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Education Equality Means Access For All, Regardless Of Race

In Malaysia’s melting pot of society, Bumiputras (69.8%) make up the majority of the population with the Chinese (22.4%) at second and Indian population (6.8%) at third [1].  

In the earlier years of the nation’s economic development, it was no secret that economic policies developed by the government favoured the majority population. The implementation of the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1970 was largely created to safekeep the importance of the Bumiputra group and their economic sustainability, but it also caused a rippling rift in regard to ethnic inequalities over the years. The NEP had influenced the economic prosperity of the races in Malaysia [2]

A special report by the Edge based on data from the Department of Statistics Malaysia (DOSM) showed that there was evidence of an ethnic income gap in the nation. In 2019, 53.5% of Bumiputra households earned at least RM10,000 compared to only 38.2% of Chinese, 8.4% of Indian and 0.48% of other ethnic households[3,4]. As of 2014, 227,600 Indian households are in the B40 group [5]

Source: The Edge Markets Malaysia

Poverty undeniably does not choose race or colour and its repercussions have affected even non-elite Malays especially in developing states, the Chinese, and the Indians. However, in a family, one is bound to trail behind and our Indian compatriots have often received the shorter end of the stick. 

In education itself, only an estimated 368,900 Indian youth are university graduates (diploma and degree) compared to at least 1.26 million Chinese graduates and 3.44 million Bumiputra graduates in 2018[4].  

Debatably, a degree scroll will unlock the possibility of a stable socioeconomic status, yet this figure reveals that the lower graduates and lesser economic prosperity among the Indian community can be traced back to how our education system is structured. 

A Systemic Flaw

Looking at the system, the racial segregation of schools and the founding of vernacular schools puts a constraint on the Indian community. The Malays are provided with the stepping stone of extensive choices of government-run boarding schools that lead them to better access to tertiary education, unlocking their potential for desirable employment. The Chinese students have taken the alternative to privately-run schools (including independently-run Chinese schools). 

However, the Indian students have often been removed from the conversation leaving them with meagre options not only to tertiary education but access to quality basic education. 

The statistics provided by both Ministry of Education indicate that highly homogenous schools are run up until secondary school level in which students from vernacular schools are channelled into national schools.

A report by the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) in 2014[6] indicated that the dropout rate is prevalent during the transition between primary and secondary school years among the underprivileged communities.

The issue of leaving schools among Indian students had been highlighted publicly by Maxis’s Light A Life 2016’s Deepavali campaign which exhibits the reality faced by a young Indian boy, yet no appropriate data were published over the years that underlines the severity of the situation. 

Source: Cili Sos

The problem of dropouts is greater in the transition from Year 6 to Form 1, between the ages of 11 to 12 years, and then within the subsequent years in secondary schooling.  – Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) [6]

The potential factors to quitting school midway are numerous, including the inability of vernacular alumnis to grasp Bahasa Malaysia. A survey report also pointed out that 87% of Indian students faced race-based discrimination at school with the homogeneity of social groups in national schools, including verbal discrimination[7]. While race-based discrimination is not a conclusive factor for students dropping out of school, it can potentially affect the student’s confidence and performance in school. 

At least 11% of dropouts cited the need to support their families as a reason for falling out of the education system [6]. The choices of their vocation is similar to their parents who are often blue-collared workers which stunted social mobility of the youth.

“My father told me to work to help the family. At the time, I was the eldest in the family as my older sister was being taken care of by my grandmother.”  Sugu Pavithra, a Malaysian Youtuber who is famous for her cooking channels [8]

The Ministry of Education has put forth the commitment to reduce the dropout rates in schools by targeting vulnerable groups, yet, what it entails was unclear[9]. The question remains what has been done to combat the issue, what future do school dropouts have, especially those from minority groups and what can be done to uplift minority group students who are falling behind – in particular Indian students for the sake of this discussion.

Without adequate education, the poverty cycle continues spinning for a portion of Indian communities. The young Indians have a tough calling on their shoulders.

But they are not alone in this endeavour, there are two organisations out there who made it their mission to help Indian students from the primary school bench and at the other end, a foundation that reform the lives of the school dropouts and equip them with life skills. 

A Focused Solution Approach 

The educational attainment of Indian students necessitates proactive solutions to be placed as only 54% of Indian students pass their UPSR examinations in 2015 compared to the national-average of 55% [10]. When it is time to enter secondary school, the students who are originally from SJKT struggle to catch up due to language barriers and those who do not do well in UPSR Bahasa Malaysia would be sent to remedial classes. 

The remedial classes would only introduce more negative consequences to the students[10]and prolong into other social issues such as gangsterism stereotypically associated with school dropouts. 

Taking things into their stride, TARA Foundation has provided after-school assistance through the establishment of physical Seva Gurukalams (Service Centres) nationwide that provides conducive learning environments for students from the B40 communities since 2002. 

TARA’s Mission 2030, aims at reducing the rate of Indian B40 school dropouts starting from lower primary school students in Klang Valley. Registered students under TARA’s program are provided with a tablet and an internet plan to enable them to attend the virtual classes offered. The after-school tuition classes focus on Bahasa Malaysia, English, Mathematics, Science and Personal Development classes to develop selected students holistically. 

The gulf between the haves and have-nots has only widened when learning requires technological resources, leaving those who are not only in Standard 1 and 2, but also Standard 4 to 6 still not mastering the essential skills of writing, reading and counting. – Dr. Mazslee Malik, former Minister of Education of Malaysia [11]

Source: New Straits Times

By intervening at the early stages, TARA hopes more of B40 Indian students would finish their formal secondary education and consequently improve their livelihood. TARA’s intervention is a two-prong solution as it prepares students to adapt better in secondary school and ensures the Indian future generation stays in school.

Mastering the Malay language is a huge issue for those coming from vernacular schools to national secondary schools where lessons are taught in Malay. Without help, children give up trying and drop out. – Devasharma Gangadaran, MySkills Foundation CEO [9]

Extending A Second Chance


Hope is not all lost for those who have fallen through the cracks of the education system. MySkills Foundation, a learning and training centre for at-risk youth aged 18 and younger was established in 2010. The foundation equipped the youth with vocational training skills such as welding and social skills improvement.  In 2020, the organisation reached out to 15,000 youth, mainly from the Indian population[12].  

The job market is competitive  and a tertiary education background is required to earn a better pay. The foundation runs social enterprises which put forth alternative employment to their recruits, which consist of 93% individuals which did not complete high school [12].

The social enterprises helmed by MYSkills such as PRIMUS Wellness, My Fresh Farm, Primus Institute of Wellness and My Bakery (rebranded as De’Divine Café) have won the “Entrepreneurs for Good” Award from the  British Council in 2015. With their initiatives and the support of companies such as MAXIS, HSBC Malaysia, Credit Suisse APAC Foundation is well on their way to assist the Indian future generation. 

Before I came to MySkills I dropped out of school. I worked at a car wash for 40 ringgit a day. I was a very bad boy in my youth. I disliked being with my family because my mom always scolded me. I also can’t focus on my studies because I dislike sitting in the classes. I always fight with my seniors and skip classes in school.” Sarvan, a youth who benefitted from MySkills Foundation assistance [12]

Source: The Star

Lifting B40 Indians To M40

One of the biggest barriers to Indian youth education is poverty and the lack of literacy of their older generation. The predecessors are often illiterate and sustain a living through precarious jobs [10]

Growing up in an environment that favoured survival possibly had led the community to only obtain a minimal amount of education and when they are of age, earning and supporting their family is more crucial. 

The issue is of course more complex than what has been discussed, and the answer isn’t as simple as awareness campaigns and budget allocation. The plight of the Indian community has often been overlooked, perhaps with the existence of  grassroots organisations such as TARA Foundation would dissuade the Indian students from leaving school. 

Even if that’s not the case, the support of MySkills Foundation which had successfully hindered many at-risk youth from the disenfranchised community and created a parallel ending for them may generate a better future generation that would lift their community from the poverty line in due time. 

Explore our sources: 

  1. DOSM. (2021). Current Population Estimates, Malaysia, 2021. Link
  2. J.Chew. (2021). A Revision of Malaysia’s Racial Compact. Harvard Political Review. Link
  3. C.Yeap.(2020). A closer look at the latest data on ethnic income gap. The Edge Markets. Link
  4. DOSM. (2020). Household Income Estimates and Incidence Of Poverty Report, Malaysia, 2020. Link
  5. DOSM. (2015). Kajian Pendapatan Isi Rumah 2014, Jabatan Perangkaan Malaysia. Retrieved from : Malaysian Indian Blueprint 2017. Link
  6. T.Patel. (2014). Dropping out of school in Malaysia: What we know and what needs to be done.  Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs. IDEAS. Link
  7. Sekolah Semua. (2021). Discrimination in Education Survey. Link
  8. AsiaNewsday.(2020). Malaysian YouTuber Sugu Pavithra had to quit school despite scoring 5As in UPSR exams. Link
  9. M.Balasegaram. (2020). Human Writes: Malaysia is failing young dropouts with its education system. The Star. Link
  10. Ministry of Education Malaysia. Retrieved from : Malaysian Indian Blueprint 2017. Link
  11. D. Dzulkifly. (2021). How former education minister Maszlee is making sure ‘lost generation’ of students don’t drop out. Malay Mail. Link
  12. MySkills Foundation. (2021). Annual Report 2020. Link

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