It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education – Albert Einstein

It’s the superficial differences you notice first, of course. Sarawakian schools are better landscaped; British schools are better resourced. British schools have a greater sense of structure; Sarawakian schools have a greater sense of community.

There are superficial similarities, too – it seems that teachers all over the world have parallel concerns about government interference and volumes of paperwork. But after 18 months mentoring English teachers here in Sarawak under the new KSSR curriculum, I hope I’ve started to get (ever so) slightly under the skin of the primary education system here, and as an outsider looking in, this is what I’ve learnt about…

…classroom pedagogy

KSSR classrooms are pedagogically chaotic. Sadly that is not to say that teachers are reflectively experimenting with different approaches, but that nobody seems to know what to do for the best with the incoherent textbooks and conflicting advice foisted upon them since January last year.

The KSSR was intended to help teachers move away from chalking-and-talking by introducing contemporary methodologies such as synthetic phonics and communicative language teaching, but teachers were given no training, and the textbook authors often seem as confused as the teachers.

My favourite Year Two speaking activity reads, bafflingly: “A chicken gives us meat and eggs. Talk about camels and ostriches.”

Having a ‘native speaker’ (many of us are native-level rather than native speakers but the assumption endures) in their classrooms has barely helped my mentees to untangle the mess of the KSSR. How can it? Teachers are being asked to embrace a 180-degree culture change by spending two to three hours a week with a mad foreigner banging on about group work. What I’ve actually done for the last year and a half is deliver a piecemeal CELTA course in an attempt to compensate for the lack of theoretical foundations laid down by the MoE – but intensive four-week CELTAs (or their equivalent) could and should have been delivered by qualified local tutors before the KSSR was rolled out. That way, I might have been more of a mentor than an instructor. It’s a shame.

It’s also a shame that those in power don’t recognise that constantly using teachers as political guinea pigs makes huge dents in morale. Which leads me to…


I’ve met some fantastically hard-working teachers in Sarawak who take their professional development seriously and who really care what happens to their charges. I’ve also met some unpardonably poor ones who’ve long since lost the will to teach, who arrive late to class or not at all, who never plan lessons and whose classroom management skills extend only to wielding (and occasionally using) a cane.

Cane aside – corporal punishment in state schools has been illegal in the UK since 1987 – I wouldn’t suggest for a second that British teachers don’t also fall into these two camps, and many in between. The difference in Sarawak seems to be that, once you’ve entered the teaching profession, it’s almost impossible to be dismissed. Incompetent teachers might receive verbal or written warnings, or be unhelpfully shunted to another school, but fired? No.

In rural areas especially, legends of sacked teachers and petrol bombs abound, so perhaps it’s not surprising that the system is clogged with poorly-performing staff who do nothing to merit their salaries. But education reform is not possible without a workforce of committed educators.

Children shouldn’t move through any school system encountering just a handful of dedicated, capable teachers. The best I’ve worked with, here and in other countries, have been intrinsically motivated. They (we) enjoy their (our) work and see the value of it. Carrots such as bonuses, and sticks such as unpaid suspension of duties, are often rubbished as ineffective, short-term solutions to a lack of employee motivation, but in this context the absence of sticks is disastrous.

Let those who are jaded (for nobody could blame you), those who would rather be somewhere else, be somewhere else. And let those who can, teach.



From the moment you enter a school and see the huge display board counting down the days to the UPSR examination, it’s clear that education in Sarawak is driven by testing. Sadly, this drive swiftly and routinely breaks down the natural inquisitiveness that new pupils and new teachers bring to the classroom, and without it barely any real learning can take place. Teachers say; pupils repeat. Teachers write; pupils copy. Scoring highly on the UPSR English paper requires very little in the way of understanding.

Although the MoE has wisely recommended (rather than mandated… or has it? A definitive answer is hard to find) that testing should be abolished under the KSSR and replaced with continuous assessment, this is not happening. Why?

In addition to the lack of ministerial clarity on the subject, the data entry requirements of the fledgling continuous assessment system are arduous, and at present there’s a disconnect between the communicative focus of the KSSR and the grammatical focus of the UPSR.

There also seems to exist amongst headteachers an unshakeable belief that parents will not accept any means of progress testing other than, well, tests.

The UK is hardly more sensible on this front, with children sitting standardised tests at four ‘Key Stages’ during their school careers (at ages seven, 11, 14 and 16). Finland, however, widely accepted as having one of the most successful education systems in the world and from whom many of the KSSR’s principles were appropriated, does not test its students at all until the end of their final year of secondary school.

Until practice follows policy here in Sarawak, children continue to be force-fed information they can parrot but not manipulate.

the broader learning culture

The behaviour we expect from children must be modelled by the adults around them.

We expect children to read, yet a 2012 straw poll of teachers in the Padawan district (where I’ve been working) revealed that, in the last year, only one person of 30 had read a whole book for pleasure themselves and only two had read stories to their kids.

National statistics suggest that the average Malaysian reads just two books per year.

We also expect children to develop critical thinking skills, yet schools offer scant opportunities for them to do so. The hidden curriculum of the Sarawakian education system teaches pupils over and over again that unquestioning adherence to hierarchy – being silent or speaking (reciting) only at the command of someone higher up the food chain – is the single acceptable model of behaviour, and that deviation from this ‘norm’ is likely to land you in hot water.

On a related note, we expect parents to take an active interest in their children’s learning but insult their intelligence at every turn. Whilst a lack of parental engagement is the commonest reason offered for low student attainment, parents’ imagined beliefs are still allowed to dictate educational practice. Pupils must complete every exercise on every page of their workbooks, even those with nonsensical instructions and grammatical errors (there are several), otherwise parents will complain. Pupils must take monthly tests and have letter grades on their report cards otherwise parents will complain.

Has there been a consultation? Are Sarawakian mothers and fathers really so immovable on these pedagogical matters in which they allegedly take no interest? It doesn’t make sense.

the learning environment

Environment affects learning. It’s certainly not the most critical thing, but when you have a class of fifty in a crowded room with no soundproofing, a fan that only works between 10:45 and 11:10 on a Tuesday, nothing on the walls and holes in the floor, it’s much harder for learning to take place. Sarawakian school architecture seems not to have changed in the last thirty or forty years, although a growing body of research suggests that both teachers’ and students’ achievement is linked to the buildings in which they work. What to do?

Lack of finances is the oft-cited explanation for crumbling classrooms, but it appears that money can always be found for projects such as ours with which political points can be scored, and for the fountain of 1Malaysia chocolate milk which never seems to run dry. Cynicism aside, I’m not doubting the budgetary constraints at both government and school level, but a more even allocation of whatever meagre budget there is would go a long way towards improving the environment of most schools.

The real business of a school is teaching and learning and this is surely where money needs to be directed. Style is consistently prioritised over substance – in the cultivation of immaculate gardens while classrooms remain unfit for purpose, for example. Of course it’s not realistic to expect interactive whiteboards (or even whiteboards) in every room, but there ought to be sufficient time and money for staff to make attractive, educational decorations for their schools.

Displaying pupils’ work, especially, is motivating and requires almost no effort on the part of teachers, but audible encouragement is needed from the top for teachers to spend less time on, say, testing, and more on creating places where kids are excited to learn.


Perhaps what you’ve learnt about me from this article is that I’m some neo-colonialist busybody who’d do well to go back to England and stop meddling in your education system. I’ve heard it before, and I’d struggle to argue with you at this point.

But the most significant thing I’d say I’ve learnt about myself from my experience here is that I’m a teacher first and a mentor, trainer, whatever else second.

Being an outsider looking in to other people’s classrooms has fuelled my desire to get back inside one like nothing else in the past nine years, which is why I’ve left the project in spite of a deep-seated affection for Sarawak.

I’d like to thank you for having me, apologise for the very little impact I’ve been able to make, and I hope for everyone’s sake that my successor is a vocation mentor with a fondness for chocolate milk.

Laura Phelps is an English language teacher, trainer and materials writer. She worked for the British Council on the English Language Teacher Development Project from 2011-12 in Sarawak, Malaysia, and...

25 replies on “Education in Sarawak: An Outsider Looking In (or Why I Quit My Job)”

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  3. Continued from above:

    5) After form 5, my English was improved via the English RNE class which was intensive English daily for 3 consecutive months. This was prior to A-level.

    6) While in the British university, I found a bit of problems in listening to English speakers there especially the Scottish lecturers. Luckily, most lectures are accompanied by written notes which I can read well and any words that I did not understand, I can refer to a dictionary except one time when one lecturer whose assent I did not cathc very well, lectured on human resource and economics without giving any written notes. This created a problem for me so I had to ask notes from friends. When starting frist year, I did try to improve my English by joining an English class and the English teacher did suggest to find an English girlfriend if we really want to improve our English up to the native-level. I was not handsome so did not manged to get one though. I should get one I think and brought her back home like some of the ministers!

    7) After graduation, when started working in the oil and gas industry back home, only English was spoken in office. All project and contract documents, applicable codes and standards, rules and regulations are in English. Here I realize how lucky I was for being able to join the Rancangan Bersama to study overseas.

    So where are the weaknesses for improvement?

    Is it because English medium was replaced by bahasa completely except the English class? This might have discouraged students o speak English inside and outside class.

    My lower secondary school English teacher did try to force us to speak English by penalizing those who spoke other languages except English while in English 10 cents each time but this did not improve my English a lot or change the culture towards speaking English in daily life.

    I was quite happy when Malaysia implemented the policy to teach Math and Science in English but was dismayed when it removed, so back to square one.

    Recently, I read about SK Ulu Lubai where primary school students can speak English including some parents. This is definitely a good news to me. I wonder how did they manage to do it?

    I am quite happy to know about English native speakers in Sarawak schools like in this KSSR programme. Did they teach or just supervise?

    Knowing the basics of English language at any level of the education seems to be very important before mastering the English language. Do you agree?

  4. Read the article above. My response is as follows if it can hep further the cause at all, otherwise please forget about it.

    I got the worst grade for my English subject which is Grade 4 for PMR and SPM.

    Those in Malaya used to think that Sarawakians can speak English better because the English medium was removed later than in Malaya but this lateness resulted in some or most students got the worst grade for English subject during the test or examination while those in Malay managed to score good results perhaps due to their realization of English importance and the more rapid development and progress in Malaya compared to Sarawak.

    When I managed to join the RB (Rancangan Bersama) or Joint Programme by PSD (Public Service Dept), Petronas, etc. at Centre for Preparatory Education at ITM Shah Alam, we were tested for English proficiency after which I almost failed mine and thus put into among the worst English RNE (Remedial and Enrichment ) class. So I learnt quite a lot from the RNE class to score above average result for the post-RNE class test using the same set of questions. A close friend asked how I manage to score the good result. So replied I just learnt as much as I can. Then pass my IELT above average before starting my degree in UK after passing the A-level. For A level, we started studying Mathematics in English straight away while studying other descriptive subjects like Physics and Chemistry after finishing the RNE class.
    My mum told me that I can only speak and understand English when I was a child because my dad was the manager for a government rubber plantation scheme who was of course educated in English medium.

    Why was my English was poor before the English RNE class?

    Possible reasons could be:

    1) I could not read even bahasa until at the end of primary 4. I started to able to read by reading the bahasa Melayu textbook and I would my chinese friend any words that I could not read eg gua where I started to know how recognize the syllables eg gu and a for gua.

    2) After that, I found it hard to learn English in class because I didn't understand the meaning of the English words so it was quite pointless and meaningless to learn all those grammar in class when the students did not understand what the English teacher said. I remember one trainee teacher from Maktab Perguruan Rajang taught us in primary 6 the English word of Above using a colourful sketch of a bird flying above a tree.

    3) This problem continue into lower secondary school, form 1, 2 & 3. The English teacher was the same person for the 3 years but I could remember he made any intensive attempt to improve our English proficiency.

    4) In form 4, I moved to Tanjong Lobang College in Miri after getting good SRP results and after my form teacher personally help to apply to transfer and was plced into science side. Here the English teacher taught the Communication English for form 4 and 5. Again, the same problem persists ie I did not really understand the basic English from primary school and the English teacher did not also try to remedy the basics of English. When I applied for Shell scholarship, I asked the English teacher to translate for me but she said I should try myself first and I did try and sent my form to get the scholarship. I used to get poor results for English during the term exams. So what to do towards the end of form 5? How to improve my English result in SPM? I bought the Oxford English book (I hope still on sales until today) and read that book myself to self-teach. As a result, I managed to score the highest mark in my class for English during the trial/mock SPM exam. This gave me a bit of confidence for SPM. Finally I got credit 4 for my English subject in SPM. I did the same hardwork tactic to improve results for my additional maths and modern maths by doing pass-year questions which were available upto 10 years back. I used my scholarship money to buy the reference books for the book shops in town. I repeated answering and checking the answers my self a few times in preparing for the trial/mock exams myself a few time. Is this a tried and tested method to score good grades for exams? Now I wonder any other ways to do it?

    Split and to be continued below.

  5. The government of Sarawak has no money? Ask Taib and his family what they have done with the nearly US$2 BILLION robbed from the same people you are working with.

    And you assume that education is the issue rather than an excuse to keep millions of Bumiputera employed/distracted so that they will mindlessly continue voting for the same crocks who keep robbing them and their children of any decent future, and their crony friends continue getting the juicy contracts (paid for by the oil and massive rainforest destruction around you).

    As Jong mentioned above the real issue is a RACIST government that holds onto power through its racist polices, ensuring one race controls all no matter what. So we have the situation where position and power are not due to ability (as in most places) but your RACE. Hence as you correctly pointed out incompetence, stupidity, laziness and out and out criminality is of no issue – your race is. The education system is a microcosm of the whole country. The sad thing is this a MASSIVE recipe for disaster as Jong pointed out and history clearly shows us. British Empire to a certain degree fell due to this rather myopic view of reality (class and race being the issue there) and many of the corrupt, racist, criminal dictatorships of the Middle East went/are going the same way.

    All the current policies are just window dressing, distracting us from the real elephant in the room with regards to Malaysia, a racist government and its racist policies distorting the true potential of its people.

    And I won´t even touch the issue of how the independent countries of Sabah and Sarawak have been raped and colonised to pay for this madness all with the collusion of their leaders (how of course were they allowed to amass such insane wealth?!)

    I too am a mentor, but based in Sabah and completely agree with many of the issues you point out. I work with amazing people and in the same poor desperate and shockingly sad situation you describe (for a country as potentially rich as Sabah – from one school we can see all the gas terminals pumping all the wealth to KL/Putrajaya), Though I work knowing that this madness will end and that ordinary Malaysian will realised the extent to which they have been robbed and abused by their own government and take the decent steps to put them out of power and behind bars where they belong….

    Shame you will not be here to see it…

  6. When you are inside then you know what is really happening in this country. What Laura experienced is just the tip of the iceberg! In actual fact the whole country is in total mess. Just take a look at the civil service (the teaching profession is part of the civil service) More than 90% of the civil servants is from a single race. As long as you are from that particular race you will be in. Intelligence and knowledge doesn't matter. Smart individuals from other racial groups are side lined and totally ignored. So where they go? They leave their country and everything and start life else where. (The main cause of brain drain) So the top key posts are controlled by people from a single racial group, where most are idiots and fools. So this this apartheid country is mostly run by idiots and fools! It's a classical case of "the blind leading the blind" where the country is heading towards the abyss.

  7. Succinctly written, thanks.

    Same issues here in urban Penang, except for issues crumbling schools and fan operating hours.

    I wish those parents rallying for PPSMI would understand that the issue with our education system is more fundamental than the use of English in Science and Maths. I'll support/start?/join a group that rallies for fundamental and committed overhaul of our public education and removes politicisation and racial polarisation.

  8. Grateful thanks everyone for the comments and shares. It means a lot to me that you took the time to read, and I'm in some small measure relieved (if that's the right word) that Malaysians share many of the same concerns. Here's to the future…


    1. Hi Laura,

      I'm from Malaysia and will be pursuing my doctorate in Sydney in May 2013. My research is related to the native speaker mentor programme that you were involved in. Would you mind if I get in touch with you personally via email to get more details regarding the implementation of this programme? I'd be very grateful.

      1. Hi Wendy – I'd be very happy for you to get in touch. You can email me at lauraphelps2(at) Best wishes, Laura

  9. My child studies in an urban school in the klang valley and the issues you mention afflict urban schools as well. And yes, I'm appalled by the mistakes in the standard two English language textbook. And till today I'm clueless on how the new assessment works. If my child hasn't achieved the desirable band, will the system try to help him improve or just continue along its merry way as what's happening now.

  10. Trouble is Sarawak is at the mercy of KL where Education is concerned. Sad to say, our Education policies are politically-connected/controlled. Many of the teachers are where they are because they have no better choice, while those who are qualified and competent have not been given the opportunity to get into the profession. The selection process has to bee done through racial quota and the like for far too long.

    The poor kids have been kept backward by incompetent teachers and non-conducive environment. Parental interference is not a critical problem in most rural schools, although there are some overbearing parents.

    Yes, I agree with most of what Laura has shared.

    Education in Sarawak needs a massive overhaul!

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