Malaysia: A Meritocratic Society

A meritocratic society

In comparison with the Malay high school students, a major disadvantage for the Chinese high school students is the non-recognition of their high school certificates by the Malaysian government. As a result, all of the students need to take additional government examinations –Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) and Sijil Tinggi Pelajaran Malaysia (STPM) – to be considered into a public university in Malaysia. Even then, as said, it is not a guarantee for them to get a position in the university. Moreover, the Chinese high schools in Malaysia are private institutions not funded by the government, so the parents have to pay a high amount of tuition fees for their children (I managed to get some subsidizations from the school during my second and third years of study, since my family met the low-income requirement).

Still, every year, tens of thousands of students swarm to get a place in different Chinese high schools in their regions. Foon Yew High School in Johor Bahru is one of these popular high schools. According to what I have heard, the teaching quality is so good in Foon Yew that some overseas universities in Australia, Singapore, China mainland and Taiwan are willing to recognize the graduation certificates of this high school. Due to the limited resources and the high demand, this private high school, as with all other Chinese high schools, requires the applicants to sit for an entrance examination, which is different from the public primary school examinations (UPSR). Out of the thousands of students who have registered for this entrance exam, only about a thousand are accepted each year.

In 2000, I took the entrance examination of Foon Yew High School and managed to squeeze myself into the top 100. In that year, we had twenty-five classes with about fifty students in each class. Six of these classes are the so-called “A-classes.” I was assigned to one of these “A-classes.” Soon, I realized that this was a deeply meritocratic society, where we, like the young and hot-headed warriors unleashed onto an academic battlefield, fought and strived to excel in every subject, in every extra-curriculum activity, and in every competition, just so we could earn enough credits to survive in a new community. We wanted not only to survive at the basement of the ivory tower, but also to climb up to the top of the tower so that we could perhaps get a clearer view of our then fuzzy future. At the end of that year, I came first in my class.

In 2001, on the basis of academic merits, fifty students were picked out by the school to form another A-1 class. I was assigned to this A-1 class. In this year, I began to taste the bitterness of failure. In the first semester, I received my first (and only) failed result in Mathematics. In one assignment of the Chinese lesson, I wrote a commentary on a news report that made a comparison between Sun Yat-sen (the first president and the founding father of the Republic of China) and a Chinese female pop-star. Right now, I remember neither her name nor the content of my commentary. Anyway, my commentary had a disastrous consequence. The Chinese teacher was infuriated that such a comparison could actually be made, and he was even more angry that one of his students cared to write a commentary on that article. He vented one of his most lethal criticisms on my assignment in front of the whole class for the whole lesson (45 minutes), but luckily he did not mention my name. While he was fulminating against the ignorance of my commentary, I just kept staring at my watch, praying that he would not mention my name all of a sudden, and hoping that there was a hole in the ground at that moment so I could just sneak in and hide. Anyway, at the end of the year, I learned from all these failures and mistakes, and managed to remain in the top ten of my class.

In 2002, we, as the third year high school students, had to enter not only one internal test but also two external examinations. The first external examination (UEC-JML) was organized by the United Chinese School Committees’ Association of Malaysia (UCSCAM). Except for the compulsory English and Malay subjects, all other subjects were tested in Chinese. The second external examination was the Malaysian public examination (PMR) organized by the Ministry of Education. Except for the compulsory English subject, all other subjects were tested in Malay. To prepare for two different sets of external examinations in two totally different languages meant a lot of pressure for me. To be honest with you, I was not familiar with the Malay language, and right now I forget almost all my knowledge of Malay. Also, in comparison with the other genius classmates who could be more argumentative, more passionate and more specialized in their favourite subjects, I was more like a “Jack of all trades”. Still, at the end of my third year, with a lot of luck, a lot of help, and a lot of persistence, I came first in the A-1 class, I received straight As in UEC-JML and to my surprise, I also got straight As in PMR.

This third year tested my resolve. In preparation for UEC-JML, we were required to memorize all our textbooks learned from Junior Year 1 to Junior Year 3. These include 6 Mathematics textbooks, 6 Biology textbooks, 6 Physics textbooks, 6 Chemistry textbooks, 6 History textbooks, 6 Geography textbooks, all of which added up to 30. Wait! There were also the compulsory language courses, including Chinese, English and Malay. For each language course, we had 6 textbooks and a set of classical literature. We had to memorize all these books word for word, since some examiners were sneaky enough to take a footnote from the textbooks into an exam paper and asked the students to fill in the blanks. Having barred myself completely from watching any TV programme for one whole year, having taken a shower within 10 minutes every day, having woken up at 5am and gone to bed at  around 12 or 1 am every day, having talked with my family for no more than 10 sentences every day, having timed the consumption of each meal so as to finish it in less than 15 minutes every day, I managed to memorize all the texts books. Word for word. Line for line.

This third year tested my patience. My junior high school concentrated very much on the science subjects. According to my suspicion, there was this unspoken assumption in my society that to excel in science or mathematics meant a guarantee of good results in external examinations, a higher chance of winning scholarships for overseas universities, a brighter future with a lucrative career as a lawyer or a doctor. The trouble was, I had zero interests in anything to do with sciences and mathematics. But I knew that I needed good results in them, if I still wanted to convince the authority that I could have a future. So I made a promise to myself: “If I ever get to go to a university, I will only study the subjects that I like.” Then I started pestering my science and maths teachers and those boys who were good in these subjects, until they taught me all the skills they had ever learned. Ok, maybe this year was a test not of my, but of their patience. 😉

This third year also shaped my future interests. At that time, my class happened to have a very passionate history teacher, who kept telling us many interesting stories from the contemporary world news that were not written in the textbooks (Honestly, I was so sick of memorizing all the textbooks at that time that I hatched a plan to burn all my books after the exams – but then I could not resist the temptation of money and so I ended up selling or giving them away afterwards). Then she would link all these stories back to what had been written in our history textbooks. At that time, I did not understand why we had to learn about the colonization and decolonization of Malaysia, the dynasties in China, the feudalism in Japan, the monarchy of Great Britain, the revolution in France, the renaissance in Italy, the independence of the United States of America, the First and Second World Wars. But, for the first time, I really enjoyed going to a class and was enchanted by a wider world outside my classroom painted by my teacher. She was really knowledgeable and could talk non-stop in high spirits about the history of all these countries. In hindsight, I have to admit that she did not hold very favourable views about the Western countries, but somehow I learned a lot from her lectures.

Anyway, because of my results, I finally won a scholarship, so that I would receive an exemption from tuition fees in the following year. Despite that, the exemption could be put to no use. In 2002, my father received a job offer in Australia. And at the end of that year, my whole family quickly followed him and moved there.

In November 2002, shortly after I had finished all my third year examinations, I went alone to the administration office to arrange for an exmatriculation. My junior high school had a very complete system of dismissal, where the applicants of the dismissal/exmatriculation were usually those who got into serious troubles, those suffered from poor academic performances, and probably those who just did not want to study anymore. “I am here for an exmatriculation,” I told the secretary quietly. I did not know that secretary, but from her annoyed look, I could guess what she was thinking. “Another kid’s in trouble. Why can’t they all behave properly? All these kids should really be dismissed and expelled from the school to save us the troubles!” She might have thought. At that age, little did I care about my physical appearances – my hair looked a bit messy, my face a bit too oily, my shoelaces were not tied properly, my clothes were a bit oversized, etc. She looked at me despicably and demanded coarsely: “Hand me your school report card!” Having looked at the results, she suddenly spoke to me in a wackily sweet and gentle tone. All of a sudden, she became so polite. I was slightly taken aback by her change of attitude, even though this was not the first time I had met people who could change their attitude in just an instant. It will not be the last either. I was confused. Then my mind became clearer. Indeed, this was an “epochal” event climaxed by “a let-there-be-light moment”, in which my young and naive mind began to grasp that our rather fragile human dignity seemed to depend on many little pieces of paper, whether they were certificates, credentials, credit cards, contracts or cash.


Partial view of my UEC-JML. I cannot show the whole of it, since it contains some sensitized information (e.g. my previous national id number), which I prefer not to disclose in a public space. I cherish this result card very much, as getting it has taught me a lot about gain and loss in life.
  • (This is the official website of Foon Yew High School, in Chinese Mandarin. The history of the school can be traced back to 1913).
  • The early history of other Chinese private high schools in Malaysia and Singapore can be glimpsed from the memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore’s founding father). Despite being an English educated man, he sent all his kids to the Chinese (high) schools. At the moment, I have access only to the Chinese versions (they are copies belonging to my dad). But you can also find the English versions of the memoirs, which are entitled: The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew (recording his history from 1923-1965, published in 1998) and From Third World to First: The Singapore Story: 1965-2000 (published in 2000).
Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, Vol.1 (1923-1965)
Vol.2 (1965-2000)
Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, Vol.2 (1965-2000)

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