STPM: The four-letter relic

MARCH 14 ― I must congratulate the students who have just received their STPM results. Images of students hoisting each other up, crying tears of joy and embracing in happiness brings back memories of my own STPM experience.

One that was bittersweet to be honest. On one hand, there was the higher degree of freedom and respect from teachers within the confines of school. This meant that we were given more opportunity to organise our own social and sporting events. On the other, there was also a constant need to mug up on textbooks to cope with the extensive syllabus.

Come August, however, the same batch of STPM students will be back in the headlines protesting their unfair treatment. Some would be denied entry into the critical courses or courses of their choice despite scoring well in the exams. This vicious cycle continues to be played out every year.

If I could look back and describe the STPM exams in one word, it would be “gamble.” Indeed, sitting for this exam can be a daunting task when so many odds are stacked against graduates of this pre-university exam.

An unpopular choice

Being a student of the national school system (SMK), I was naive in thinking that we would all have equal options after SPM. Sadly, this was not the case. My classmates branched out to pursue separate pre-university exams based on quota, financial capability and interest.

Among those pre-university, STPM was the most unpopular choice. Its reputation as a tough and lengthier course trumped the fact that it was the cheapest of the lot. Back then, STPM was a single exam at the end of a gruelling year and a half of classes.

It was made clear to us that near perfection was expected in every exam. After all, the ultimate reward upon doing well was a coveted place in a local public university. Failing to do so would mean having to resort to costly private education or being fast-tracked into the working world.

For me, STPM was a tough exam for sure, but it was one that I’m proud to have sat through. Now as I look back, I realise that the exam itself is a symbol of a more deep-seated problem: our local pre-university streaming system is inherently flawed.

Many streams, one river

If one wants to enter a local public university after SPM, there are four main options: STPM, Diploma, Matriculation, or a Foundation programme specific to the university itself. It does look as if one has many choices for pre-university, until one realises that the latter two have restrictions. For argument’s sake, I shall ignore the diploma courses because most diploma students enter the workforce after graduation.

As for the restrictions, foundation courses other than Islamic studies are for Bumiputera students only while matriculation has a quota for non-Bumiputera students. This is in stark contrast to STPM where anyone can apply to be a candidate. This system obviously divides Malaysian society from an early age.

Think of the it as three streams that channel into a river, except that STPM is the narrower and rockier one while the other two only accept certain water qualities.

Aside from that, the foundation and matriculation courses are shorter (one year) and upon finishing, students enter university in the same year. STPM students have to wait an agonising nine months after the exam before receiving news of a placement, if any at all. And when you add that to the five months waiting time post-SPM, it seems as if Form 6 students have effectively taken a gap year.

It is hard not to feel bitter about the entire streaming process.

Merits of the exam

STPM can be hard but it can also be rewarding. The exam enables students to apply for institutions abroad as opposed to matriculation and foundation, both of which generally only allow graduates to pursue local degrees or in some exceptions, degrees in selected universities abroad.

Since it is an A-level equivalent exam, students have been accepted to prestigious universities like Harvard, Cambridge or the National University of Singapore. However, since the application process for universities abroad usually opens in fall, students have to juggle between the application process and studying for one of the toughest exams in the world.

STPM graduates are also more prepared for the workload at university. They are more conscious about the amount of studying and reading needed because of the experience gained in that one and a half years. The expansive syllabus of STPM also means that some fundamental courses in the first year have been already taught to them.

A call for change

Although at present STPM has changed to a three-semester format, I argue that a revamp of the local pre-university system is necessary. The issue here is that results from the three exams are given equal weightage when students are allocated courses. This is obviously an untruth that could potentially result in mediocre students attending some of our most critical courses or top public institutions.

Even worse, some deserving students who fail to enter courses of their choice might pursue their interest elsewhere, especially in countries more than willing to take in top talents thus accelerating the brain drain process.

The idealist in me recommends doing away with STPM, the four-letter relic. The tri-exam system should be abolished and replaced with one standardised exam similar to Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) for students who want to enter a local public university. However, the realist in me thinks that this is impossible given how ingrained the system already is. This is coupled by the fact that education is often used as a political tool in Malaysia.

The onus is then on individual universities to actively play a role in the recruitment of students. Universities should administer internal exams for all students who wish to enter irrespective of their pre-university background. By doing this, students from any pre-university course can be graded on a particular standard.

Coming back to the STPM scorers, I bid them good luck with their university applications. Be realistic and tactful in what you apply for and do not fret if it didn’t turn out the way you wanted because if you survived STPM, you can survive anywhere.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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