KUALA LUMPUR, May 20 ― Education is largely free in Malaysia's public schools but a growing number of middle-class parents are forking out amounts up to RM100,000 annually to send their children to international schools.
The reason? To ensure their children receive a rounded education with access to top-notch facilities and even special classes like a Brain Gym.
Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim said in only three months, her 16-year-old son was involved in a 10km run, planted 2,000 tree saplings and volunteered for two days at the local Borders bookstore.
“The co-curriculum is more structured,” the mother of four told The Malay Mail Online in a recent interview.
Her three elder children had studied and graduated from national schools but she made a decision to switch her youngest, who had just completed his mid-secondary PMR examinations, to an international school last year, after a falling-out with the public school principal.
She loved that her son was able to have teachers who could devote more time to each student due to the smaller class sizes.
“And performing arts. There are auditions for the students and even though you don't make it, the process of going through it provides a lot of character-building, something public schools don't offer,” said the chairman of education activist group, Parent Action Group for Education (Page).
International schools generally have classes that are half the sizes of those in public schools and extra curriculum is an integral part of the syllabus, Noor Azimah said, adding, although “you are paying through your nose”.
Her son's school also organises school trips in the field, including scuba diving, which carries a steep price tag.
“But he said it’s too expensive and didn’t want to tax me anymore, so he wouldn’t go on those trips,” Noor Azimah said of her youngest child.
Noor Azimah believes that public schools too can achieve the quality and offer a wholesome education that many are paying for at international schools with a lot more focus, and organisation.
Manveet Kaur, a 37-year-old mother who enrolled her son of seven years at an international school last September, was concerned with the negative news about national schools in which she noted the general level of education has been falling.
She was worried that her eldest may be deprived of guidance due to teachers who allegedly skip classes, or suffer as a result of favouritism.
Just in the first grade, Manveet said her son already has compulsory swimming classes, extensive music class, robotic games and on Mondays, he has a class called Brain Gym.
“They play games that make you think,” the mother of two explained. She pays about RM16,000 a year for his fees.
Manveet also said she plans to send her younger daughter to an international school in the future.
International schools have mushroomed in Malaysia ever since the government dismantled its strict enrolment policy and allowed regular Malaysians into institutions that once catered only to the children of expatriate community and diplomatic circles.
On top of fees that is expected to rise from 8 to 15 per cent yearly, parents have to fork out a one-time registration fee of up to RM32,000 and a yearly re-enrolment fee of up to RM7,000. Some even charge parents a land and building fee, which is more than RM20,000 at one school.
A realtor was shocked when she estimated that she would have spent close to RM2 million sending all three of her children to international schools, a staggering amount even before they enroll in colleges.
“My god, they are bleeding us dry,” said the mother of three who only gave her first name, Joyce.
She added that the cost was worth the price because of the “horrendous quality” education in government schools.
Her youngest child’s school fees at the British International School in the city as a Year 5 student is even more expensive than of his sister’s university fees in the UK, at RM53,853 for this year alone, Joyce said.
She had enrolled her first two children into the secondary level at the International School KL (ISKL) after returning from abroad for a job posting.
Joyce plans to switch her son to ISKL because she preferred the International Baccalaureate system which allows students take a combination of science and arts subjects, which worked out perfectly for her daughter who is now studying medicine.
She also echoed the sentiments of other parents when it comes to the quality of students being produced at government schools.
She said she was willing to sacrifice anything luxurious for herself to put her children through school alone.
Although the percentage of Malaysian students enrolled at international schools is still low at almost 0.4 per cent of the 5,250,732 total students enrolled in 2013 or almost 20,000, it went up almost 1 per cent at more than 15,000 students from the year before, according to numbers provided by the Education Ministry.
The total number of students include students from Year One to Form Five at public, private and religious schools.
Another mother who wanted to be known only as Cindy said she had enrolled all four children at the Mont Kiara International School.
“When they have to speak up in class, it builds character, it's a very wholesome learning,” the 40-year-old said.
Besides the North American curriculum, the teachers had instilled self-confidence in her children as they have a lot of opportunities to speak up in school, Cindy said.
Her eldest has completed secondary education and is enrolled in an American college, while her second child is expected to join his sister after graduating from MKIS next year.
Her youngest child has a world-language class, where a certain language is taught every three months, before it switches to another.
The four-year-old, who had just lost his two bottom teeth is currently learning about the French culture, and language, Cindy said.
Father of two, David Chew estimates that he had spent up to RM500,000 for both his children’s fees in private schools, and later on international school.
The schools had also offered fancy trips to the students that range from RM1,000 to Tioman Island, Terengganu, to RM10,000 ski trips to Verbier in Switzerland, he related.
His son has since graduated high school and is pursuing tertiary education in Australia, while his daughter is in Year 9 at the British International School.
“The way the subjects are taught at the school, they are more arts-based, they place as much emphasis on drama, sports as much as they do on core subjects, which is something we don’t see in local schools.
“They carry as much weight. So to me, it's quite balanced that way,” Chew said.