Private schooling getting popular

loading Teacher and students at POWIIS. Small groups encourage good pastoral care.

With a system that empowers students, more and more Malaysians are putting their children in international schools.

International schools are educational institutions that use international curricula such as the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE). These schools normally employ English as the language of instruction, and have traditionally catered to expatriates living in Malaysia.

When the 40% cap on the number of local students allowed to enrol was lifted in 2012, the gates were opened for Malaysians to send their children for an international education without having to send them overseas. This was a huge factor in the doubling of international schools in Malaysia over the past five years – from 57 to 128, according to the International School Consultancy Group1. Obviously, the growth of international schools cannot simply be accounted for by the whimsical hand of the free market. Rather, the government always plays an immense role, through deregulation and policy changes, for example. According to a report by Brighton Education Group, “The Malaysian government has been a significant catalyst behind the growth of the international and private school market here2.” One of the initiatives under the Economic Transformation Programme launched in 2010 was called “Ramp up of International Schools”. This was followed by the implementation of numerous businessfriendly policies which encouraged foreign companies to set up international schools locally.

Dedicated and specialist teachers at POWIIS.

In 2012, ownership of international schools was completely liberalised, with up to 100% of foreign ownership for international schools allowed3. At the same time, significant tax incentives were put into place. International schools could enjoy an income tax exemption of 70% for five years, or an Investment Tax Allowance of 100% on qualifying capital expenditure over five years4. In addition, the government, through publicity campaigns in key target markets, has been actively encouraging overseas students to enrol in our international schools. These policies have allowed the Performance Management and Delivery Unit (Pemandu) to comfortably surpass their target of 87 international schools being set up by 2020.

Quality education

One of the schools that were established during this period was the Prince of Wales Island International School (POWIIS). This school is part of BOTANICA C.T, a 300-acre garden township development situated in Balik Pulau, Penang. “One reason (we started) was to complement the development,” said Elysia Ong, CEO of POWIIS. “The other reason was so that the owners of the school’s company could diversify into an industry (for which they have a) personal passion.” Course fees at POWIIS are about RM13,000 per term, which is comparable to other international schools in Penang.

Educating a child from Year 7 to Year 13 will cost parents over RM280,000. So why would parents choose to make an investment of this magnitude? Ong emphasised the school’s pedagogical approach and teacher quality. “(We don’t use) a spoon-feeding approach, but are looking to educate the individual as a whole – to work on soft skills with extracurricular activities – in order to build their confidence and encourage them to think outside the box, with an active, exploratory mind,” she said. “Our teaching staff encourage students to think for themselves with a lot of practical work and use different techniques in terms of teaching.”

Focus and engagement in lessons is encouraged.

This concurs with the experience of former international school student Sheau Yun Lim, who is currently studying at Yale University. Lim cited creativity in education, caring teachers and meaningful extracurricular activities as among the benefits of an international school education. “I felt incredibly empowered in an environment where I was given a lot of agency to do what I wanted. In other words, I was challenged to craft a world I wanted to exist in,” she says.

The benefits described above resonate with my experience as a public school teacher. Education which empowers students rather than stifles them with rote memorisation is a primary pedagogical goal, but this is hard to carry out in overcrowded classrooms. On top of that, facilities and infrastructure available to students are undeniably different between the two systems: students at POWIIS are equipped with a personal Dell laptop; the combination of having a more stimulating educational environment while reaping the social and cultural capital of attending an international school undoubtedly promises tremendous benefits. “Attending an international school definitely gave me a very strong foundation when applying to universities, and I’m really not sure if I would be at Yale today if it were not for my former school,” admits Lim.

The impact of international schools

While international schools are a clear benefit for those able to afford them, their impact on society as a whole is a complex matter. One negative outcome which can arise is their exacerbation of social stratification by further enriching an already exclusive segment of society.

This problem is acknowledged in International Schools: Growth and Influence, published by Unesco: International Institute for Educational Planning: “It has to be recognised, however, that such a permissive approach (with international schools) may also lead to widening gaps between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ in that society, with inequalities of opportunity being exacerbated by the different forms of education available to those who can and those who cannot afford to pay... to the detriment of the national school system5”.

Another potential negative impact of international schooling is the students themselves. Students who attend international schools are typically drawn from a small minority of high income households, with limited to no interaction with peers from the wider community. This can have serious repercussions in terms of personal development. While Ong acknowledged that this was a potential issue, she said that the management of this issue would very much depend on the kind of exposure the school provides for its students. “(At POWIIS), we work with many organisations on the island as part of our community service programme to give students a wider interaction with society. We also work very closely with Lifebridge, a refugee school for children from Myanmar on the mainland and most recently have raised funds within the school to assist local lessprivileged students in Balik Pulau with school supplies and uniforms as part of our Christmas Giving Programme.”

Weighing the odds

Extracurricular activities encourage competition at the highest level and excellence in music and drama.

The tension between the desire for equitable social outcomes and a society committed to free choice and a market economy is not one that can be easily resolved. While community service programmes are positive experiences, there is a need for interaction between international school students and the wider community to be more spontaneous and less formal. To be sure, some international schools do try to diversify their student populations in terms of social class and race by expanding scholarship programmes while encouraging students to think critically about their social backgrounds.

Extracurricular activities encourage competition at the highest level and excellence in music and drama.

Finally, the legitimate grievances that many middle income families have against public schooling – from classroom sizes to Englishlanguage instruction – should be seriously considered by the government.

Schools are the best levelling mechanism that society has and should, therefore, be used as such as far as possible.

Front facade of POWIIS.

1Anne Keeling, International Schools Market reaches 8,000 schools, November 2015 (URL:

2Christopher Bell and William Citrin, Expanding Horizons: The International School Industry in Malaysia (URL: www.educationdestinationmalaysia. com/expanding-horizons-the-international-schoolindustry- in-malaysia/).

3Economic Transformation Programme, Liberalizations of Services Subsectors, November 2012 (URL:

4Malaysian Investment Development Authority, Incentives in Services Sectors, (

5Mary Hayden & Jeff Thompson, International Schools: Growth and Influence, 2008, p.84 (URL:

Jonathan Yong Tienxhi spent two years teaching in a Malaysian public school as part of the Teach for Malaysia Fellowship, and is interested in the sociology of education and inequality. He graduated from the University of Reading with an LLB Law Degree.

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