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Empty Classrooms Crisis: 30% Of Malaysian Schools Have Less Than 150 Students

On his first day of class at SK Tebing Rebak, Bagan Datok, Perak, Mohamad Danish Harraz Mohd Anuar faced the reality that he is the only student in Standard 1. In a large classroom, Danish will continue his primary school days alone without peers of the same age. With Danish’s enrollment in the school, SK Tebing Rebak now has 8 students learning at different standards[1].

SK Tebing Rebak, however, is one of 3,017 schools in Malaysia categorised as Sekolah Kekurangan Murid (SKM)[2], or schools with a lack of students. At least 30% of schools have less than 150 students enrolled in a school calendar[3].

As of 2022, 2,034 out of 5,877 Sekolah Kebangsaan (SK), 616 out of 1,302 Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan Cina and 367 out of 527 Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan Tamil are grappling with low student enrollment yearly[2].

How Are Low-Enrolment Schools Coping?

It is class as usual despite the small number of students – with adjustments. In SK Sungai Jerneh, Malacca, which had only 30 students in 2019, it is a matter of maximising resources by combining different standards in the same classes[4].

Standard 2 and 3 students are combined in one class, as well as standard 4 and 5 students. According to records, only standard 1 and 6 students are separated in their own class. So, here there is concern about how these students want to learn according to their actual level if they are mixed in one class and taught the same subject.  – Datuk Seri Ruslin Hasan,  Supervisor of  DUN Ayer Limau[4]

Students at SKM bask in individualised learning unlike limited attention in normal school classes with an average of 40 students per classroom.

Source: NSTP Archive

Perhaps many would consider the small number of students and teachers as a problem, but what the general public doesn’t know is that it actually gives the students an advantage because they get more attention than the teachers. – M Jayarani, teacher at Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan Tamil SJK (T) Ladang Sungai Raya, Langkawi[3]

Teachers formed a better bond with their students.

The small number of students certainly strengthens the relationship between the teacher and the students. Due to the small number of students, we can know all the students and know their problems both from an academic and personal point of view. – M Jayarani, teacher at Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan Tamil SJK (T) Ladang Sungai Raya, Langkawi[3]

The result, at least for Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan Tamil SJK (T) Ladang Sungai Raya, Langkawi is an increase in Malay language subject achievement in the 2010 Primary School Achievement Test (UPSR) with the highest number of A’s. Recently, the school was awarded Outstanding Primary School Resource Center at the national level in the SKM category.

On the surface, it sounds like a dream classroom for teachers with fewer students to focus on in classes. However, the reality is that it weighs heavily on educators as they juggle multiple lessons that may be out of their depth. It was also a challenge for Noor Syazana Taib, who served at SK Rumah Barat, Bekenu, Sarawak, for 8 years[3].

An unforgettable challenge when teaching many subject areas and working with mixed classes. I taught History, English, Science, Mathematics, Design and Technology (RBT) and Moral Education simultaneously.  Noor Syazana Taib, previously taught at an SKM school[3]

At the same time, with the limited number of teachers, Syazana, who was named Ministry of Education (MOE) (Eduflencer) in 2019 was expected to shoulder various other responsibilities.

I also hold various positions including head of department, class teacher and others.  Noor Syazana Taib, previously taught at an SKM school[3]

Is Anybody Out There?

Once upon a time, SK Tebing Rebak wasn’t as empty as it is today. The school grounds were filled with 200 students. The number however dwindled as new schools such as SK Tanah Lalang and SK Sungai Dulang Dalam were completed[5]. The school which has been around since the 1950s had to close its canteen in 2000 due to a lack of students[5].

It is also the reality faced by vernacular schools such as SJK (T) and SJK (C) often situated in remote areas. In 2016, Onn Sheng Juin saved SJK (C) Aik Hwa in Perak. The school located in a fishing village on Pasir Hitam island was on the brink of closure[6].

We thought the school would be closed because of a lack of pupils. But then Sheng Juin came in. We have also obtained a letter from the district Education Department to continue the classes. – Hee Kam Foong, headmistress at SJK (C) Aik Hwa [6]

The SKM schools that are still operating have become an important educational centre for the younger generation who still remain in our rural places.

If rural schools closed down, families would be forced to move to urban centres to find more accessible schools with shorter school travel distances. As young people depart, they leave behind empty and shuttered shops, forever closed as there are too few consumers for them to exist. Should this continue, then all of our rural towns and villages will become ghost towns.

Kampung Tebing Rebak only has less than 100 residents because most of the villagers have migrated to Kuala Lumpur to earn a living. – Azmah Zakaria, headmistress at SK Tebing Rebak[7]

Schools historically built inside rubber plantations on the outskirts of cities also face high urban migration as most of the younger generation has departed for greener pastures in the city.

The rate of migration decreased by 0.1% in 2020, from 524.1 thousand persons in 2018 to 484.1 thousand persons. However, inter-state migration, or crossing state boundaries, increased by 2.7% from 28.5% in 2018 to 31.2% in 2020 [8].

We see a lot of SKM in rural areas, rubber estates and old villages, as well as in Chinese and Tamil national-type schools.

When the Chinese and Indian communities and the next generation no longer live in villages or estates and move to Kuala Lumpur (to the city), their children no longer return to school in the existing villages and old settlements.
– Dr Anuar Ahmad,  Lecturer at  Pusat Kajian Kepelbagaian Pendidikan, Fakulti Pendidikan, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM)[9]

Based on the DOSM report, the main reason for migration is following family members at 45.3% followed by career progression (23.6%) and environment (22.3%)[8].

Source: The Star

UNICEF found that wage earners commonly bring their partners and children migrating to the cities. Children and adolescents (aged 0-14) comprise the second largest groups of in-migrants, and continue schooling outside their hometowns[10].

In Perak, the neighbouring states of Selangor and Pulau Pinang offer more and more attractive job opportunities due to industrialisation. Both are more developed in infrastructure, facilities, roads, entertainment and central location[11]. In sum, weighing the pros of moving to the city and leaving a low-wage job with no chances of better job opportunities is enough to push rural dwellers from their hometowns.

With rural depopulation, there’s a lesser demand for better facilities or newer infrastructures.

The population here is difficult to increase due to the lack of facilities in this area, thus making many migrate to areas with many facilities such as Lubok China.

In addition, parents from the village of Felcra Ramuan China prefer to send their children to SK Ramuan China Kecil over SK Sungai Jerneh. This is even though SK Sungai Jerneh is closer to their home area.

The road connecting this village is too small and dangerous, so they choose a safer one to send their children to school. – Datuk Seri Ruslin Hasan,  Supervisor of  DUN Ayer Limau[4]

With only a handful of the younger generation in their hometowns, it seems like bad news for rural schools and areas in Malaysia.

Plights Of Those Left Behind

With the increased flow of youth and adults moving to more prosperous cities, they will leave behind the greying population. In 2022, the rural population has reached an ageing status, with an increase of 7.3% in dwellers aged 65 and over[12].

The rural population has reached ageing status with people aged 65 and over accounting for 7.3% (2010: 6.2%) as compared to 6.6% (2010: 4.6%) for urban population. – Datuk Seri Dr Mohd Uzir Mahidin , Chief statistician at Department of Statistics Malaysia[12]

Once green fields are left unattended as farm hands cannot cope with working under the sun. The result is an increasing disparity between rural and urban household incomes. Households in rural areas earn RM 3,828 on average compared with RM6,561 in urban areas in 2018 [13].

To put it more simply, for every RM100 earned by urban area residents, those in rural areas earn only RM58. In 2019, the poverty rate in rural areas was 12.4 per cent, compared with the national rate of 5.6 per cent. The gap continues to grow every year. –  Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, Minister of Rural and Regional Development  [13]

Previously, rural development strategies such as opening palm oil plantations like FELDA and FELCRA were considered a way to keep rural dwellers from leaving their hometowns. However, the initiatives haven’t received glittering reviews as other social issues cropped up in remote areas, fueled by limited recreation and upskilling opportunities.

During the past few years, there have been some changes in government to revitalise rural areas through new initiatives that promise job opportunities. However, another caveat is the infrastructure of rural areas. At the same time, youth, in one way or another, will flee their hometowns in search of plentiful jobs and high-speed Internet. Rural towns need to offer dangling carrots that could compel youth to stay.

Future That Is Hanging By A Thread

For schools such as SK Tebing Rebak and SK Sungai Jerneh, it is still standing today. This is thanks to a collaboration between different parties that believe it should remain open.

In the case of SJK (C) Aik Hwa, an anonymous philanthropist extended his pledge to keep the school running. The sponsorship entails children attending the school receiving RM 500 per month.

However, the matter (closing the school) was not continued because there was opposition and had received support from the Ketua Kampung who wanted it to be maintained. – Muhammad Zaidil Fitri Sabtu, Chairman of the Sungai Jerneh Village Community Management Council (MPKK)[4]

It is also a battle to ensure resources such as teachers and school maintenance continue. There is no denying that SKM is at risk of closure as expenditures increase and students are scarce.

In my opinion, although schools of this category require large financial allocations, they should not be closed except with the consent of the residents because it is important for those who want to send their children to school without having to spend a lot. Khaire Md Zain, SK Tanjong Jawa di Sungai Air Tawar, Sabak Bernam, Selangor[5]

For Sungai Jerneh, the solution appears to be simple – better infrastructure should be in place to attract new settlers and to ensure residents stay in the area.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a large or small city, it needs to be in this area. From the new city it needs to build various facilities such as a police station, post office, housing estate and others.With the existence of a new city and many facilities, it will indirectly increase population growth, thereby reviving SK Sungai Jerneh which is plagued by a lack of students.  – Datuk Seri Ruslin Hasan,  Supervisor of  DUN Ayer Limau[4]

However, the fate of SKM schools remains fragile. In 2022, a former MOE deputy started a study that would culminate in a solution. 

SKM is a serious situation that requires immediate solutions by identifying the root cause of the problem. SKM exists due to various factors, including socio-economic changes, demographics, the passage of time and so on. Datuk Dr Mah Hang Soon, former Deputy at the Ministry of Education[2]

Creating Opportunity For The Empty Classrooms To Be Filled

Despite it being a costly venture to ensure the SKM schools are running in top shape, it is heartening to hear that these facilities continue to remain open to children and families living in the area. It abides by the commitment of the government to ensure access to education for children in Malaysia.

However, there is so much potential to fill in the empty classroom in SKM classes, one of the solutions according to  Tan Sri Alimuddin Mohd Dom is providing hostel accommodation for students.

In Sabah and Sarawak, most of these schools with fewer students are in rural areas, so closing one school (less students) and concentrating on another school (nearby) may be difficult. The main reason is the lack of access to transport. Tan Sri Alimuddin Mohd Dom,  former Director General of Education Malaysia, Ministry of Education Malaysia[5]

In the Peninsular areas, schools within a five-kilometre radius are suggested to be closed down to maximise the resources.

However, for schools with fewer students, especially in the peninsula that do not face transportation problems or areas between schools with fewer students and the nearest school within a radius of one to five kilometres, there is no problem (if closed).  Tan Sri Alimuddin Mohd Dom,  former Director General of Education Malaysia, Ministry of Education Malaysia[5]

Taking a difficult decision may not be a popular choice, however, in the long run, it would benefit the children’s learning.

Perhaps the aspect of comfort, more complete learning facilities and suitable dormitories are emphasised for parents who may be facing their own problems. We must first understand their problems before finding a solution. Tan Sri Alimuddin Mohd Dom, former Director General of Education Malaysia, Ministry of Education Malaysia[5]

Another option to revive these schools could also be opening them to stateless and refugee children. In 2016, Malaysia had 290,437 stateless children. 47,200 refugee children were denied access to the public school system. This is despite education being a fundamental human right under Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Schools with so few students may not have much of a future for now – but even so, they are vital to the community they are situated in. A promise of the younger generation to grow their hometowns once the older generations are long forgotten.

With a targeted solution to develop Malaysia’s rural areas, things may change for the better. Children like Danish may finally have peers of the same age to talk to. School corridors would once again be crowded with the younger generation eager to learn.

Explore our sources:

  1. A.S.Bidin. (2023). Hanya seorang murid Tahun 1 mendaftar di SK Tebing Rebak. Utusan. Link 
  2. Malaysiakini. (2022). 3,017 sekolah kekurangan murid, kata timbalan menteri. Link 
  3. N.N.Nasbah. (2023). Sisi positif sekolah kurang murid. Berita Harian. Link 
  4. Kamaruzzaman. (2019). Sekolah paling sepi di Melaka, hanya 30 pelajar sahaja..The Melaka Kini. Link 
  5. Wartawan BH. (2019). Dilema sekolah kurang murid. Berita Harian. Link 
  6. L.Kwan. (2017). This Malaysian School Has Only One Student, But School Will Continue Teaching. World of Buzz. Link 
  7. The Asian Parent. (2017). Hanya seorang murid didaftarkan ke Tahun 1 di SK Tebing Rebak. Link 
  8. Department of Statistics Malaysia. (2021). Migration Survey Report, Malaysia, 2020. Link
  9. TV3. (2022). Jangan Politikkan Isu Sekolah Kurang Murid. Link
  10. UNICEF. (2014). Malaysia Migration Profiles. Link 
  11. Tey, Nai-Peng (2014), ‘Inter-State Migration and Socio-Demographic Changes in Malaysia.’ Malaysian Journal of Economic Studies, 51(1), pp.121-139.
  12. The Star. (2022). Country has about 24.4 million urban dwellers. Link 
  13. R.Hammim. (2022). Zahid vows to reduce urban, rural economic gap. New Straits Times. Link 

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