MAY 30 — A flood of media plaudits waxing lyrically about our SPM (high school leaving) results this week left me a bit perplexed.

By the way, proud parents with beaming local graduate children may turn away now. This may prick.

Back to the results.

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They were astounding. It prompted celebratory flash mobs on the streets and in malls.

Text apps did not have enough emojis to approximate the sense of exultation felt by a nation.

Maximum distinctions for maximum number of students, residential schools reach perfection and grades inch up for every conceivable subject probably including basket weaving.

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It stops short of claiming Malaysia has the greatest public education system in the world. The envy of the world except the envy is rarely published by duplicitous and mean-spirited foreign media.

Yet, there’s this feeling, that the euphoria jars with reality.

Students celebrating after receiving their SPM results at Sekolah Sultan Alam Shah on May 27, 2024. ― Picture by Miera Zulyana
Students celebrating after receiving their SPM results at Sekolah Sultan Alam Shah on May 27, 2024. ― Picture by Miera Zulyana

Never first choice

Ask this, if this is the greatest possible system with improvements guaranteed year to year, why do so many opt to get out of the system?

Many either study in Singapore, at international schools mushrooming like colonial outposts or private schools of all hue. Even those with SPM certificates want a fast-track through foreign boarding schools to universities there, or settle for matriculation/foundation which sets them up for them elusive foreign universities.

And many who stay, unable to find a spot outside, they settle for foreign accreditation issued here by foreign institutions, you surely have seen the relentless ads during Premier League halftime shows.

Finally, those from SPM to local institutions when fully processed are not clamoured for by both local and foreign-based employers. Why so?

How do champs turn into chumps in record time?

Firstly, I am a nationalist. I am not interested to run down my countrymen.

But how to ignore things?

All year round the public education system is whacked by all and sundry, because there are core problems with it. Using examination results to feel good, to eschew the problems is irresponsible.

Second, the country has the same distribution of intelligence other countries get. That’s fair to assume. But the system is not good enough, and it has not been for some time.

The students are being let down. I’m divided on the class divide of residential and regular schools, and the rote learning regiment the former enforces.

But the crucial part is that most Malaysians are not receiving the quality of education our economy, history and experience can provide.

Malaysia has to redirect its education trajectory. Unless it does, the future is dire.

Humans are the resource of the 21st century. While rubber, tin and then oil raised this country far above our most in our region, it’s our people, these SPM graduates and the ones to follow which determine the potential and future of Malaysia.

Which renders them the number one priority of any government in charge.

To aid those students in the journey, not to sugarcoat the truth to them.

After all, those persistent reports about university graduates underpaid and underemployed today may finally reflect on the graduates and the training they received — most certainly their basic education leading to SPM which determines how much better they can be through a campus experience — rather than about employers and the industries.

Simply put, can it be the average employee not measuring up due to their training window dressed with certificates from age seven, rather than cruel and uncaring businesses?

While we are at it, remember no one from Perikatan Nasional (PN) criticises the SPM results since they have their own fingerprints on the manufacturing of the greatest public school system in the world.

Muhyiddin Yassin the education minister who dismantled English as STEM medium in 2009, and there is a list before and after which implicates PN, Pakatan Harapan and Barisan Nasional (BN). All complicit in emphasising national examination results — which they control with the infamous bell curve with ridiculous minimums — rather than the education process.

Covid-19 and Pisa proof Malaysia

If these accusations are unfounded, how to explain the pandemic’s effects and international assessments?

How is Malaysia’s performances unfazed by three years of Covid-19 upheavals? We did not embark on any systematic assessment, reorder grade promotion or expand resources on remedial classes for millions of young Malaysians in our public schools, yet our students survived unscathed and jumped back on their saddles without missing a beat. Thriving ever since.

Second, the Pisa — the international education assessment by the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) — scores from 2022.

Released last year, it compares maths, science and comprehension abilities of our 15-year-olds against cohorts in 81 countries, and Malaysia finished 51st and below the OECD level. It is painful to read the list of 50 ahead.

It prompted Sarawak to seek its own solutions to the discomforting drop in their perspective, and for MCA president Wee Ka Siong to sound the alarm in Parliament.

Those 15-year-olds take SPM in 2025, so watch this space.

However, the argument stands. How to rebut the dual argument, Covid-19 and Pisa with nothing except rhetoric?

Market corrections

Education is controlled by the state.

Not the actual educating, whether the students are learning, want to learn or continue to learn.

But that the state determines or measures how well education is going. That’s its monopoly.

To tell whether we are closer to the zenith or the nadir.

It is in its interest to say it is doing spectacularly well. It hurts to say things are not hunky dory. Which option would the government choose?

The political dimension is too obvious.

However, the government does not decide how the world sees its product. In the beginning the market takes the products on face value, and in time, it corrects itself.

There is every incentive for the market to recalibrate, remeasure the relative merit of the graduate.

This is where giving joy to an 18-year-old is crushed seven years later when he is a less desired pick by the market.

The arbitrariness during SPM comes back to haunt so many years later.

When those ex-students are lonelier adults with the weariness of the world burdening them and the memories of SPM results fleeting.

Sorry for being that guy.

The bearer of sad news.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.