Making room for the poor in government residential schools

  • Letters
  • Saturday, 12 Jan 2019

THE Education Ministry (MOE) recently announced their renewed commitment to the founding spirit of fully residential schools or sekolah berasrama penuh (SBP) as a mechanism to provide quality education and to counterbalance the socio-economic barriers faced by students from the B40 (lower income) strata in society.

This reflects the MOE’s commitment to equity as stated in the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 which targets “to halve the current urban-rural, socio-economic, and gender achievement gaps by 2020”.

For 2019, 52% of students enrolling in SBPs are from the B40 bracket.

The creation of SBP in its earliest forms predates Malaysian independence.

Malay College Kuala Kangsar, for example, was established through the patronage of Malay royals in order to produce Malay elites who could be prepared for civil service, and eventually take over from colonial rulers.

Subsequent SBPs were created in this mould, with the explicit intent to provide opportunities for rural students to pursue a quality science education, as highlighted in the Second Malaysia Plan.

Over time, SBPs became the breeding ground and repository of privilege for the upper and middle classes, at the expense of the disadvantaged.

This phenomenon is indicative of neocolonialism, which the social justice scholar Penny Enslin characterises as the reproduction of economic and political exploitation by a new breed of actors in the absence of previous colonial rulers.

The MOE’s move to reclaim the spirit of SBP should therefore be perceived as an attempt to rectify a socio-economic imbalance, shake up the status quo, and hopefully lead to a more equitable society in the long run.

However, there is concern among the Malay middle class that the move could jeopardise their children’s educaton.

Many believe that so long as their children work hard and produce the grades required, they deserve to be rewarded with SBP admission, as has been the case all this while.

They want meritocracy as promised by the government.

This viewpoint is symptomatic of a fervent belief in the myth of meritocracy.

The legal scholar Lani Guinier remarks that “what we’re calling individual talent is actually a function of that individual’s social position or opportunities gained by virtue of family and ancestry”.

Recognising the privilege we hold is a necessary step in realising and acknowledging others’ scarcity of it, and signals a collective commitment to a more equitable society.

This requires those in the upper and middle echelons of society to relinquish their privilege for the sake of the disadvantaged, and for collective wellbeing.

More broadly, the MOE’s commitment to equity and social justice through SBP admission of the B40 must cut across all ethnic groups.

In Malaysia Baru, it is also time for our SBPs to reflect Malaysian society, thereby embodying equity in the truest sense.


PhD student in Education and Clarendon-New College Scholar,

Oxford University

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Opinion , residential schools


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