Reflections on work in Malaysia (Maria Reraki)

Malaysia is a highly multi-cultural country. Based on this, one would expect that a mutlifaceted society as such would be reflected in the way diverse and disabled learners are included and supported within the Malaysian education system.

However, education in Malaysia needs more inclusive developments. From a recent visit my colleagues and I had in the country, we realised that parents, educationalists, organisations, NGOs and individuals are concerned about the way people with disabilities are supported in the Malaysian education system. Although there are some schools that are doing exceptionally well with the implementation of inclusive practice, little is done in the majority of the schools, colleges and Universities and the needs of those with disabilities are not being adequately met. 

What I cannot stop thinking from this visit is the differences I noticed between a government and a private school. Our first day of presentations was at a government school which is one hour drive outside Kuala Lumpur. This is a rather big school with 70 teachers and 750 pupils. Most of the pupils and teachers speak the local language (Bahasa Malay). Some pupils with Special Needs are found in the school, but these are supported by Special Needs teachers usually outside the mainstream classroom. It was also interesting to find out that the learners with Special Needs are also a ‘special unit’ during breaks as they have limited contact with the mainstream learners. However, in the workshop my colleuagues and I did the school management and the teachers showed us that they were eager to learn more about the ways they can support learners with Special Needs in the classroom without having to exclude them from classroom activities. The presentations of the Birmingham team engaged the teachers in an all day workshop on behaviour management, reading difficulties, and video interactive guidance. When we left I had the feeling that the teachers wanted to find out more about the issues we talked about but were hesitant because of the language barrier. Perhaps if we send the slides well in advance next time, the language problems might diminish to allow for us to have more interactive activities with the teachers.

In contrast to the teachers in the government school, the teachers in the private school were all speaking English very well because the language used in the school is also English. I found the inclusive developments in the private school very well-established and the teachers well-informed on Special Needs education. A number of pupils with special needs attend this school: all of which are included and supported in the mainstream classrooms. Additional support is provided where needed. Teachers follow seminars, have easy access to resources and have contributed to the establishment of a rather inclusive and friendly school environment. In the Workshop my colleagues and I did, we felt that the teachers knew a lot about what we were talking about and were highly motivated to learn more.

Another striking difference in these two schools is the background of the teachers. Athough the majority of the teachers in the Government school are Malaysian, the teachers in the private school come from a variety of backgrounds (Brazil, Italy, India, Malaysia). This makes me think on whether this teacher diversity also affects attitudes towards inclusion and ‘different’ learners? Food for thought…

I must mention, however, that when comparing the two schools we should always have in mind that the funding in the Government school is limited; something that has significantly constrained the inclusive developments the teachers and the management want.

During our time in Malaysia we also visited an academy that has immigrant learners at various ages and stages. All the teachers in the school are volunteers and the parents are not paying for their children to attend this school. The students in the academy come from different countries and speak a variety of languages. English is the language used in the academy. The school management is interested in further inclusive developments. The academy’s manager noted that she was not aware of any special needs children. Maybe because these are masked by language and cultural differences. I think we have a lot to contribute to and learn from this school and this does not necessarily need to be SEN specific. 

Apart from school-level visits that gave us an idea about the current educational developments in Malaysia, we also spoke to stakeholders, NGOs, people from the Ministry of Education and parents. It was striking that in one of the Forums we attended, an employee from the Ministry of Education talked about how well the schools are doing on the support of learners with Special Needs in mainstream schools. This was very contradictory to what we had seen by that time in the schools we had visited. What is more, in the same forum, a mother of a child with special needs who was also an activist gave a very inspiring talk about the current situation in the Malaysian education system and how exclusive some school environments can be.

I think that the above contradictory views is an example of the gaps between policy and practice that are apparent in any country’s education system – including the UK. That Forum on inclusion also gave us further ideas about pontential areas of development for the inclusive education system in Malaysia with voices coming from parents, teacher and academics.

It was also interesting to attend a Roundtable on inclusion organised by some organisations in Malaysia that run a number of educational developments in the country. People from various backgrounds talked about educational projects that are implemented in some schools in Malaysia and have the potential to contribute to educational enhancement in schools. However, the talks of some presenters from South Africa also made things interesting as they discussed a number of educational initiatives that take place there. 

Due to my teaching background, I always enjoy talking to parents and learn about their children and their views of inclusion. This happened in one of the social events the Alumni office had organised for us. In this event, a number of parents of children with Special Needs gave us an idea of the current situation and their perspectives on where the system is lacking. It was interesting to see that their children’s needs have empowered those parents as they have taken initiatives to create independent organisations for the support of parents and children (e.g. Association for Down’s syndrome). This showed me the power and the influence parents can have in their children’s education and the bottom-up developments to inclusion that can happen from parents’ attempts.

So, different points of view, different voices and standpoints gave us an idea about what the current situation in Malaysian education is and what can be done next for inclusion to be enhanced. The feedback and the questions my colleagues and I had from the people we came in contact with certainly painted a picture about the areas that need further development but also areas we can learn some lessons from.  

What we did not manage to do in this visit is talk to the agents of inclusive developments, the learners themselves; these are the most important of all voices.

Perhaps next time…


Dr Maria Reraki presenting on identifying and supporting learners with dyslexia and reading difficulties.

Dr Maria Reraki presenting on identifying and supporting learners with dyslexia and reading difficulties.