Revisit my comments on TIMSS 1999 in 2002

In August 2002, I issued a statement on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) 1999 and the points and issues I raised six years ago are even more relevant today.

This statement on TIMSS 1999 on 16th August 2002 is reproduced here:

Musa should present a White Paper in Parliament on the strategy to be learnt from TIMSS 1999 for Malaysian students to rank among the world’s top five nations in mathematics and science

The Education Minister, Tan Sri Musa Mohamad should present a White Paper in Parliament next month on the lessons to be learnt from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study – Repeat (TIMMS-R) 1999 which Malaysian students participated for the first time, and the strategy for Malaysian students to rank among the world’s top five nations in mathematics and science.

Five Asian countries were the top performers in mathematics and science in TIMSS-R 1999, an eighth grade level test involving 38 countries and 180,000 students.

The five Asian countries, led by Singapore and followed by South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan, had the highest average performance in mathematics; while for science the five top scorers were Taiwan, Singapore, Hungary, Japan and South Korea.

Malaysia was placed 16th in mathematics and 22nd place in science in the scoreboard for 38 countries.

DAP has a vested interest to know the detailed results and analysis of Malaysian student performance in TIMMS 1999, and the pointers as to the future directions the country should pursue to establish Malaysia’s excellence in mathematics and science to become among the world’s top five performers in these two subjects, as it was the DAP which was responsible for Malaysia’s participation in TIMSS 1999, making the initial contacts with the organizers of TIMMS in 1996 and persuading the then Education Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak on the matter.

Musa should list out the lessons the Education Ministry has learnt from TIMMS 1999 to lay a solid foundation for the international excellence of Malaysian schools in mathematics and science by aiming to become the world’s top five in mathematics and science, as I do not believe that from the following results and table of ranking of countries in TIMSS 1999, anyone can conclude that one of the lessons is that mathematics and science should be taught in English in primary schools from Standard One:

Ranking of Countries in TIMSS 1999
(TIMSS scale average – 500)

Ranking Maths Average Score
1 Singapore 604
2 Korea Rep 587
3 Chinese Taipei 585
4 Hong Kong 582
5 Japan 579
6 Belgium (Flemish) 558
7 Netherlands 540
8 Slovak Republic 534
9 Hungary 532
10 Canada 531
11 Slovenia 530
12 Russian Federation 526
13 Australia 525
14 Finland 520
15 Czech Republic 520
16 Malaysia 519
17 Bulgaria 511
18 Latvia 505
19 United States 502
20 England 496

Ranking Science Average score

1 Chinese Taipei 569
2 Singapore 568
3 Hungary 552
4 Japan 550
5 Korea Rep 549
6 Netherlands 545
7 Australia 540
8 Czech Republic 539
9 England 538
10 Finland 536
11 Slovak Republic 535
11 Belgium (Flemish) 535
13 Slovenia 533
13 Canada 533
15 Hong Kong 530
16 Russian Federation 529
17 Bulgaria 518
18 United States 515
19 New Zealand 510
20 Latvia 503
21 Italy 492
22 Malaysia 492

The first lesson to be learnt from the results of TIMSS 1999 is that it is not the use of English to teach mathematics and science in primary schools from Year One which is responsible for top scores in mathematics and science.

In the top 15 countries for mathematics, only Singapore (No. 1) and Australia (No. 13) use English to teach mathematics and science, as Canada is bilingual, using both English and French, while all the other 12 countries use their respective mother tongues to teach these two subjects. Singapore uses the total immersion system of having English as the medium of instruction for schools – which Malaysia is not prepared to emulate.

The same applies to science, as apart from Singapore (No.2), Australia (No. 7), England (No.9) and Canada (No. 14), all the other 11 countries use their respective mother tongue to teach the subject.

If TIMSS 1999 is not the source of inspiration for the Education Ministry to use English to teach mathematics and science in primary schools from Std. One, where did it get this inspiration?

TIMMS 1999 has been used by the participating countries, except for Malaysia, for a public debate on the implications of its findings, whether there should be changes to or reforms of instructional practices and curricular arrangements to ensure higher levels of student achievements and the future directions and policy in the quest for excellence in these two subjects.

The Singapore Education Ministry has made public the “key findings” relating to Singapore students who participated in TIMSS 1999 immediately after the release of the results in November 2000. Why is Musa keeping the TIMSS findings for Malaysia under “lock and key” instead of reporting at the first available opportunity to Parliament and the nation?

There were sufficient data in the TIMSS 1999 findings for Singapore to analyse the performance of Chinese and Malay students in the island republic. For mathematics, 96% of the Chinese students are in the international top half while 83% of the Malay students are in the international top half. For science, 86% of the Chinese students and 61% of the Malay students respectively are in the international top half.

The Malaysian Education Ministry should similarly make public the key findings relating to Malaysian students who participated in TIMMS 1999, particularly an analysis of the performance of the Malay, Chinese, Indian, Iban and Kadazan students in mathematics and science to identify their weaknesses and the best methods to raise their academic attainments.

Malaysian students lag behind their Singapore counterparts in all measures adopted by TIMSS 1999 for mathematics and science.

For instance, most Singapore students are in the international top half of TIMSS – 93% and 80% of Singapore students are in the international top half for mathematics and science respectively while only 69% of Malaysian students are in the top half of mathematics.

A high proportion of Singapore students also achieve excellent results – 46% and 32% of students reached the international top 10% in mathematics and science respectively; as compared to only 12% of Malaysian students in the top 10% in mathematics.

I do not have the data for Malaysian students in science in TIMSS, which should be made public in the White Paper on the TIMSS-Malaysia report in Parliament next month.


Six years down the road, Malaysia failed to learn anything from TIMSS 1999 as from Malaysia’s disastrous results in TIMSS 2007 we have regressed – worse than the two earlier TIMSS (1999 and 2003) we had participated.

Where’s the Cemerlang, Gemilang, Terbilang ( Excellence, Distinction, Glory)?

  1. #1 by lee wee tak_ on Sunday, 11 January 2009 - 5:47 pm


    our education system has to go beyond maths and science…our young ones must be taught what’s right or wrong, civic mindedness etc

    step into any government office, hospital and take a look at the attitude our education system has cultivated.

    Take a walk on the streets, look at the state of cleanliness our education system has cultivated.

    I rest my case

  2. #2 by OrangRojak on Sunday, 11 January 2009 - 6:16 pm

    Some of those high-scoring countries have long histories of intellectual and social development. I think it’s to Malaysia’s credit they got on that list when any number of other countries with histories as short, citizens as recent and lands as extensive as Malaysia did not.

    Malaysia should not be compared to Singapore in a simple way. In the UK, when someone is an incompetent administrator we say “couldn’t organise a p1ss-up [drinking party] in a brewery”. An administration failure in Singapore would be all the more disappointing than the same thing in Malaysia because they have a much simpler task.

    That shouldn’t excuse the omission of a government statement on the results. It seems to me that your government has been ‘adrift’ for some time, with no real aim. If there’s one thing Malaysia could learn from Singapore, it’s that they should set some targets and ensure that the whole nation works toward achieving them. That won’t be as easy as it is in Singapore, but relative difficulty is no excuse for not trying.

  3. #3 by katdog on Sunday, 11 January 2009 - 7:37 pm

    “it’s that they should set some targets and ensure that the whole nation works toward achieving them” – OrangRojak

    I think the problem is not in that the Malaysian government does not set targets. Rather it is that no one is held accountable when these targets are not met. Therefore, there is no incentive for our ministers to ensure goals are achieved in a timely manner and come out with realistic practical means of achieving them.

    Loyalty to the Top Brass is enough to ensure one retains ones position in the government in spite of how incompetent one is.

    That’s the real problem. Take for example our previous PM for 20 years. He has not admitted to a single mistake in his 20 year administration ( thereby suggesting that his administration was perfect). Any problems that Malaysia faces today are caused by AAB, not him.

    He claims that Vision 2020 will not be met because of the opposition successes in Mar 08 elections. The real truth is, with another 10 years or so to go, we were already far off target even before Mar 08. Our industries were already in decline, standards of living remained poor as ever (schools in East Malaysia didn’t even have furniture!), crime continued to rise, education continued to slide, we even had to import nurses from India as there weren’t enough specialist nurses, broadband penetration is a joke, public transport was a mess.

    Yet Dr. M says we will not achieve Vision 2020 because of Mar 08?

    When one cannot correctly identify the real root cause of a problem, then one cannot fully correct the problem.

  4. #4 by k1980 on Sunday, 11 January 2009 - 7:37 pm

    Not surprised at all. This is obvious from the state of the schools today, with students’ discipline gone down the drain. The syllabus of the various subjects have been so watered-down to increase the number of A-scorers that it is doubtful if Malaysian fifth formers can ever hope to pass the Singapore O-Level exam for Maths and Science

  5. #5 by OrangRojak on Sunday, 11 January 2009 - 7:45 pm

    Nicely summed up, katdog.

  6. #6 by Godfather on Sunday, 11 January 2009 - 7:51 pm

    You got their slogan wrong, Kit.

    It’s “Cemerlang, Gemilang, Temberang”.

  7. #7 by Godfather on Sunday, 11 January 2009 - 7:54 pm

    In Bolehland, you are rewarded when you can’t organise a p!ss-up in a brewery. Remember we are an Islamic country.

  8. #8 by isahbiazhar on Sunday, 11 January 2009 - 8:12 pm

    It is no use comparing ourselves to any other nations.Our school children have undergone an eduction that is not fit to be called schooling.It is time for people to study at home and sit for the public exam.Parents can do a better job than teachers at school.Teachers who teach do not have the passion to teach.They do the job for a living.The minister of education cannot bring about an overnight change.Parents should decide which subject they want to teach at home so that teachers will have more time for their work.A system should be brought in where students can take their own time to complete schooling.Depending on schools will not produce the citizen we want.

  9. #9 by delon85 on Sunday, 11 January 2009 - 8:37 pm


    Not all parents have the time to tutor their kids at home. Your perspective is too shallow. I’d say the Ministry of Education have to be fully revamped. It’s being run by incompetent people who are just waiting for paycheck or busy politicking. Yes, no one can bring an overnight change to anything but we will still need the schools. School is also an important phase in life. Kids will learn how to interact with many different people/peers in school life. Parents might not be able to teach all the subjects they learn. That’s why there are different teachers for different subjects. It’s far efficient that way.

    The system where students take their own time to complete schooling may not be efficient. Some will take much more time than needed. It is far easier to stream them in school and use a different approach/teaching methodology in getting them to understand the subject.

    Teachers who cant teach should be recognised when they’re still in teaching schools. They should be assigned to do different kind of work But I’m guessing that due to shortage of teachers, anyone can apply for a teachers job. Therefore, we have teachers who are doing the bare minimum and waiting for their paychecks.

  10. #10 by OrangRojak on Sunday, 11 January 2009 - 8:48 pm

    “time for people to study at home”
    I realise I’m not near the “bright lights” of Malaysia – but is there any ‘continuing education’ here? Before we moved here in 2005, my wife and I spent a couple of very enjoyable evenings a week at a local “Adult College”. She attended an English course (free, paid for by the government for all residents who do not speak English as their first language) and a French course. We both went to swimming courses at different levels, and I attended a Mandarin course. Total cost around RM600 per term. There were exams at the end of courses, some for certificates issued by national bodies. It is possible to amass sufficient points to qualify for university degree courses by attending some of these evening classes. Universities in the UK do not disqualify entrants on the basis of advanced age, and nor do the student loan bodies. I started University after working for nearly ten years, and know of a student contemporary who was in her 70s. There were many in their 30s, 40s and 50s.

    Adult Ed was a great way of meeting people of different ages and from different backgrounds, and beat watching the TV by a country mile. Does any component party of PR have anything similar planned? We can’t come top of any mathematics league tables in the UK, but we don’t give a crap – we’re learning Thai massage or carpentry next week.

  11. #11 by monsterball on Sunday, 11 January 2009 - 9:11 pm

    When a government have spent close to 30 years ….poisoning and pleasing one race… contain and control them…and still winning elections….based on this formula…they will not change.
    To change….they are exposing themselves as hypocritical crooks.
    Race… religion and language…all three used to the fullest to capture votes…with no sincere plans to move forward……even now…..must go on and on.
    However…the 12th election did expose UMNO hypocracies to the fullest……and right now…it is the ordinary educated Muslims….large number… their own members…going against UMNO…..while still remain faithful to the party ….as they feel UMNO did no wrong. It’s the politicians….the present leaders of UMNO….lead by Mahathir….to keep playing race and religion politics…to keep fooling the Muslims. They have projected how great Malays are……no need to be efficient in the English language…as UMNO have poisoned the Malay minds…that all other Malaysians are second class citizens…and they are the landlords.
    The land is so rich..foreigners need to learn Bahasa to do business in Malaysia…and not Malays learning English… be practical and logical….to make it easy for invesrtors…as English is used all over the world….not Bahasa at all. Millions of Malays have never travel overseas……so what UMNO tells them….they believe.
    The control of minds..must have Malays heroes..Malay great history….so much so..everything are twisted..not totally true at all..taught in schools…pointing towards how great and generous Malays are to so call…”aliens”…because Islam teaches one to be so.
    Yes..once get one like Mahathir…fighting to get English taught in Maths and Science…….but he never did anything really sincerely. If he was that sincere… his 22 years…our Universities maybe at par with S’pore…right now…with all Malays speaking and reading excellent English.
    Malaysian downfall….started by Mahathir…with his divide to rule… a Dictator.
    UMNO..dare not Malays smart……dare not tell the truth to them….dare not point slow they are…..dare not put laws to force Malays to change for the a good father should…….shows how sincere UMNO is to his own race.
    The above are so deeply rooted……and are we surprised what was spoken by Lim Kit Siang in year 2002….still fall into deaf ears in 2009?
    UMNO will never unite Malaysians and bring his own race up…to be at par with the world.
    They are afraid of smart Muslims …knowing how crooked and corrupted they are.

  12. #12 by mendela on Sunday, 11 January 2009 - 9:25 pm

    I have a foreign professor friend lecturing at a local key public university. He said the quality of our university students especially the bumi was so low that he wanted to vomit!

    He was wondering why such students were admited to the u at all. He also told me these students of his were really lazy too, totally hopeless!

  13. #13 by cemerlang on Sunday, 11 January 2009 - 9:40 pm

    Let us recall back to our days in schools. Those days, there were real villages and real kampungs and real rural areas. Some from these places have made it to the top. If they can made it then, what is stopping the younger generation from following their footsteps too ? We have first class infrastructure now. Shouldn’t learning and passing exams be easier ? A u grad is supposed to be cleverer than the average person, meaning he is expected to know English. Our politicians all know English. Why should a highly educated person not know English ? It is really memalukanlah ! Education cannot be the traditional kind that we were used to back those days. Those days students were so non questioning unlike these days when a student can just punch up somebody in the New Era college. This was going too far of course. But at least it shows that students are thinking quite deeply. If you are going to have a standard, it means that you are special and is not an ordinary educated person.

  14. #14 by pulau_sibu on Sunday, 11 January 2009 - 9:44 pm

    I can’t believe this ranking is true.
    Why? because our kids got so many A in their exam such as SPM and STPM
    In boleh, if you sit for the exam, you will be guaranteed to get A

  15. #15 by pulau_sibu on Sunday, 11 January 2009 - 9:47 pm

    >A u grad is supposed to be cleverer than the average person

    no, u grad is just the average person. Only those who have Dato Sri title are above average

  16. #16 by k1980 on Sunday, 11 January 2009 - 9:54 pm

    Forget about the TIMSS. Get ready to celebrate the umno defeat in KT next week.Dollah’s forced retirement may even to brought forward to Jan 18

  17. #17 by k1980 on Sunday, 11 January 2009 - 10:18 pm

    So many liars nowadays. Lying to the people from from the cradle to the grave. No wonder school children also tell lies

    Najib– The government has been taking care of all the needs of the people “from the cradle to the grave”


    The Catholic Church of Malaysia wants the government to retract its statement denying it banned its weekly from publishing in the national language.

    The Star yesterday quoted a Home Ministry official as saying the ministry had never prohibited The Herald from using Bahasa Malaysia.

    “The Ministry is only against the use of the word ‘Allah’ to refer to God. The correct and appropriate translation for God in Bahasa Malaysia or Melayu is ‘Tuhan’,” said the ministry’s Quran Publication Control and Text Division Secretary Che Din Yusoh in a statement on Friday.

    “That is a blatant lie,” said editor Rev Father Lawrence Andrew, adding that the Church had proof.

  18. #18 by cintanegara on Sunday, 11 January 2009 - 11:58 pm

    Mandela, Plain statements without providing adequate solid evidence to substantiate and justify your points are entirely useless. Here’s another example of excessive comment from you

    Our dear friend AhPek for instance, appears to be very keen on amassing statistical data to justify and support his points. However, he never revealed the source and how the information was obtained I believe most of us here are educated people and interested in reliable source of information . Perhaps next time, he will include the details for our reference and perusal.

    BTW, AhPek, Many thanks for your time and willingness to forward ‘facts‘ about TDM. My deepest apologies…… it is against my principles and ethics., to deal with something, unless they are validated.

  19. #19 by ablastine on Monday, 12 January 2009 - 12:07 am

    I think the most important follow up study to do is to find out what happened to that cohort of 12% of student who reach the international 10% in Science and Mathematics in the world. I am willing to bet a lot of money that these top graders are no longer in Malaysia, non holding any top post in important government institution in Malaysia and most are no longer Malaysian depending on which year we are looking.

  20. #20 by monsterball on Monday, 12 January 2009 - 2:39 am

    hhhhhhhmmmm….Cintanegara said…he deals with everything that are validated.
    He posted 4 points against Lim Kit Siang…based on hearsay…yet hundreds of valid points against UMNO……and BN…he ignores.
    Can he confirm…..the swearing by Najib by the Koran…. is valid or not …in the eyes of the law.

  21. #21 by computation on Monday, 12 January 2009 - 2:52 am

    that the malaysian education system is in a total
    mess and disasterous state is plain to see.
    of course the truth hurts and the people try to
    gloss over the inferiority if the malaysian education
    look at the “spm” in malaysia. apparently a lot
    of chinese get more than 8 or 9 A grades for the
    subjects they take exams in.
    they are quite proud of that too. i would like
    to remind them that the spm is graded against
    the total population of students taking the exams.
    and not to be racist or anything ot must be remembered
    that the malay students heavily outnumber the
    students of other races, unfortunately since the level
    of the malay students leaves much to be desired
    it becomes EXTREMELY easy to get an A in an examination
    subject taken at “spm”. so these chinese students and whatnot
    actually think they are very bright. they think the world of
    themselves. but when they actually go overseas
    they are no where near the best.
    if you compare malaysian university graduates
    to singapore university graduates you will find a dismal
    success rate in competitive scholarships which are
    open internationally. i am not talking about scholarships
    funded by malaysian bodies for malaysian students.
    again if you look at international surveys of quality
    math or science students you see that whilst a fairly
    large proportion of malaysian students get quite a lot
    of A grades in reality compared internationally they
    are failures. will the chinese wake up and stop being
    so arrogant. don’t compare your educational acheivements
    locally. compare with the best in the world.
    you are nothing.

  22. #22 by computation on Monday, 12 January 2009 - 2:59 am

    let us also be clear about the universities in malaysia.
    malaysian mathematics and science departments
    are a complete joke.
    they are not even third rate. they are fourth rate.
    do not think that the chinese
    in these departments are good. they are not.
    they are unable to go anywhere else in the world
    so they hide in mediocre instituitions where they can
    eke out a living.

    consider that the departments
    are largely malay dominated for example heads of
    departments are generally malay. now again, not
    to be racist or in anyway disparaging consider that
    the malays do not produce good mathematicans.
    how does a head of department who is not so good
    feel if there are others better than him or her?
    its common sense that those who are not so good/capable
    will feel threatened by others who are better/more capable.
    the chinese remaining in the malaysian universities are
    those who do not threaten the heads. they cannot possibly be
    the best. they are not.

  23. #23 by oster on Monday, 12 January 2009 - 4:16 am

    Look at all the simplistic generalisations here, with so few people attacking deficiencies that exist in Malaysia that exist even in school systems that achieve greater performance than ours.

    Comparative analysis requires the qualitative analysis of not just the subject (Malaysian educaiton system) but also the ones being compared against (e.g. Singaporean system etc.)

    The fact is, even the commenters here display a lack of adherence to any rigid evaluative methods, but merely engage in ranting.

    I’m not saying that there aren’t any truth in anything said here, I’m saying simply blurting out what’s in your head will not produce solutions.


  24. #24 by chengho on Monday, 12 January 2009 - 7:54 am

    In the ’70 and ’80 when we have english medium school Malaysia have the right ingredients for education system …

  25. #25 by Godfather on Monday, 12 January 2009 - 8:15 am

    “The fact is, even the commenters here display a lack of adherence to any rigid evaluative methods, but merely engage in ranting.” Oster

    This guy must be a cross between Cambridge Lee and Limkamput !

  26. #26 by Godfather on Monday, 12 January 2009 - 8:25 am


    Your BN masters are so predictable that Kit could even predict in 2002 what would happen in the future.

    In fact, we can all see into the future. Do you know what would happen in 2012 ? First, Bolehland universities would slip out of the top 500 in the global university rankings. Second, more scandals involving BN parties would be exposed similar to the Port Klang Free Trade Zone scandal. Third, crime will increase with no successful prosecution of the perpetrators. Fourth, government bailouts continue with the bailout of banks and a particular airline. Fifth, UMNO continues to award multi-billion ringgit countracts to its cronies. Sixth, Najib implements even more white elephants.

    We’ll start with a more imminent prediction – PAS wins over UMNO in the KT by-election next week.

  27. #27 by undergrad2 on Monday, 12 January 2009 - 8:51 am

    oster Says:

    Today at 04: 16.03 (4 hours ago)
    Look at all the simplistic generalisations here, with so few people attacking deficiencies that exist in Malaysia that exist even in school systems that achieve greater performance than ours. Comparative analysis requires the qualitative analysis of …”

    No bloviating! That is the job of the pseudo scientist from Cambridge, that university town I used to visit.

  28. #28 by AhPek on Monday, 12 January 2009 - 8:55 am

    Trouble with you is you are so well indoctrinated that you see no wrong done by any of your UMNOPUTRAS.Tell me who in their right mind will classify Mamak as a world class statesman and PM.He can’t be fit to be called a statesman.So please cintanegara,don’t continue be a clown and a laughing stock here.

  29. #29 by cintanegara on Monday, 12 January 2009 - 10:35 am

    Whoever can claim and therefore, LGE must show proof the state had secured RM10bil worth of foreign direct investments (FDI) since the change of government last March. On the very day he became Penang CM till present, we have not seen the quality of his leadership.

    He must learn from the experts or ‘senior advisor’ in order to excel and be more efficient at work. So far his greatest achievement was putting up multilingual road signs and street names in Georgetown. DAP supporters must be so proud of him.

  30. #30 by mendela on Monday, 12 January 2009 - 9:59 pm

    Just wonder why Kit is allowing cintanegara to bark around in his blog?

    This idiot is paid by UMNO to do the barking.

  31. #31 by undergrad2 on Monday, 12 January 2009 - 10:27 pm

    It is called freedom of speech.

  32. #32 by katdog on Monday, 12 January 2009 - 11:51 pm

    “LGE must show proof the state had secured RM10bil worth of foreign direct investments (FDI)”

    LGE has a replied to these charges. The numbers quoted were obtained from MIDA (Malaysian Industrial Development Authority).

    The data that LGE was referring to is publicly available here:

    total investment for Penang for year 2008 (Jan – Oct): RM 9,467,284,667.

    It’s strange that i, a commoner can easily obtain such information but the International Trade and Industry Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin is not able to. Strange indeed.

  33. #33 by Onlooker Politics on Tuesday, 13 January 2009 - 2:43 am

    “On the very day he became Penang CM till present, we have not seen the quality of his leadership.” (cintanegara)

    Dear cintanegara,

    Perhaps you should learn that “beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder!” If you are willing to let go all your prejudices and biases against LGE, then you will naturally see the leadership quality in him. He dares to take on the lawless bratty corporate of MMC-Gamuda JV by issuing a stop-work order for the rail project. This is the good leadership quality to many law-binding and legally-compliant Malaysians.

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