“Selamat pagi, cikgu!” which translates to “Good morning, teacher!” is a greeting that every student who grew up within the Malaysian education system is familiar with. This greeting and other similar one is often uttered collectively while standing when a teacher enters a classroom. As this has been a ritual for me for many years, reminiscing on the voice of our class representative instructing us to stand along with the asynchronous shrieking sound of chairs moving backwards, prompts a sense of nostalgia. Try asking any Malaysian and you will be surprised to hear the exact tone and intonation used for these greetings that have been unintentionally tailored nationwide over the years. This continues to be a mystery to many of us! I was raised in Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia and had the privilege of walking through the four stages of education in Malaysia; this includes kindergarten, primary education, secondary education, as well as tertiary education prior to studying abroad.
As I reflect on my educational journey growing up, I am inundated by fond memories from the past. One that clearly stands out is the flash of my first day in primary school. Just like the image above, I recall sitting in the middle aisle on the last row having a tinge of anxiety from this novel experience while simultaneously feeling excited about stepping onto the next developmental stage. This was also the day I made my first ever friend. What a milestone this was! One thing for sure then and now as I write this in my final months of graduate school, having a community of peers with shared experiences often brings comfort and instills courage during foreign endeavors.
The education system in Malaysia is distinct and unique in ways it embraces multiculturalism. During both my primary and secondary education, I attended a multilingual public school which focused predominantly in teaching with Bahasa Malaysia, our national language as well as English. My parents opted to enroll my siblings and I into a multilingual school given that they had minimal proficiency in reading and writing in their respective mother tongues and wanted to continue to be able to provide guidance with our school related tasks. I will share that being in a multilingual school was certainly an easier transition for me as English was my primary language growing up in a biracial household. In school, I naturally gravitated to peers from a multiracial background who were also English speakers and were able to form strong bonds through this shared practice. However, in maintaining an inclusive and accessible educational layout for our racially diverse population in Malaysia, there are also Chinese and Tamil vernacular schools that are open for students of all cultural backgrounds. Given the rapid pace of globalization, these vernacular schools certainly provide a structured platform for the younger generations to attain and retain their mother tongue. Another common practice amongst Malaysians is to attend tuition classes, also known as extra classes, post school. Hence, despite being in a multilingual school, I was enrolled in Mandarin and Tamil tuition classes which are my father and mother’s respective mother tongue as an exposure to my cultural roots.
To further understand some of the sub-cultures within the Malaysian education system, it is also important for us to flip our pages and magnify our history. Similar to many other nations in the world, Malaysia was under colonial rule for an extended period of time and undoubtedly, so much of its effects are still very present in modern day Malaysia. The vast use of English in schools as well as within government official contexts is an example of a remnant from the British colonization during the early 1800s. To say the least, the British revolutionized the Malaysian education culture, introducing the use of uniform in schools, establishing hierarchy through the role of prefects, and implementing a system based on segregation to “divide and rule”. As I shared above, although the vernacular schools promote cultural retention, this is another illustration of ways the British colonizers attempt to segregate the ethnic population in Malaysia.
In regard to cultural values, Malaysia is one of many countries with a high power distance culture. What this means is that there is a larger emphasis on differences in status with a more vertical hierarchy. So now, many may be wondering how is this then relevant in the Malaysian education system? Well, remember how I mentioned the culture of standing and greeting our teachers upon their arrival, this depicts the presence of high power distance between a teacher and a student. In addition, an identity that I have held for many years throughout my education in Malaysia is the role of a prefect, also known as student leaders. No doubt this role provided me with an opportunity to learn leadership and interpersonal skills. However, I will share that I often felt conflicted primarily because having an insider’s perspective, I was able to witness how the implementation of these roles continues to perpetuate institutional oppression and omits chances for a more egalitarian system. This conflicted with my personal values. Given that many of us function well within a high power distance culture, I believe that that does not mean steering away from equity and justice through the abuse of power that can surface when holding the role of a prefect. Therefore, a tricky aspect of being a prefect was challenging procedures and policies that would only benefit those on the top tier of the hierarchy because just like many systems of oppression that we are all victims of, pushing back can mean being ostracized and viewed as a threat.
Like the experiences of many Malaysians, I believe that it would only be fair if I end my blog by paying tribute to the extraordinary educators including the teachers, counselors, as well as trainee/adjunct teachers who played a significant role in advocating for me and other students, facilitating our learning, as well as offering support and encouragement during our time in school. For me, schools provided me with the platform to build character and resilience. This undeniably speaks to the many strengths of the Malaysian education system and at the same time to promote growth it is time we also chat about its areas of improvement. So, how was your education experience growing up in your country?