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Malaysia's hopes of becoming high-tech nation still distant amid high failure rate in maths

Experts cite the lack of exams and motivation as well as a problematic curriculum.

4 minute read
Experts who are concerned about the high failure rate in maths say the subject is crucial to train students' logical thinking, and not merely to prepare them for studying science and medicine.
Experts who are concerned about the high failure rate in maths say the subject is crucial to train students' logical thinking, and not merely to prepare them for studying science and medicine.

Experts have warned that Malaysia's ambition of becoming a high-income and technologically advanced nation could be hampered by the high failure rate in maths, shown in the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) 2023 results released last month.

The results showed that 85,000 or about 23% of students failed maths, a number similar to that of the previous year's SPM results where about 90,000 had failed.

The education ministry said mathematics remained the subject which the most students failed.

This gives cause for concern about their future at university and, ultimately, in the job market as students who want to study science at university must achieve at least an "honours" or C.

A human capital study conducted in 2012 found that Malaysia would need eight million workers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, by 2050.

Yunus Yasin, who heads an organisation that brings together educators, scientists and industry experts to encourage youths to excel in science, said almost all fields require mathematics and science fundamentals, especially computing, programming, big data and artificial intelligence (AI).

"People think of mathematics as a subject. But in reality, mathematics is a way of thinking logically," Yunus, president of the Association of Science, Technology & Innovation, told MalaysiaNow.

He said the government needed to mobilise its resources to reverse the trend of maths dropouts among students.

He also spoke of a shortage in local skilled labour, which he said was prompting companies to employ foreigners.

He gave the example of Intel in Penang, where he said the US technology company was hiring Filipino engineers because of a lack of local expertise.

"The demand for these skilled workers is high and companies are willing to pay well, so we need to plan now," he said.

"It will take at least three to four years for the failure trend to be reversed."

Education expert Anuar Ahmad said the concerns about maths were not just about those who failed the subject but also those who scored poorly, adding that about 190,000 students scored D and E grades in SPM.

"They do not have an adequate command of the basics of maths. For example, many primary school students are still weak in arithmetic. When they get to Form One, they lack the motivation to learn maths because their fundamentals are weak," Anuar, from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, told MalaysiaNow.

Last year, 373,255 students sat for the SPM examination, of which 11,713 scored As in all subjects.

SPM_20230608_mnowA total of 119,393 students, or 32%, failed at least one subject.

Around 20,000 students failed either history or science, while 40,000 flunked English.

Bahasa Melayu had the lowest failure rate at 9,306.

Othman Talib from UCSI University said the curriculum in schools was not tailored to the students and that some subjects were introduced too early.

He agreed that students are also apathetic and lack motivation.

"This leads to students who have not yet mastered the 3Ms dropping out of class. Also, the one-textbook teaching style makes the approach static," he said.

He added that the pressure students face in the early stages contributes to them losing interest in maths.

Othman said the national curriculum had too many subjects, making it impossible for those who do not have a solid foundation to learn with workbooks and special maths activities.

He added that continuous dropouts would lead to a negative attitude towards the subject.

Ahmad Ismail, who heads the Malaysian Academic Association Congress, said the causes of students' failure in mathematics must be investigated, taking into account the curriculum, learning and teaching materials, assessment methods and examination questions.

"Learning and teaching materials for maths should be planned from Form One to promote interest and knowledge in maths.

"Students may not be interested in maths because they do not see the need for it," he said, citing the teaching methods, curriculum and monitoring as well. 

According to Ahmad, Malaysian students still have a preference for STEM.

But he said many only see it as important for certain fields such as medicine and engineering.

"In today's development of digital technology, maths is crucial. Students need to be educated about the importance of maths in life and careers, and we need to revise the curriculum and the approach to learning and teaching," he added.

Anuar meanwhile said the abolition of the Primary School Achievement Test (UPSR) and Form Three Assessment (PT3) meant that there was no longer a "filtering system" to check students' abilities before they enter Form One or Form Four.

UPSR was abolished in 2021 and PT3 the following year.

"These tests allowed parents and teachers to take remedial action for weak students in maths. Now we are relying on classroom-based assessments (PBDs), where there are problems with implementation," says Anuar.

"How are teachers supposed to implement PBD when there are 45 students in a class?"