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This letter about a new scheme for Form Six illustrates how screwed up education policy making is in Malaysia.

The gist of it is that the Ministry of Education wants to reform the Form Six program dramatically – from a terminal examination after roughly one and a half years to a semester system. The terminal examinations, STPM, is still around today – but schools are being forced to keep their students from 7am to 4pm (instead of 1pm) to “test out the system”. In other words, the Ministry is engaging in pointless policy experimentation. The outcome of this experiment says very little about the potential outcome of a semester system – the fact that the Ministry did this speaks volumes of the overwhelming incompetence of our policy makers.

The second bit about the letter is it highlights the inequity of the system. Form Six in Malaysia has long been problematic – it is the least preferred option for pre-university education. For the well-to-do, the private route is by far more popular. For the ahem Bumiputra, the matriculation program is infinitely more popular. For the less-than-academically inclined, doing a vocational/professional diploma first seems to be the more rational option. For the rest, a small lot of poor masochists, there is Form Six.

Part of the reason is how Form Sixers, most of us non-Bumiputras, are treated – a 4.0 in STPM (the perfect grade) is considered equivalent to a 4.0 in the matriculation program – despite the fact that STPM is far harder, requiring more depth, breath and time. The other bit, the bit that is being shaffed right now, is that the admission process for public universities is stupidly rigid and exceedingly objective.

Co-curricular involvement is measured on an objective, fixed scale, and only school activities is counted: got a distinction in, say, ABRSM Grade 8 piano? It can’t be used to help you enter a public university – sucks to be you. Matriculation programs have it a notch easier – co-curricular activities are catered towards matriculation students. In secondary schools with Form Six, co-curricular activities are shared with the lower forms who don’t have to stay back 3 hours longer. Keeping Form Sixers back longer not only increases the toll of time spent on such activities, it reduces the options of such activities.

If the Ministry of Education really wanted to move to a semester-based, coursework-heavy system, the better policy is to increase enrolment of non-Bumiputras in matriculation programs (though matriculation and Form Six are under different ministries). The cynic in me points out that would defeat the purpose of the dual-track system in Malaysia: as a tool of stealthish discrimination.

The better policy is to reform public universities admissions. Make each institution decide admissions, instead of centralizing it at Putrajaya. Competition between institutions will improve the admissions process – universities won’t want to reject their best applicants and will try to improve the process to seek them out. Furthermore, decentralization will allow admission officers to consider more subjective information – activities outside school, coursework and school record, etc – the risks associated with using subjective information in decision-making decreases dramatically if there is more than one choice.

The reason why the Ministry of Education wants to introduce the semester system is to make the system less examinations-oriented. The solution isn’t to junk the examinations or to introduce non-examinable sections in the terminal examination. The better solution is to reduce the emphasis on the examinations itself in admissions. When STPM no longer playing a central role in admissions decisions, the emphasis on STPM in Form Six will gradually reduce – more so if school coursework can also be considered in admissions.

P.S. I love how all those commenters on Education in Malaysia harp on “time management”. Bunch of private college tossers who don’t have to share facilities with secondary school students, wear a uniform, and sit for one of the world’s hardest test – and have a hard time entering uni after that. “Time management” is great and all, but time is finite – there is so much you can do with it.

P.P.S. Just to be sure, I currently go to a hyper-competitive Singaporean university with more work and less time. And I’d say even compared to SMU, Form Six is tough. It exacts a toll on students – an unfair toll.

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  1. […] posted. Rajan, himself an alumnus of form six, said most of what I want to say about the issue, and I recommend reading it—this is perhaps the most incisive part of the piece: If the Ministry of Education really wanted […]

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