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Increase Literacy To Develop A Nation – Not Just Reading And Writing

Literacy is popularly understood as the ability to read and write. However, rapid social progress and technological advancement has widened the definition of literacy in tandem with new societal demands and expansion of human capacities. What was initially referred to as text comprehension is now defined through various new angles: digital literacy, financial literacy and health literacy being a few amongst many. As Malaysia continues to develop as a nation, literacy in the mentioned areas need to continue to grow and deepen to ensure equal advancement at all levels of society. Let’s take a look at various literacies:

Reading Literacy

The ability to read is the cornerstone for success and plays a pivotal role in improving the trajectory of one’s life. Often seen as an enabler to social mobility, literacy is proven to positively contribute to job success, career development, and one’s ability to respond to change[1].

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) defines literacy as the ability to understand, evaluate, use and engage with written texts in order to achieve one’s goals, and develop one’s potential.

In a 2018 UNESCO Survey, the literacy rate in Malaysia was found to be at 94.85% and ranked 72nd globally[2]. Despite the seemingly high literacy rate, this was a decline from previous years.

The Programme for International Student Assessment, more commonly known as PISA, reveals some insight to these figures. Coordinated by the OECD, PISA is a widely recognised international assessment to evaluate proficiency in Reading, Mathematics, and Science among students aged 15 years old. In PISA 2018, Malaysia ranked 58 out of 79 countries. Although student performance generally improved in comparison to 2009 PISA figures, Malaysia still did not meet the OECD average in all three categories, including Reading[3].

Source: EPIC Journal and MYReaders

Though Malaysia has made significant progress in improving literacy rates over the past decade, some communities are still left behind. The reality is that many B40 families and those living in rural regions still struggle with numerous impediments to education.

[Reading] has a significant impact not just on a child’s progress, but by extension, socio-political conditions and the general economy as well. – Assistant Prof Sharon Wilson of Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman

What is equally worrisome is that students performing above minimum proficiency were found to be stronger in “locating information” than in “understanding”. This indicates a need to enhance students’ critical literacy skills: the ability to not just read, but to critically synthesise, analyse, interpret and evaluate information. 

The Malaysian Education Blueprint (2013-2025) corroborates the fact that Malaysian students have historically excelled at reproducing subject content, but asserts that this skill is less valuable in today’s ever-changing economy[4].

Rather than just regurgitating information, students need to be able to reason, extrapolate, and creatively apply their knowledge in novel and unfamiliar settings[4].

Source: Flickr

While teachers and schools play a critical role in child development, there is a growing body of evidence showing that parental involvement makes a significant difference in learning outcomes. A 2011 survey by the Ministry of Education found that spending some time each day talking to children about school or helping them with homework are positively associated with student reading performance. The key now is to ensure that these practices are adopted in every household, making families a key contributor to children’s learning outcomes[5].

The good news is that it does not require a Ph.D. or unlimited hours for parents to make a difference in their children’s education. What these activities do demand, though, is genuine interest and active engagement – with the understanding that education is a shared responsibility.[4]– OECD (2011)

Digital Literacy

Following the wake of COVID-19, the pivot to online learning and work-from-home culture has accentuated the need for digital literacy across all ages, backgrounds, and professions. From online shopping to virtual classrooms, it is evident that much of our lives have shifted to virtual spheres. It has become increasingly vital to equip ourselves with the necessary skills to safely and effectively navigate online information landscapes.

In a world transformed overnight by the pandemic, it is imperative that we embrace digitalisation and 4IR technologies. – Datuk Wira Dr. Hj. Rais Hussin Mohamed Ariff, Chairman of MDEC

According to a 2018 UNESCO Report, digital literacy is the ability to define, access, integrate, communicate and evaluate information safely and appropriately through digital technologies for participation in economic and social life. It includes competences that are variously referred to as computer literacy, information literacy, data literacy and media literacy[6].

Source: MIDA

There is a common misconception that digital literacy is just about knowing how to send a text or post to social media when in truth, it extends far beyond that.

In educational spheres, both teachers and students need to familiarize themselves with the numerous complex functions of platforms such as Zoom, Google Classroom, Cisco and Microsoft Teams to effectively carry out online learning[7]. In the working world, adults across all industries need to sufficiently upskill and adapt to the demands of digitalisation to bolster the company’s competitiveness and client outreach[8]. Even for university students, digital skills are important not just for research and data extraction, but also to guarantee employability upon graduation[9].

According to the World Economic Forum (WEF)’s ‘The Future of Jobs’ Report in 2020, eight of the top ten emerging jobs in Malaysia will require digital tech skills. This includes jobs as data analysts and scientists, Internet of Things (IoT) specialists, digital transformation specialists, and cybersecurity specialists[10].

Coursera’s latest Global Skills Report reveals that Malaysian learners are relatively more adept at digital skills like Cloud Computing and Data Analysis. The country ranked 46th globally and fourth in Southeast Asia, lagging behind neighbors like Singapore (10th), Vietnam (20th) and Indonesia (45th)[10].

Source: The Star

Though our nation has witnessed considerable improvement in digital skills over the past decade, unfortunately this progress is not equally shared by those living in rural regions and Orang Asli villages. The inability to afford laptops due to low incomes, reduced network access and lack of adjacent infrastructure (e.g. electricity grids) has made digital inclusion difficult for certain communities[11].

The accelerating pace of technological advancement goes hand in hand with the responsibility of ensuring no Malaysian is left behind. More efforts need to be done to improve digital literacy, as well as to create an ecosystem that allows everyone to contribute in bringing forth higher standards of living, the fruits of which should be shared equally amongst all segments of society.

Financial Literacy

Financial literacy is defined by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) as the combination of awareness, knowledge, skill, attitude and behaviour necessary to make sound financial decisions and ultimately achieve individual financial wellbeing[12]. In simpler terms, it refers to the ability to understand and effectively put financial skills into practice. Some of its aspects include personal financial management, budgeting and investing.

Source: The Star

Having the confidence and capability to effectively manage one’s finances are essential to ensure a good quality of life. Financially literate individuals make informed financial decisions throughout their life stages, which leads to sustained improvements in their standard of living. They are also more prepared to withstand sudden income shocks, emergencies and changes in life circumstances in times of crisis. 

When the Movement Control Order (MCO) was enforced in March, we experienced a significant halt in our nation’s economy. It affected the income of many Malaysians who could not go to work, had to take pay cuts, or were even let go as companies were forced to downsize.[13– Co-Founder and Executive Director of RinggitPlus, Hann Liew

The RinggitPlus Malaysian Financial Literacy Survey in 2020 revealed that 53% of respondents could not survive more than 3 months with their current savings if they lose their job. 46% spend exactly or more than what they earn monthly, and nearly half of all respondents have not started planning for retirement[14].

These troubling statistics echo the findings of Multiply, a financial literacy platform. In their 2020 survey, 48% of respondents were found to not have emergency savings. 41% have trouble managing their monthly salaries and are worried about not having enough to sustain themselves until their next paycheck. Only 32% of respondents are aware of what a credit score is and the need to check it regularly[15].

However, not all is lost – 53% of respondents plan their budgets in advance, 31% have basic insurance in the event of a vehicle accident, and 52% have some form of savings for rainy days.

Source: Malay Mail

The survey also highlighted the need for greater awareness on how to utilize financial instruments and tools — 32% of the respondents said they preferred to leave their available funds in a simple savings account, rather than explore higher returns through investments[15].

An effective communication strategy is required to bolster financial education initiatives. In this regard, technology can be leveraged upon to provide Malaysians easy access to information. However, we should first take it upon ourselves to be cognisant of our financial realities rather than be in denial of it. Financial literacy in and of itself is insufficient if not accompanied by behavioural change. Awareness of individual responsibility is the first step in taking charge of one’s financial destiny.

Malaysians need to be provided with financial knowledge so that they can manage their savings and expenses, invest wisely, and borrow responsibly in line with their financial goals and circumstances. It also serves as protection against financial fraud. – CEO of PTPTN,  Ahmad Dasuki Abdul Majid 

Health Literacy

Predilection for unverified health supplements, tendency to delay treatment, and the emergence of anti-vax movements are all indicative of a larger overarching problem: low level of health literacy among Malaysians. In a health crisis as widespread as COVID, it has never been more crucial for us to make wise choices to safeguard not just our own health, but others’ too.

Source: The Star

In the National Health and Mobility Survey (NHMS) in 2019, the Institute for Public Health (IKU) defines health literacy as the ability to find, understand, and use information and services needed for everyday health decision making. Some of its aspects include the ability to practice healthy lifestyles, understand health information and follow medical instructions. It also refers to the ability to wisely analyse risks and benefits of varying treatment options, and to organise healthcare appointments as needed.

The NHMS 2019 study found that 1 in 3 adults have low health literacy[16]

Precise percentages from this study were further detailed in a report published by a team of researchers from the Ministry of Health Malaysia, which categorised health literacy into three levels: limited, sufficient, and excellent. 

Its findings reveal that a majority of Malaysians were sufficiently health literate in all three domains — healthcare, diseases prevention and health promotion (49.1%, 44.2%, and 47.5%, respectively). However, when compared to the whole spectrum, the average mean score for Malaysians was 35.5 out of the total score of 50. This score indicates that although the overall population falls under the sufficient category, a large number of the population belongs to the lower end of the category[17]

Source: Malay Mail

Health literacy levels are also interlinked with sociodemographic characteristics. Limited health literacy was more prevalent among those of older age (68%), lower education level (64.8%), and lower household income (49.5%)[17]

Younger respondents from higher education backgrounds and income groups made up a larger portion of respondents with sufficient or excellent health literacy. Overall however, Malaysia’s health literacy status remains categorized at a lower sufficiency level.

These figures suggest that more needs to be done to elevate health literacy in Malaysia, especially targeted efforts for vulnerable communities. Without this skill, one is more prone to riskier health choices, weak management of diseases, increased hospitalization and overall poor health outcomes. Hence, health literacy efforts are imperative to ensure individuals can understand, evaluate and apply medical information to make informed decisions, and thus, be able to improve their overall wellbeing. 

Explore Our Sources

  1. IJSK. 2014. Reading trends and improving reading skills among Malaysian students. Link
  2. Country Economy. 2018. Literacy rate fell down in Malaysia. Link
  3. The Star. 2019. Malaysia improves in PISA performance. Link
  4. The Sun Daily. 2020. Parents play a big role in children’s literacy rate. Link
  5. Ministry Of Education. 2013. Malaysian National Education Blueprint (2013-2025). Link
  6. UNESCO. 2018. A Global Framework of Reference on Digital Literacy Skills. Link
  7. Shapesea. 2019. Challenges to Learning and Teaching in Malaysia in the Time of Covid-19. Link
  8. FocusMalaysia. 2021. Digital skills are crucial to bolster workforce innovation. Link
  9. CORE. 2012. Digital Literacy Competence for Academic Needs: An Analysis of Malaysian Students in Three Universities. Link
  10. A Job Thing. 2021. Malaysia Ranks 46 in Coursera’s Global Skills Report. Link
  11. Wiley Online Library. 2021. Digital inclusion of the Orang Asli of Peninsular Malaysia. Link
  12. OECD. 2011. Measuring Financial Literacy: Questionnaire and Guidance Notes for Conducting an Internationally Comparable Survey of Financial Literacy. Link
  13. News Straits Times. 2021. Financial education crucial for managing money. Link
  14. Ringgitplus. 2020. Malaysian Financial Literacy Survey. Link
  15. The Edge. 2020. Creador: 70% of Malaysians in need of financial literacy support. Link
  16. National Institutes of Health (NIH). 2019. National Health and Morbidity Survey 2019. Link
  17. NCBI. 2021. Malaysian Health Literacy: Scorecard Performance from a National Survey. Link

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