The fact that more local than foreign students populate international schools in Malaysia is not news.
Since enrollment into international schools was opened to local students back in 2006, reports state there are 44,575 Malaysians compared to 25,220 foreigners to date in 163 international schools here.
But as the number continues to rise, local academics and education experts worry this may lead to an “identity crisis” among local students ― that not being educated in a national school may lead to them feeling (and being) less Malaysian.
A member of the National Education Advisory Council Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim said there is nothing to worry about as the percentage of Malaysian students in international schools only make up less than five per cent of the total number of Malaysian students nationwide.
Independent senior researcher and education consultant Tan Ai Mei feels nation-building efforts are not predicated merely on enrolment in national schools.
“What it means to be Malaysian is the sense of belonging to a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic country.
“This is not reflected in most national schools due to the overwhelming percentage of a single race ― Malays ― in most of them,” she added.
On the other hand, Tan said, while international schools do teach Bahasa Malaysia to Malaysian students, the syllabus merely scratches the surface.
“Perhaps the government could sit down with international schools to improve the Bahasa Malaysia syllabus.
“This is important as these are the future leaders of the country. To lead the country, they need to be conversant in Bahasa Malaysia apart from English and Mandarin,” she said.
While acknowledging that national school standards are trailing behind that at international schools, Noor Azimah who is also Parents Action Group for Education (Page) chairman, said all is not lost.
“I sent my children to national schools. They turned out fine. Some parents are spoilt but if they have the means, it’s up to them,” she said when contacted by Malay Mail.
That said, Noor Azimah suggested that the government look into how it can improve and raise the standards of national schools to gain public confidence.
From her observations on the ground, Tan also said that education in the country has been politicised too much.
She feels that national schools end up becoming “more like religious schools” because of the hours allocated to religious classes.
“I have spoken to some of the teachers and also religious non-governmental organisations, telling them that a school is not where you spread ideology or religious teachings.
“School is where children are groomed to be leaders of the country through education,” she added.
Meanwhile Fairview International School director of corporate affairs Jonson Chong viewed allegations by local academic and education experts that international schools are only interested in profits as unfair.
Through meeting with parents, Chong found they are concerned about the learning experiences their children are going through in national schools.
“If the government wants Malaysians to be more patriotic, then show that there is a lot for us to be proud of, and we are accepted like Malaysians,” said Chong.
Conversations with several parents whose children are in international schools show that the main reason for enrolling their children in these schools is to ensure a smooth transition into university later.
Cheah Seng Chye said the Education Ministry’s decision to abolish the Teaching and Learning of Science and Mathematics in English (PPSMI) definitely influenced parents’ decision to send their children to international schools.
Cheah said he made the decision to send his daughter to an international school after his son’s rough transition into university.
Cheah’s son had completed his secondary school education in a national school, and later was awarded a scholarship to continue his studies in Singapore.
“But when he went down to Singapore, he realised that the standard was totally different… for the first semester he was struggling. He didn’t do very well to the point that the school called us to have a chat.”
He added that going to an international school will not make a person less Malaysian.
Another parent Malay Mail spoke to also sent her daughter to an international school for the same reason.
“We wanted to be sure that our daughter was able to master both Maths and Science, apart from English as they were equally important,” said Sofea Ahmad.
Sofea said this does not make her child less Malaysian as they converse in both Bahasa Malaysia and English at home.
“She will not become less Malaysian, I can assure you of that. She knows the value of being a Malaysian and what it’s all about.
“My husband and I constantly teach her the values of being a Malaysian, Malaysian historical figures and we visit historical sites around the country,” she said.
Instead, she expressed concern about her daughter missing out academically if she had opted to send her to a national school.
Celina Tong also took her children out of national schools when the PPSMI policy was abolished.
She added that, if anything, students in international schools are not subjected to the idea of “separation.”
“Unlike at national schools where we were always separated for Islamic religious classes and Moral classes, everyone is taught the same subjects at international schools.
“In fact, they learn about integration at a young age ― getting to know about other countries so they don’t get a culture shock when they leave school,” she added.
At the time of writing, Malay Mail’s attempts to reach out to the Education Ministry have not been successful.