent of offers were made to applicants considered high performers (UNICEF Malaysia, 2019). And also, a lack of autonomy in schools is a challenge. Researchers found that rigidity in curriculum and delivery hampered quality learning, and the high degree of centralization in the education system was also found to have hampered the efficient production and distribution of education services (Anderson & Barrett, 2020).

As mentioned before, the government’s spending on education is very high compared to the region. However, the amount of money granted to each school is determined by the number of students enrolled in the current school year, not by the school’s needs or the socioeconomic status of the students (Abu Bakar, 2022). This causes schools with fewer students in rural areas to get less financial support. Therefore, the discrimination against rural areas students are made to reach resources to get a better education.

Compared to students in larger cities, most parents in rural areas have lower incomes. They are unable to give their children the facilities and resources they require for academic success. The gap in quality education is realized between urban and rural areas of the country. As a result, the students’ achievements in urban areas are higher. This issue creates a gap in establishing educational equity between urban and rural schools.

Another weak point that divides rural and urban education quality is the lack of internet connectivity to support e-learning. Inadequate connectivity and device limits have been identified as significant problems in adopting teaching and learning in rural areas.

The most criticized issue when it comes to the quality of education in the country is the syllabus. It is discussed among educators that the learning syllabus for primary and secondary schools is too high-level and illogical for students. The high number of students per classroom, the number of subjects, and heavy school bags are threats to the health of the children. Heavy subjects in the study plan create a burden rather than joy for learning students and drop their success rates (The Malaysian Reserve, 2022).

Young woman graduating. Photo by PickPik.
Access to Education and Gender Gap

Most children get 11 years of education in Malaysia; however, there is an important number of out-of-school children. Secondary school students are at more risk of dropping out than younger children in primary school. According to the Ministry of Education, the following factors contribute to children dropping out: lack of parental participation; poverty; low motivation; and low academic proficiency (Ministry of Education of Malaysia, 2018). 

The most vulnerable ones to access education are children with disabilities and refugee children. 1 in 3 disabled children is out of school. Children with special education needs (SEN) are defined as children with visual, hearing, speech, and physical disabilities, learning disabilities, or any combination of disabilities and difficulties under the Education (Special Education) Regulations 2013, which apply to government and government-aided schools (Yan-Li & Sofian, 2018). Notably, children with mental health or behavioral difficulties do not appear to be included in this classification. 

Lack of access to education and dropout differ by gender at every level of education. The gender gap is even more prominent in secondary school, where 7.5 percent of male students are at risk of dropping out compared to 3.7 percent of female students (Rosati, 2022). Male students are under pressure to drop out, likely for different reasons. Poor upper-secondary school-aged boys are sometimes pressured to drop out and enter the labor force to support their family’s finances. 

The gross enrollment rate at secondary school was 88.4 percent for girls and 84.1 percent for boys in 2017. The participation in higher education of boys is also lower than that of girls. The enrollment of females and males in tertiary education was 45.5 percent and 38.7 percent, respectively (Anderson & Barrett, 2020). When females enter the labor force, any advantage they have regarding school access and learning results is lost. 

In the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Malaysian girls scored higher in math than boys by seven score points, which is a higher difference than the OECD average. Among the high-scored students, two in five boys reported expecting to be an engineer or a science professional, while one in seven girls reported expecting the same career (OECD, 2019). It is realized that even though girls are good at math and science in the national exams, gender roles and social norms make girls fall behind when it comes to choosing a profession. 

Despite the government’s focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, female students do not choose these subjects during university. Gender streaming in university education has been linked to teaching and learning materials used in secondary schools that do not empower girls to study male topics. The social norms tend to overrepresent females as teachers or maids regarding careers (Asadullah, 2020).

Child marriage is another obstacle for women to continue their education. While a person is recognized as a child until the age of 18 according to universal treaties, marriage at the age of 16 to 18 is legal with a license in Malaysia. In this case, girls will most likely drop out of school. The Ministry of Women, Family, and Community Development (MWFCD) has developed a National Strategy and Action Plan to End Child Marriage in 2019, although state-level opposition to a complete prohibition persists. Although Malaysia has implemented several measures to assist comprehensive sex education (CSE), their impact has been restricted by insufficient teacher training and the few hours dedicated to Sexual and Reproductive Health (SRH) within the school curriculum (UNICEF, 2019).

Disadvantages of Refugee Children

Refugee children are denied access to the formal education system; therefore, they access education via an informal parallel system of community-based learning centers. The main reason behind this is that all refugees are considered illegal in the country. The lack of legal work for refugees in the country prevents refugee families from earning sufficient income to provide for their children’s basic needs. Moreover, poverty and desperation lead families to allow their children to go out and earn income. Most of the refugee children are forced to beg on the streets (UNHCR, 2022). If there had been a chance for refugees to work legally and support their families adequately, refugee children would have attended school. 

According to the data given by UNCR; 44 percent of the refugee children aged 6 to 13 years enrolled in primary school, while this rate dropped drastically in secondary school to 16 percent. Of the 23,823 children that are of school-going age, only 30 percent are enrolled in community learning centers. Preprimary school attendance at the age of 3 to 5 is also only 14 percent. Learning centers are limited and not easily reachable by refugee children. In West Malaysia, there are only 133 learning centers for refugees (UNHCR, 2023).

The learning centers are mostly supported by UNCHR and non-governmental organizations. A most important contribution to non-formal education is made by Sekolah Komuniti Rohingya (SKR) and the United Arakan Institute Malaysia (UAIM) (Palik, 2020). These two community-based organizations are playing an important role for refugee children. Despite all these efforts, non-formal education is not valid for joining the labor force.

Malaysia is an important transit country for refugees. There are nearly 178,990 refugees and asylum seekers registered with UNCHR. 154,080 of them are from Myanmar, including 101,010 Rohingya. This shows the ethnic diversity of refugees coming from Myanmar to Malaysia. Rohingya refugees have been seeking to arrive in the country since the late 1990s. Unfortunately, there are neither refugee camps nor legal recognition of refugee status in Malaysia. Also, a total of 46,000 children refugees under the age of 18 have limited protection (Palik, 2020). 

Birthright citizenship is also not provided, which makes refugee children more vulnerable to having a formal education and joining the workforce in their adult lives. Even if getting a formal education is impossible, Rohingya refugees tend to send their female children to non-formal education centers due to their cultural and religious beliefs. Most parents would rather expect girls to accomplish housework at home than attend mixed education with boys.

Myanmar is forcing people to flee, and people in danger are seeking safety in other countries. Malaysia’s deportation of Myanmar asylum-seekers continues, and the remaining refugees still need status to access basic human services. The principle of non-refoulment is very important in international law and is binding on all states. 

At the same time, Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. Therefore, the country does not have a legal or administrative framework for managing refugees and has not set any mechanisms to protect and recognize asylum seekers and refugees in its territory.

Group of SMKBBA students and principal En Abdul Gaffar with Malaysian First Astronaut Dr Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor and Kapten Dr Faiz Khaleed. Photo by Wilson Liew.
Covid-19 Challenge

Due to the pandemic, education was disrupted, and the schools suffered from ongoing closings and reopenings. According to a UNICEF/UNFPA study of low-income urban families, 21% of children did not engage in any online learning during the Movement Control Period, while up to 45% failed to learn effectively due to limited access to electronic devices (UNICEF, 2020).  Migrant children and children with disabilities were even less likely to have engaged in effective remote learning, and that put a significant risk of school dropouts and rising educational disparities among different groups. 


Although Malaysia is a country with a growing economy, there are many aspects of the education sector that need improvement. The main problem in education in the country is that refugee children do not have the right to get a formal education. Without getting a formal education, refugee youngsters do not have a chance to enter the workforce. Also, the quality of education in the country has to be improved. The teacher has to be encouraged to get a higher and better education to be a better educator. The budget must be reallocated to eliminate the gap between urban and rural areas for equal education rights to be achieved. Despite the incentives made by the government in science, girls should be encouraged to enroll in engineering and science programs at university, since girls are better at math on exams. Social norms that put girls behind should be revised to build gender equality and a more qualified workforce for the future. Gender equality for boys is also assured by the government through the new campaigns. In this way, the school dropout rate for boys may be eliminated and girls’ success can be put forward. The growing economy of Malaysia mostly depends on its better-educated students entering the workforce.


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            (Country Office Annual Report 2022 Malaysia – 2700, 2023)

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