The Impact of Growth in International Schools

by M. Bakri Musa

The government has gone beyond removing quotas, as with granting tax and other incentives, to encourage the growth of international schools. However, growth depends more on market forces, principally the demand which in turn is related to costs. Lower the cost and you expand the market. Reducing red tape, as with making it easy to get permits and secure visas, would lower costs far more effectively than any other move.

If there is a market and profit to be made, entrepreneurs will come in. That is the beauty and genius of the capitalist economy. I have no problem with education being “for profit”. That would be no different than the health and other sectors. Profit is just another measure of discipline, effectiveness, and productivity.

There will some educator-entrepreneurs who would focus only on quality education and dispense with fancy gyms, Olympic swimming pools, and ornate entrance arches, thus making their services affordable. Some parents may even accept slightly crowded classrooms in return for affordability. After all they willingly choose international schools and pay those huge expenses; they and their children are thus motivated and could handle larger classes and other inconveniences. They do not need pampering; they just want a Western education and are not interested whether their children would play soccer with the children of Mat Salleh diplomats and expatriate executives. These local children would be diligent no matter how big the class is; their parents would ensure that. Besides, research indicates that there is little correlation between class size and students’ achievements. The most important factor to a child’s success in school is parental involvement; and motivated parents (meaning, those who have fork out tons of money) are involved parents.

Those newer and less expensive schools would not be competing against Tunku Jaafar College, rather our national schools. Their major selling point would not be that these schools are “international” rather that they use English and have a Western curriculum. You can be assured that with the removal of quotas there will still be no lineups at the Chinese or Indonesian International School.

With the increased demand, I envisage our government-linked companies setting up international schools. After all they are already involved in owning and running private hospitals, why not international schools? MARA could also set up such schools or even convert their existing junior colleges and open up the enrolment. Imagine those colleges being sources of revenue instead of draining it!

Removal of quotas is only the first step. The government’s next major role should be to protect the public by keeping out hustlers and fly-by-night operators who are more adept at ripping off customers than serving them. One provision would be to require performance bonds so that if the school were to close down, parents would be reimbursed, plus an appropriate penalty. That should be the minimum “soft” requirement; there of course would be other “hard” requirements aimed at ensuring pupil safety.

At the next level the government should ensure quality, again to protect consumers. However, I do not think that the teachers at Tuanku Jaafar or Bukit Kiara would look kindly to overbearing Ministry officials setting the standards. Instead the ministry should encourage self-regulation and accreditation. Again here we should be careful that the process aims for enhancement of quality and not be subverted to become hidden barriers to new entrants, or worse, another source of corruption. That would only increase costs.

Increased competition would result in the trickling down of affordability. This is true for education as well as aviation. The success of Air Asia is testimony to that. The government’s projection of 75,000 students and 87 schools by 2020 could be easily exceeded. Thailand already has over 200 such schools. Based on our economy and tradition of English education, aided considerably by the deplorable quality of our public schools, the potential local market is even larger and definitely ready for massive expansion.

Impact of More Malaysians at International Schools

Those who enroll in international schools are no ordinary Malaysians; they are the children of the rich and powerful. As such they are destined to play major roles in the nation’s affairs. They will have a clear path to the top because of their superior education and parental influence, though more likely in the reverse order, this being Malaysia. Right now their impact is minimal because of their small numbers. With the anticipated growth, their influence will surely grow.

Even if they were to become only teachers (not to slight the profession), they will bring new style and perspectives to their classrooms; they will be noticed though initially only by their students but later, fellow teachers and the general community. That can only be positive, for the pupils, fellow teachers, the school, and indeed the entire system. Were they to end up as headmasters, professors, senior civil servants, and executives helming major GLCs, their impact would only increase, to the benefit of the nation.

Prime Minister Najib brags of his “transformation program”. However, it is too much to expect present ministers and civil servants to effect that. Brought up under the current system and having reached the top under it, they are not likely to find fault. To them, the ingrained ethos of the civil service, kami menurut perentah (I follow orders!) is hard to break. Their schools and universities have not taught them how to think critically and independently, only to regurgitate what had been fed into them and to perform according to what had been programmed in them. Their career successes have been predicated on complying diligently with the commands of their superiors. When they reach the top they perpetuate that culture.

The only hope for change is to have a critical mass of Malaysians brought up through international schools becoming policymakers and heads of departments. That is the more significant long-term benefits I see with the removal of quotas and other restrictions on international schools.

Meanwhile in the short term expect some difficulties. The initial accompanying educational inequities could potentially be explosive especially when tied to race. However, with the rise of the Malay upper class (either legitimately or otherwise) and with international schools becoming less expensive, we could also soon get a critical mass of these Malays.

The flip side is that with affluent and influential Malay parents abandoning national schools, the impact on those remaining would be severe. With the top creamed off, the average in national schools would go down. Whereas before those parents would demand higher expectations from these schools, now that they are gone, there will be little impetus for improvement. That would grease the slide of our national schools.

It would not be long before a culture of mediocrity and low expectation would become entrenched. Our national schools would then be like America’s inner-city public schools, dangerous and dysfunctional warehouses for the young, the breeding grounds for Mat Rempits and Minah Karans.

Such a dismal future is not destined. Creatively handled, the removal of quotas for international schools could be the impetus for improving our national schools. For one, for every local child enrolled in an international school means that there would be one fewer pupil in national school and one less associated expense. The saved resource could then be showered on those remaining. Even if there were to be an exodus out of national schools, the bright side would be that those schools would now be less crowded and the teachers could afford to spend more time with their pupils.

With quality international schools being the new model, there will be the associated general uplifting of educational expectations among Malaysians. Malay parents will now aspire an education for their children the caliber of that offered at Tuanku Jaafar, not Malay College or MARA Junior College. Consider the example of the retail sector. Now with clean, air-conditioned supermarkets found even in small towns, Malaysians demand fresh products, efficient services, and pleasant environment. Those sundry store operators with their bare armpits contemptuously “serving” their customers will have to change or risk closing down.

That is the positive impact on our national schools I envisage with the removal of quotas on international schools. We have to strive to achieve that end; it will not happen by default.

If we fail to achieve that, then be prepared to suffer the consequence of our national schools being reduced to dysfunctional human warehouses. With that, we condemn future generations of Malays. That would be far from being an inconsequential impact as Muhyyiddin had assured us earlier.

  1. #1 by drngsc on Monday, 4 June 2012 - 12:22 pm

    Hi Musa,
    I am sorry, but good basic education, like good basic healthcare, must be a basic human right and the responsibility of the government, so that the poor are never forgotten. They too have a right to good education and healthcare. Education strictly for profit, brings about corrupted education, and neglect of those who are poor.
    The mass proliferation of medical schools and nursing colleges, is wrong and compromises healthcare. I am sure that the same is also true of other commercial colleges.

    No, the present government policies on education is wrong. Public schools are neglected. Children are graduating from colleges, who cannot write their name. Nurses are graduating, who cannot communicate instructions and who cannot write reports, let alone do nursing.

    We must change the tenant at Putrajaya. GE 13 is coming soon. Be ready. If there are no significant electoral reforms, first to Bersih 4.0, then to GE 13, then to Putrajaya.
    Change we must. Change we can. Change we will.

  2. #2 by megaman on Monday, 4 June 2012 - 1:32 pm

    Sorry, I cannot agree with the writer’s comments that

    “Such a dismal future is not destined. Creatively handled, the removal of quotas for international schools could be the impetus for improving our national schools. For one, for every local child enrolled in an international school means that there would be one fewer pupil in national school and one less associated expense. The saved resource could then be showered on those remaining. Even if there were to be an exodus out of national schools, the bright side would be that those schools would now be less crowded and the teachers could afford to spend more time with their pupils.”

    The entire paragraph is full of flaws and inaccurate assumptions.

    I cannot think of a single in this world where an already weak public education can benefit from a proliferation of private alternatives. In all cases, bad became worse.

    1. Apart of resources spent per student, what is also critical is the environment and peers. Good students create better environments and helps to motivate each other. Students learn not only from teachers but from one another. Take out the good, you are left with the bad and ugly. It would be an impossible task to transform these students.

    2. Private schools would definitely poach the best teachers from public institutions. There’s no way, public funds match the pay scales of private schools.
    So what happens when you lose the best students and worse, the best teachers ?

    3. Adults with better education are more upward and outward mobile. They will end up being entrepreneurs, professionals and artisans, all of which are in huge demand all over the world. Rightly mentioned, public schools would end up like inner-city schools in US, breeding ground for Mat Rempits, Minah Karan, Bohsia etc. But what is not stated, is the impact of an increase in such societal undesirables on the rest of the country. We will be further encouraging the brain drain problem.

    This is a vicious cycle.

    If public schools standard and quality is the fundamental problem, go straight to the point. FIX IT!

    Why beat around the bush ?

  3. #3 by negarawan on Monday, 4 June 2012 - 9:00 pm

    UMNO ministers, including the so-called education minister, send their children to private schools. UMNO has no incentive to improve the real standard of the education system, but rather, use it to gain political mileage to the detriment of students and parents.

  4. #4 by SENGLANG on Tuesday, 5 June 2012 - 8:20 am

    Instead taking initiative and courage to change the existing national education system from Bahasa based to English based just like pre 70s, and encourage the open up of international schools, the government is leaving the burden of good education to the parent.

    We must understand that the costs of sending one child to international school is not cheap and no many parent can afford it.

    There many reasons why the standard have been drop. One main reason was that the government is in fact encouraging that by dropping the passing mark in the local universities.

    We know MARA is set up to cater for that. We have graduate from MARA in degree but it is actually only of diploma standard. Please don;t get me wrong, I have no problem of the concept of MARA but it can’t just to set such a low standard to produce graduates that are many are un-employable. They are off course exception, I know certain MARA graduates have do very well.

    Open up international school with the hope that we can produce good quality of graduates is no the solution, the long term solution is the present education system is faulty and need to change. But before any change can take place, the government must admit and accept the system is faulty. But we are facing now is the government is refusing to admit that, worse they even say our education system if one of the world best that can be better than America??? With that we will not see light in the future………

    International school is the solution for the rich not the common people

  5. #5 by PoliticoKat on Tuesday, 5 June 2012 - 8:36 pm


    Bakri Musa is often a very smart chap. But he got it very wrong on this article.

    Lets say this, the national schools are the way they are by design. There are to produce people who will follow orders.

    The best and brightest Malay are removed from the system after standard 6 in primary school and after PMR in secondary school. They are moved off to MARA to form the Malay elite.

    The only thing the MoE care about Malaysian schools is the syllabus which are a political football, with a racist tinge to it. Sejarah is very interesting see watch as it changes from year to year.

    Please remember that Malaysian schools originated in the british system. Our SPM at least in my year was still equivalent to O levels.

    As many has stated,

    International school is the solution for the rich not the common people.

    IF Malaysians have to pay out of pocket for education, health (private hospitals), security (see gated communities) and infrastructure (toll), why are we even paying the Malaysian government taxes?

    We don’t need the army or air force. They can’t even stop Singapore. Or the navy as they leave patrolling of Malaysians waters to the police.

    The police… these days seem to be the fist of BN.. and don’t seem to stop Malaysia from being the hub of smuggling of all kinds (people, goods and animals).

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