Don’t confuse Chinese primary schools with UEC recognition

This article lays down bare facts about Chinese primary (SJK(C)), secondary (SMJK) and independent Chinese schools in Malaysia. The differences between the UEC examinations & SJK(C) that’re wrongly lumped together are clearly explained. The author opined that the recognition of the UEC should be a separate issue which should not be confused with the Chinese Malaysian community’s wish for the government to increase the number of Chinese primary schools, especially in new urban areas.

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The politicization of the recognition of Unified Examination Certificate (UEC) has caused a lot of confusion in Malaysia. Although a few prominent people including politicians and those from the Chinese educationists movement had tried to explain the issue and rationale etc., so far no one seems to have realized one glaring error. The convenient lumping of the UEC recognition issue with that of the establishment of 16 new Chinese primary schools (Chinese vernacular primary schools under the national education system, or SJK(C) as these are designated by the Ministry of Education), whether by intent or by accident is rather unfortunate. My key objective in writing this piece is to offer facts and figures to try to explain the two issues which, I have to stress again, are separate. I shall leave it to more learned colleagues to argue about the issue of recognition of the UEC!

UEC and SJK(C): are they different?

For starter, Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan (C) as the name in Malay indicated, is referring to “national type primary schools”. In essence, SJK(C)s are part and parcel of the national education system of Malaysia and are one type of many types of national schools under the purview of the Ministry of Education (MoE). It is worth stressing that SJK(C)s are primary schools catering for children aged 7 to 12. Many of these were established during the British colonial era but all had been incorporated into the national education system by virtue of the Education Act 1961. Students of SJK(C)s take national examination at the Standard 6, just like their counterparts in SJK(T) (Tamil primary schools, where Tamil is the main medium of instruction) and Sekolah Kebangsaan (SK) (where Malay is the main medium of instruction). Hence for all intent and purposes, Year 6 students of all national schools will take the Ujian Pencapaian Sekolah Rendah (UPSR – Primary School Evaluation Test). Their progression to the national secondary schools system will be dependent on their performance at UPSR. Thus all three types of national primary schools (SK, SJK(C), SJK(T)) use the same curriculum but differ only in the medium of instruction, with the SJKs giving heavy emphasis on the national language even though the main medium of instruction is Chinese or Tamil.

UEC or Sijil Perperiksaan Bersepadu in Malay was set up by the Dong Jiao Zhong (an umbrella body of the Chinese educationist movement in Malaysia) in 1975 as a unified examination system for all the Independent Chinese Secondary Schools (ICS) in Malaysia. The UEC caters to ICS students at three levels, Junior Middle (UEC-JML) (equivalent to the Pentaksiran Tingkatan 3 – PT3 examination taken by Form 3 students of the national secondary school system) , Vocational (UEC-V) and Senior Middle (UEC-SML) (pre-university level, equivalent to the MOE’s Matriculation level). Thus UEC examinations are meant for students of the 61 ICS at high school levels. These ICSs draw the bulk of their students from the SJK(C), but the UEC examination system does not have any direct or indirect impact on the teaching, learning, operation or even funding of the SJK(C)s. No SJK(C) student (unless he or she is a genius) will be able to take any of the UEC examination!

In contrast to 61 ICSs, there are 2,411 national secondary schools, of which there are 11 different types. One of these types are the Sekolah Menengah Jenis Kebangsaan (SMJK), or Natonal Type Secondary School in English. There are 81 SMJK which are no different from other national secondary schools except that Chinese language is offered to all students (and is a compulsory subject). Many of these SMJKs were once Chinese high schools during the colonial era but with the Education Act 1961, the Board of Governors of these schools had pragmatically chosen to join the national school system and receive partial funding from the government.

More on SJK(C)

Most of the 1298 SJK(C)s could trace their origins in early 1900s to 1950s when the bulk of the migration from China into Malaya (and Northern Borneo) took place under the British colonial rule. My late father, a Malayan-born Chinese was one of those young teachers who took up the challenge to establish a new Chinese primary school in Cameron Highlands during the early 1950s.

Before the enactment of Education Act 1961, all these Chinese primary schools were funded entirely by the Chinese community. Even today, the bulk of the 1298 SJK(C) are only receiving partial funding from the government. Nevertheless, all SJK(C) are operated directly by the Ministry of Education which appoints (and pays the salaries of) all the academic and support staff. The Board of Governors of partially funded SJK(C) usually owns the land where the school is located and provides for the maintenance of the school’s facilities, staff’s and students’ welfare etc.

Essentially, since the early 1960s, SJK(C)s and SJK(T)s have been an integral part of Malaysia’s national primary education system. Collectively, as shown in Table 1 (the data for this table were obtained from the Ministry of Education’s publication), they constitute 23.43% of all schools in the national system and educate around 22.78% of all primary school students. They also use the same curriculum as the SK schools  with the only exception of having Chinese Mandarin or Tamil as the medium of instructions. For more information of how this author debunks the lies about SJK(C) told by those with dubious intention, please read my article entitles How do you debunk myths about Chinese primary schools in Malaysia?

A figure of around 100,000 non-Chinese Malaysians children are reported to be studying in the SJK(C)s. It is expected that this 19% figure of non-Chinese Malaysian enrollments will continue to grow in the future. The fact that the current Minister of Education, Maszlee Malik sends his children to a SJK(C) is a testament to the benefits of the teaching philosophy of SJK(C)s which, aside from the use of Chinese Mandarin as a core medium of instruction, is the only other difference in characteristics of SJK(C) schools compared to SK schools.

A yardstick measurement of adequacy of schools for the population of Malaysia can easily be made by comparing the % of national enrollment with the % of schools. Ideally these two figures should be very close. For the SK schools, there are a difference of 0.86% which is not a big difference. Yet if we multiply this differential with the number of SK schools, we know that there is still a need to have at least another 50 schools.

Likewise the differential between enrollment % and % of schools for the SJK(C)s is around 3.04%, if we multiply this figure with the total number of SJK(C)s, we can estimate that there is a shortage of close to 40 schools. In reality the issue of the need for more SJK(C)s is further complicated by the fact that there are still many SJK(C)s in the rural areas with very small enrollment. At the same time, SJK(C)s in established townships and many urban areas are bursting at their seams with class sizes of 50 plus students. And in newer townships, there are usually a big demand for SJK(C)s but often with the nearest school located many kilometers away. Hence the issue of “10 + 6” SJK(C)s came forth. 6 of these are SJK(C)s with low enrollment in rural areas that are to be relocated to population centres in urban areas with known demand for SJK(C)s. 10 of these are new SJK(C)s promised by the Najib administration just before the 14th General Election (GE14).

What’re the differences between ICSs and national type secondary Chinese schools?

An excellent article in Malay Mail (published on July 03, 2017) provided a very detailed but clear explanation on the differences between SJK(C), SMJK and ICS schools. Hence this will not be the focus of this article, but a brief review of their key similarities and differences is appropriate.

Both SMJKs and ICSs traditionally rely on the SJK(C) to provide them with new students. Thus a look at the pathways taken by SJK(C) students completing Year 6 will tell us the relative popularity of the two (as discussed in the section below).

While SMJKs, like most of the SJK(C)s are partially funded by the government, ICSs do not receive any operational budget from the government, except for occasional lump sum provisions provided by state governments (of the Pakatan Harapan controlled states prior to GE14) and notable grants provided by the Najib adminstration during the GE14 campaign. ICSs thus have to charge school fees (usually RM200 to 300 per month) and SMJK (and SK) on the other hand are providing free education to students. When I was attached to a Chinese community funded university-college whose board of directors are common with an ICS, I was given to understand that the board of directors had to subsidise to the tune of RM1,500 per student per year. Thus fund raising activities are common for all ICSs where the key source of funding is donation from the Chinese Malaysian community.

Aside from offering the three UEC examinations, many ICSs are also preparing their students to take the  iGCSE examination from the UK. This alone makes many ICSs very affordable alternatives to international schools. This perhaps is evident from Table 2 where we can see a huge drop of UEC-SML takers as student progressed from senior middle two (equivalent to Form 5 at SMK). iGCSE is an entry qualification accepted by most private colleges for pre-university or diploma studies.

In contrast, SMJK and SMK only use national curriculum as prescribed by the MOE and their students will take the PT3 (at Form 3) and SPM national examinations (at Form 5) accordingly. Academically, SMJKs differ from SMKs only in the former having an added subject of Chinese in its regular timetable.

Majority of SJK(C)s students go on to SMK or SMJK schools!

An important fact that has somehow not been mentioned by many commentators of Chinese education in Malaysia is that the majority of the SJK(C) students will continue their secondary education at SMKs or SMJKs. The enrollment figures of all categories of national secondary schools and the Independent Chinese Schools are shown in Table 2.

% of secondary enrollment

If we assume (from Table 1) that in 2017 there were around 85,462 SJK(C) Year 6 students entering secondary schools and (from Table 2) the total enrollment of SMJKs was 108,000, we can estimate that SMJK enrolled around 21,600 of SJK(C) students (or 25.27%) for Form 1. The ICSs collectively took in around 14,481 (or 16.94%) new students for Form 1 in 2017, thus we had around 49,381 students (or 57.78%) who opted for the SMKs.

Possible reasons for preference for SMJK over ICSs

The majority of parents of SJK(C)s students, including this author have been opting for the national secondary schools (either SMK or SMJK) perhaps for the following reasons:

  1. The UEC examinations are not recognized in Malaysia. This means that UEC holders do not have any options to choose any of the state-funded tertiary options such as public universities, polytechnics and state vocational training institutions (unless they also hold appropriate SPM qualifications).
  2. The proximity of SMKs / SMJKs to their homes which reduces the traveling time and cost for the students (and parents).
  3. The medium of instructions for ICSs generally is Chinese Mandarin (although many do offer the English medium option). Parents of some SJK(C) students may worry  about the ability of their children to cope with switching to Chinese Mandarin entirely as the students have been prepared by the SJK(C)s to enter SMK and SMJK with heavy emphasis on getting them a solid foundation in Bahasa Malaysia (Malay).
  4. The national secondary school system is not perfect but it has been adequately producing SPM holders who can cope with college studies, even if the medium of instruction will likely to be English if they opt for private colleges after SPM.
  5. ICSs students often will take SPM as well and many parents feel that this will pose an added burden on their children’s ability to cope with their studies.
  6. The ICSs school fees, though is around RM300 per month, still pose a financial burden for lower income families.

Thus over 83% of all SJK(C) class of Year 6 would generally go on to national secondary schools. In fact (as shown in Table 2) the total number of ICSs is  just 2.53% that of the national secondary schools. Collectively all the ICS’s student population amounts to only 2.46% 4% (a calculation error was detected & rectified) of the national secondary school system. In addition, I think the majority of parents of non-Chinese students of SJK(C)s will opt for SMK or SMJK when their offspring complete their primary schools.


There are no private Chinese primary schools per se in Malaysia. All SJK(C)s are part and parcel of the national primary school system.

SJK(C)s are not to be confused with ICSs which offer the Unified Examination Certificate (some opponents of the UEC could not even get this name correct!). SJK(C)s are primary schools whereas ICSs are secondary schools!

It can be said that ICSs which draw most of its new cohort of students from SJK(C)s will not survive without the SJK(C)S. However, the  SJK(C)s can surely survive with or without the ICSs! This is because the majority of SJK(C)s students (over 83%) will go on to national secondary schools (either SMK or SMJK).

From the data and analysis presented, I hope my readers can see that Independent Chinese Schools cater to many different groups of students. The enrollment of ICSs collectively is less than 2.5% of the entire national secondary school population. The fact that ICSs prepare their academically capable students to take the SPM means that they are placing equal importance to the national language, granted not every student will be fully SPM-competent. The same can also be said about students from SMJKs or even SMKs!

With an enrollment of less than 2.5%  around 4.0% of the national secondary school system, to say that the ICSs pose a threat to national unity, we will need to reconcile the fact that there are over 100 international schools in Malaysia with a collective enrollment of around 62,000, and around 40,000 being Malaysians. None of these offer courses as close to the national curriculum as the ICSs but all having their students’ qualifications recognized by Malaysia.

To adequately prepare their students to take the SPM examination, it is not surprising that the UEC curriculum of the ICSs indeed covers sufficient similar grounds as that of the national secondary schools.

In addition, there are many unregulated  iGCSE learning centres that function more or less like secondary schools. These also do not offer any courses akin to the national curriculum compared to the ICSs. Why are these centres and the 100 international schools do not “pose-a-threat-to-national-unity” but ICS’s UEC recognition do begs a clear answer from those who has come up with this line of argument.


Mushrooming of private schooling options in Malaysia, what are the pitfalls?

With the much longer duration of stay compared to college students and that the greater impact of early education on a person’s development, it is vital that children, especially those enrolled in learning centres outside the purview of the Ministry of Education, be given better consumer protection. Hence tighter governance of these learning centres  is badly needed.

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My article on private school education in Malaysia has just been published in Feb 2018 edition of the Selangor Journal. In this article I posed a few considerations that Malaysian parents of school-going kids must think through if they’re contemplating on “going private” and opined that “more choices need not necessarily lead to better options”


The difference in governance between school and college sectors

I think because historically there have been a multitude of political implications due to policies on higher education, this sector is very tightly controlled by the government where there are six notable Acts of Parliament governing the industry, namely:

  • The Private Higher Educational Institutions Act 1996 (ACT 555 which has been amended a few times with the latest version being published since Dec 01, 2015);
  • The Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 (latest revision: 2012);
  • The Malaysian Qualifications Agency Act 2007 (latest revision: 2017);
  • The National Council For Higher Education Act 1996 (latest revision: 2006);
  • The Educational Institutions (Discipline) Act 1976 (latest revision: 2006); and
  • The Perbadanan Tabung Pendidikan Tinggi Nasional Act 1997 (latest revision: 2006).

In contrast, after an extensive search of the website of the Attorney General’s Chamber of Malaysia, I could really just find the Education Act 1996 (latest revision: 2012) which governs the entire pre-school, primary to secondary school sectors.

Tighter control over private schooling?

The proliferation of private schooling options over the last five years has resulted in Malaysia having 423 such institutions under the purview of the Ministry of Education. I think the governance of these 423 institutions is well set out in the Education Act 1996 and the many guidelines etc. that have been developed over the years. It is the mushrooming of homeschooling centres and tuition centres offering foreign secondary school curriculum that seem to escape the radar of the power that be.

Even for the higher education sector which has six laws governing it, there were many notable instances of the consumers (parents and students) being short changed. Thus for a sector like the homeschooling and iGCSE tuition centres that has been very loosely governed, in my humble opinion, there will be cases of the consumers getting a raw deal soon.

Longer duration of stay of the schooling sector

Higher education players typically have their students studying with them for between 2.5 to 5 years and their students are technically young adults, most of whom are aged 18 and above pursuing diploma (2.5 years in duration), pre-university (1 to 1.5 years in duration) and degree (3 – 4 years in duration). As young adults, college students are much better than their younger counterparts at schools to fend for themselves and to know their rights and obligations of the institutions of higher learning that they are enrolled in.

In contrast children will receive typically two years of preschool education, six years of primary education and at least five years of secondary education, making a typical duration of stay in the private schooling institutions of 13 years, that is 2.5 to over 5 times the duration of stay at the higher education sector.

Hence with the much longer duration of stay and that the greater impact of early education on a person’s development, it is vital that children, especially those enrolled in learning centres outside the purview of the Ministry of Education, be given better consumer protection. Thus higher rigour in governance of such private homeschooling centres should be considered by the power that be. Unlike physical goods, you just cannot undone or “return” inappropriate schooling received!

[You can get a hardcopy at selected Giant Hypermarkets and the town council office (I couldn’t get hold of a copy as yet!). But if you want to read it now, you can download a copy here: ]