An Overview of Education in Malaysia

With such a wide range of education choices in Malaysia from schools to curriculums, read this general overview of the education scene to get a better idea of what's on offer.

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Whether you are local or an expatriate, the subject of education is a major concern for all parents. The primary goal here is to ensure that your child receives the best possible education that will equip him or her with the academic, social and practical skills needed to succeed in life – and to do that, the choice of school and curriculum is extremely important.

It is interesting to note that Malaysia has the highest number of students studying in international schools in Southeast Asia, which explains why there are new schools opening here regularly. Trying to narrow down your choice to just one out of the plethora of educational institutions in Malaysia is a daunting task, particularly if you are new to the country.

Here, we help give you a quick overview of your options and lead you to a better understanding of the educational landscape in Malaysia.


Preschool is not mandatory in Malaysia, but the majority of parents will enrol their children in some form of preschool from around the age of three until six as a child’s development progresses very quickly at this age.

Most preschools in Malaysia follow the Montessori method or have some variant of curriculum that incorporates the basic tenets of the Montessori philosophy. However, you will also find other popular early childhood educational philosophies here such as Reggio Emilia and Waldorf.

Blended curriculums that incorporate popular educational approaches like the aforementioned with the school’s own learning philosophy are common as well. Most fit somewhere between the play-based and academic-based ends of the learning spectrum. Objectives of local preschool education may include a basic grasp of the national and vernacular languages as well.

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Public Schools and Universities 

Once a child reaches primary school going age, which is seven for national schools, the cheapest option are the public schools. This is free for all Malaysians, but places are extremely limited for foreign students as local students are naturally given priority.

Public schools are usually divided into national schools (Sekolah Kebangsaan, SK) and vernacular schools (Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan, SJK) which are separated according to the language of instruction.

All public schools follow the national curriculum and Malay and English are compulsory subjects. Malay is generally used as the language of instruction, which may be difficult for foreign students to learn if they do not speak it at home.

Vernacular schools will offer additional instruction in the relevant languages: Chinese for SJK(C) schools and Tamil for SJK (T) schools. The upside is that students will be able to integrate into the local culture much more quickly with constant exposure from a largely local student population.

The Malaysian national curriculum tends to take an exam-oriented approach, with student performance benchmarked by standardised tests that determine everything from what secondary school they go to, whether they study a Science or Arts-based ‘stream’ in upper secondary and what tertiary programmes they can apply for.

Of these tests, the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) taken in Form 5 is the most important as eligibility for scholarships and university programmes is determined based on the results obtained in that examination.

When it comes to tertiary studies, public universities are also government-funded and as a result, the tuition fees are usually much cheaper than private universities. The universities are divided into research and comprehensive universities, with the latter being more broadly-focused, while focused universities concentrate on specific subjects like technical, education, management or defence in particular. Universiti Malaya is the best-ranked of the country’s tertiary institutions and is a prestigious name in the local circuit.

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Private Schools and Universities 

The basic definition of a ‘private school’ is a school that is supported completely by fees instead of being subsidised by the government, which public schools are. Therefore, private schools in Malaysia cover a wide spectrum of schools, including but not limited to religious and independent schools, private primary and secondary schools that follow the national curriculum, and international schools with foreign curriculum.

Religious and Independent Schools 

Religious schools in Malaysia tend to be Islamic religious schools. Some states, such as Johor, mandate that Muslim children must attend these schools in tandem with regular schooling from the ages of six to 12. As a whole, it is not a mandatory education, nor is it usually the primary form of a child’s education.

Chinese independent high schools are popular among the Chinese segment of the population and usually require a child to have had primary schooling in an SJK(C) to build the language foundation. Unlike the public schools, the language of instruction is usually Chinese and students also take different standardised tests, although some schools do offer the public secondary school syllabus to enable students to take the local tests and gain entry into public universities.

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National Curriculum Schools

Another type of private school includes those offering the Malaysian national curriculum, but have the flexibility to decide on how the curriculum is taught. Since the fees are generally higher in these private schools, the infrastructure and facilities tend to be better, and lower student numbers mean that classes are smaller and pupils get more teacher attention. They also use a different set of criteria in recruiting teachers compared to government schools.

International Schools

If your children are older and are already used to studying under another school system, if you do not plan to stay long-term in Malaysia, or if you favour overseas curriculums for their teaching philosophies, then you might consider enrolling your child in an international school. The international school scene is very active right now with at least three new schools slated to open in Malaysia in 2018 alone.

Some of the most popular foreign curriculums offered include American, British, Australian and Canadian curriculums, as well as acclaimed worldwide programmes such as the International Baccalaureate. Fees at international schools are priced in the upper bracket although there are more affordable alternatives more readily available now.

Private education is a significant decision to make and more often than not, will take up a hefty part of your finances. However, what you do get are excellent facilities, well-trained teaching staff, smaller class sizes, school trips, varied extra-curricular activities and the chance to be more involved in your child’s learning journey.


Private universities also derive their income from student fees and incur higher costs, with some of them being satellite campuses of prestigious schools like the University of Nottingham and Monash University. These institutions are associated with world-class standards of education and many who enrol in these universities tend to aim to spend some time studying or working overseas.

Tags: Features, Curriculums, Preschools, Primary, Secondary
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