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.


Was Tun Tan Siew Sin being pragmatic on Merdeka University?

A comment was made by Tun Tan Siew Sin in 1969 relating to the issue of Merdeka University (MU), “It is easier for hell to freeze than the Merdeka University to be established in this country.” He received a lot of negative feedback for his comment. MCA subsequently fared badly in the General Election of 1969. On hindsight, was Tun Tan Siew Sin just being pragmatic? 48 years on who would have thought that Malaysia of today can have around 40% of her youths enrolled in tertiary institutions, over 150,000 international students and indeed is the 9th ranked country for higher education! And hell need not freeze over for all these to be attained too!

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An article in Mar 05, 2017 edition of the Chinese press, Oriental Daily entitled, “Ong Ka Chuan laments on injustice to Tan Siew Sin” [黄家泉为敦陈修信打抱不平]  caught this author’s eye. It was related to a comment made by Tun Tan Siew Sin in 1969 relating to the issue of Merdeka University (MU), “It is easier for hell to freeze than the Merdeka University to be established in this country.” Back then, Tun Tan Siew Sin, the leader of the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), the component party of the ruling Government of Malaysia received a lot of negative feedback for his comment. MCA subsequently fared badly in the General Election of 1969. But hindsight is always 20/20 as they say. Today if we take an objective look at the subject matter, we might have a different conclusion or at least acknowledge the differing viewpoint.

The Merdeka University saga was played out for close to fifteen years from 1968 when the idea of Mederka University was mooted by the Chinese educationist movement till July 02, 1982 when the Federal Court decided against the case of MU. The advocates of MU wanted to establish a private university which would use Chinese as the core medium of instruction.

Briefly, the following general grounds were given by the Federal court judges for their decision:

(a) that the establishment of MU would violate article 152 of the Federal Constitution;

(b) that any university – whether public or privately sponsored – established under the Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 (UUCA) is a public authority and thus MU which would use Chinese as the core medium of instruction would be, if allowed to establish, in violation of UUCA.

While contemplating writing this article, this author had a long discussion on this matter with his long time friend and fellow learner, TPK who is more learned than this author in the area of the history of the Chinese educationist movement. TPK said these wise words, “历史事件放在不同的时代背景有不同的解读和意义” [historical event, if placed under different settings and era would have a different interpretation and meaning]. Although, in the writing of this article, this author has tried his best to stick to “”what has happened” and did not analyze “what could have happened”, some degree of expressing one’s own opinion especially in interpretation of facts and information that could be a bit fuzzy, is inevitable. I shall leave it to my readers to decide on whether they agree with my interpretation on the issue of Merdeka University or other wise!

For those who wish to learn more about the MU saga, Dr. Ang Meng Chee’s PhD thesis (in English) and Professor Tsau Shu Yao’s paper (in Chinese) provide excellent insights.

Basically the MU advocates who were mainly from the Chinese educationist movement wanted to set up a university to cater to the needs of Chinese Malaysians in the sixty independent Chinese secondary schools (ICS) who did not (still do not) follow the national curriculum. As such, unless these ICS students also present the Malaysia Certificate in Education (MCE) and the Higher School Certificate (HSC) [both MCE and HSC used mainly English as the medium of instructions which was replaced with Bahasa Malaysia for those, including this author, who entered Form One in 1976. In 1980 Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia which is conducted solely in Bahasa Malaysia replaced the MCE], they would not be eligible to enter public universities in Malaysia. Thus traditionally, ICS students who would usually only take their own Unified Examination Certificate (UEC – which is conducted in Chinese and later in English as well,  is the equivalent to the HSC) would need to leave Malaysia in search of tertiary education, with Singapore and Taiwan being the main beneficiaries of the talents of the ICS since the early 1960s.

It is worth noting that during the 1970s to 80s (and it is still true today), the majority of Chinese Malaysians would go to national or national-type secondary schools where both types of schools offered the national curriculum. In addition, in the era of the 1960s to early 1980s, the majority of Chinese Malaysians (I would offer a guess that this constituted about 60% on average of this group of people) simply were not Chinese educated. This meant that they did not go to Chinese primary schools and thus do not read or write Chinese. Even many who did go to Chinese primary schools would not have taken Chinese language as a subject at lower secondary or at MCE / SPM level. Hence during the saga of MU, the majority of Chinese Malaysians would not have qualified to enter it if the core language of instruction was Chinese. Even this author, who learned Chinese up to upper secondary level (and hold a Grade B in Chinese at GCE “O” level) would find it challenging to study at university level if the medium of instruction is solely in Chinese. Although some of the Chinese educationist leaders proposed that MU should adopt a multi-languages approach to the delivery of teaching and learning, the final decision made by the MU advocates was for the proposed university to have Chinese as the core medium of instruction.

This author was privileged to be invited to deliver a public lecture at Tunghai University, Taiwan on July 28, 2016 where he gave two key reasons for MU being a gallant but failed initiative.

  1. MU advocating the use of Chinese as the core medium of instruction.:
    MU as an initiative was overly ambitious. By stating that MU would have Chinese as its core medium of instruction, about 60% of Chinese Malaysians who were not conversant in the language would not be able to enter MU. Thus the support from the “English educated” Chinese Malaysians would have been hard to come by. The judgment of the Federal Court in 1982 put paid to the use of Chinese language as the main medium of instruction as this would have violated article 152 of the Federal Constitution.
  2. The rise of Malay nationalism and increasingly politicization of education post May 13, 1969:
    As we have seen in the Federal Court judgement, to allow MU to be established both the Federal Constitution and the Universities and University Colleges Act would need to be amended. While number wise, the sitting government had more than the two-third majority to table the required amendments, in reality, it would be a political suicide for any ruling politician, especially those from the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) to vote for such sensitive amendments in light of the rising Malay nationalism and the push by the government to the use of Bahasa Malaysia as the sole medium of instructions at public institutions of higher learning.

The two key reasons above, on hindsight, showed the pragmatism of Tun Tan Siew Sin in his statement in 1969 which caused him so much reputational damage at that time. In reality in the Malaysia of 1969, it would have been really impossible to have a private university, let alone one which would use Chinese as the core medium of instruction.

In 1979,  this author and a bunch of friends asked a very learned secondary school senior teachers (who has now passed on) who belonged to the 60% Chinese (that is, he was not Chinese educated) on his take on the Merdeka University saga. Here is what this author remembers educationist, Mr. SC said: “If the intention of the advocates of MU was to create more seats at universities for Chinese Malaysians in the face of increasingly unbalanced admission quota, this people should have approached the issue differently,” Mr. SC went on to tell us what he thought was a better strategy. The MU advocates should have, first asked the Government to set up more universities. This would have created more seats for Chinese Malaysians even with the admission quota. However, the Government might have said that financially it would not be in the position to do so. The MU advocates should then offer to pay for the setting up of a new university which would mirror the academic, organizational structure and governance of either University Malaya or Universiti Sains Malaysia, using the same language of instruction but with one key proviso, that its admission would be solely based on merits. It would, according to the very learned Mr. SC, be very difficult for the Government to reject this idea. For good measure, the MU advocates could propose to the Government that they would want to have a Faculty of Chinese to promote the learning and growth of the Chinese language proficiency of Malaysians. This opined Mr. SC would not have bound the hands of the politicians and would not have MU violated article 152 of the Constitution. Most importantly, more Chinese Malaysians would have seats at universities.

It took another fourteen years for what Mr. SC advocated to become reality when a new act, ACT 555 (Private Higher Institutional Act) was enacted where private colleges and private universities were allowed to offer diploma and degree programmes of one form or another. That was the beginning of the boom phase of Malaysia’s private higher education industry which today number 495 institutions, with 20 public universities, 36 polytechnics and 20 other state-funded institutions making around 571 tertiary institutions of higher learning offering diploma and degree courses. With the enactment of ACT 555, the Government also allowed the private colleges and private universities / university-colleges to take in students from ICS offering UEC as an entrance qualification thus providing a local route for ICS students since 1996. ACT 555 also made provision for private institutions of higher learning to apply to the relevant Government department in the Ministry of Education to use English and Arabic as the core medium of instruction. However for the use of any other languages, a private college / university would need the specific approval of the Minister of Education.
[In 2004, the Government of Malaysia seeing the importance of the higher education sector, split off the higher education portion from the Ministry of Education to form a new ministry, the Ministry of Higher education. Aside from a short period between 2013 – 2015 where the two ministries were re-merged, the Ministry of Higher Education governs the entire higher education sector of the country]

In addition, in the aftermath of the Merdeka University saga, three Chinese Malaysian community established colleges were approved by the Government. These three institutions were formed between 1996 and 1999, where each has its own faculty of Chinese, thus providing additional seats for those who wish to learn Chinese at university level. Today, two of these institutions, namely Southern University College and New Era University College have attained university-college status in 2012 and 2017 respectively. Han Chiang University College of Communication, where this author served a stint as its Principal & designated Vice-Chancellor though  which was granted and established as a university-college in 2014, is still working on the requirements for registration of Han Chiang University College at present and attained full registration on Nov 03, 2017. These three institutions collectively are often viewed by many in the Chinese educationist movement as the “phoenixes” of the demised Merdeka University and that of the original but now defunct Nanyang University founded in Singapore in 1956 by the Chinese communities of Malaysia and Singapore which was restructured as the Nanyang Technological University by the Singapore Government in 1980.

More significantly, the MCA,  in light of the sentiment of their supporters drawn mainly from Chinese Malaysians did manage to extract a major concession from the Government in the form of Tunku Abdul Rahaman College which was set up in 1969 and attained university-college status in 2013 (TAR-UC). In addition, the Government also allowed the MCA to set up a full-fledged university, University Tunku Abdul Rahaman (UTAR)  in 2002 where an Institute of Chinese Studies was approved to be established offering Chinese studies at both bachelor’s and Master’s levels. Today, TAR-UC has six campuses across Malaysia with 28,000 students while UTAR has three campuses educating 26,000 students.

Although the advocates of MU did not achieve their aim of establishing a fully private university with Chinese as the core medium of instruction, it will be unfair to deny their place in history as the catalyst that started the entire private higher education industry in Malaysia.

Today, with so many seats in Malaysian private colleges and universities chasing the ever decreasing pool of local talents, academically qualified Chinese Malaysians will no longer be denied a chance of studying at college level. The extension of the provision of funding by the National Higher Education Fund (PTPTN) to students of private colleges and universities in 1999 also helped to finance the studies of many Chinese Malaysians at private institutions of higher learning thus removing another major hurdle for any Malaysian seeking higher education at private colleges and universities..

It is the humble opinion of this author that without the struggle and advocacy of the Chinese educationist movement of the 1960s to 1980s, the private higher education sector in Malaysia which today educate about 45% of young Malaysians, would not have flourished from the mid 1990s to mid 2000s and matured to the level of today.

With the seemingly hostile environment for the establishment of any private institutions of higher learning in 1969, who would have thought that Malaysia of today can have around 40% of her youths enrolled in tertiary institutions. Furthermore, Malaysia is also home to over 150,000 international students and indeed is the 9th ranked country for higher education! And hell need not freeze over for all these to be attained too!