High school students wear face masks in a classroom on the first day after schools reopened following restrictions to halt the spread of Covid-19 in Kuala Lumpur on June 24, 2020. There are more than 10,000 schools in Malaysia, of which Christian churches run 424 that serve just 4 percent of the total student enrolment, according to a 2021 report by the Federation of Christian Mission Schools Malaysia. (Photo: AFP)

By Vanitha Nadaraj

Sep 14 2023

The glory days of mission schools in Malaysia have long gone. Christian institutions that produced generations of Malaysian movers and shakers are either close to death or heading there. They no longer offer quality education, which once was the backbone of Malaysia’s development, and are now struggling.

There are more than 10,000 schools in Malaysia, of which Christian churches run just 424. Christian schools, also called mission schools, have fewer than 200,000 students and serve only 4 percent of the total student enrolment, according to a 2021 report by the Federation of Christian Mission Schools Malaysia (FCMSM).

Just before World War II, mission schools accounted for about 78 percent of Malaysia’s total student enrolment.

“It is tempting to let mission schools die a slow death through benign neglect,” the federation said in a written response to UCA News. 

Christian Churches in Malaysia “are doing their best under very challenging circumstances to enable the remaining mission schools to continue to be a valuable part of the national education system,” the federation said.

The federation represents all the 25 mission authorities in Malaysia, who own the mission schools, including Catholic, Methodist, Protestant, and Anglican dioceses and religious orders.

“The years after independence saw them progressively losing authority in their schools”

The first mission school was set up more than 200 years ago and the numbers grew fast. They were mainly in urban areas largely populated by ethnic Chinese and Indians who saw them as the gateway to a better life. Accessibility was an issue for rural area folk who were mainly Malays.

This racial mix made some believe that colonial education caused socioeconomic differences between races. The schools were also accused of promoting foreign Christian values and ignoring native values. This made many suspicious of missionaries.

Before independence, mission schools were allowed to be set up and administered by the mission authorities and they used an international curriculum. The years after independence saw them progressively losing authority in their schools. The schools came under the government in the 1970s.

The language of instruction for English-medium mission schools was changed to Malay. Staff appointments, student admission, school syllabus, and the use of the school buildings and facilities came under the purview of the education ministry.

Mission schools are now run by a board of governors and one of the few liberties left is that they can appoint their own principals.

Mission schools are partially funded by the government where they get a budget allocation that is barely enough to pay utility bills and upkeep. Funds are hard to get for major repairs needed by these schools, many of which are more than 100 years old.

“Mission schools have had no special department in the ministry or specially appointed officer to look after their affairs. Neither do Mission Authorities have any political influence because they have stayed away from any political involvement. Mission schools often became silent victims of educational policies detrimental to their interests,” said Yap in his report.

The force of Islamisation in education was hard to hold back. “Islamisation programs will continue to be infused into the formal and informal curriculum,” said the report.

“Such trends will be very difficult to reverse and ultimately there will be no rational reason for mission authorities to hold out with regards to mission schools becoming more and more Islamic in character. A continuing Christian presence in mission schools will no longer be justifiable or viable,” it added.

Then there is the issue of a shrinking number of Christian teachers.

“Schools have had to tussle with developers or government officials to hold on to their land”

Yap observed that since the 1980s, many young Christian people have avoided joining the teaching profession because of the opportunities to join other professions that are more glamorous or financially rewarding.

Nga Johnson, a retired mission school principal said the Christian community also failed in encouraging young people to see teaching as a call to serve God. Most Christian Fellowship or Young Catholic Students or Boys Brigade groups in mission schools have been closed down because there is no teacher to run them, she said.

Almost all mission schools are on prime urban land on government lease, and schools have had to tussle with developers or government officials to hold on to their land. Many schools have lost the battle and one almost did two years ago but public pressure forced the government to allow the school to renew its land lease.

Most schools have been on long leases of 60 years or so. Malaysia’s Land Acquisition Act empowers the government to take over the land when the long leases expire. Under this Act, the government can compulsorily acquire any piece of land.

The other problem is that of waning student enrolment. It is more convenient for parents to enroll their children in schools built in their housing areas than to drive through traffic-choked city centers where most mission schools are.

Malaysia’s oldest all-girls school, Penang’s Convent Light Street, closed down recently after years of shrinking student enrolment and the property was returned to the landowners, the Infant Jesus Sisters.

The nuns now plan to run it as a private school offering an international curriculum.

This seems like the only viable solution for mission schools — turning them into private schools and broadening one’s own perspectives to explore a symbiotic relationship with a globalized society. – UCA News

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.