Sabah: Moving to the forefront

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With the government pushing ahead with efforts to achieve high-income status by 2020, the need to accelerate education transformation in Sabah, particularly in rural areas, has moved to the forefront of late.

On April 22, in an interview with the official Malaysian news outlet Bernama, Sabah Kadazandusun Murut Welfare and Education Association’s advisor, Latif Kandok, said making such a move was essential to achieving high-performance school status for the state, a key element in the government’s plans for long-term development.

Indeed, Sabah has been trailing other states’ academic performance, registering no high performance schools, known in Malay as SBTs, in 2010. SBTs are schools that show outstanding performance in academic and co-curricular activities and niche areas.

“We’re now moving towards Vision 2020. That means something needs to be done to fast-track education transformation in Sabah,” Kandok said.

As of this February, the federal government said it had spent more than RM1bn ($334m) on improving basic infrastructure in rural Sabah and Sarawak, aimed particularly at providing electricity and clean water for schools. The deputy minister of education, Puad Zakarshi, told the local press that the allocation, a joint effort with the Ministry of Rural and Regional Development, would ensure that all schools in Sabah and Sarawak would be equipped with basic amenities by the end of the year.

Yet while achieving SBT status may still be a way off for Sabah’s schools, the state is performing well when it comes to improving preschool education, a subsector of the Government Transformation Programme’s (GTP) Education National Key Results Area (NKRA). The Education NKRA aims to increase access to basic education and significantly improve student performances nationwide.

In fact, the government says that not only did it meet the 2010 Education NKRA targets for preschool education, but it also had marked success in Sabah and Sarawak. According to the federal Performance Management & Delivery Unit, in 2010, Malaysia’s overall preschool enrolment for children ages 4-plus and 5-plus stood at 72.42%, or 701,144 children. In 2011, the government aims to increase this enrolment to 80%. For Sabah, reaching this goal will involve setting up 220 preschools in 2011 alone. Of the 220 new preschools, 130 have already opened to date.

The deputy director-general of the Department of Community Development, Hassan Amin, has said in interviews with local news outlets that the need for early childhood education in Sabah is overwhelming, and that the new preschools will provide 2500 preschool classes within three years.

In addition, 344 private preschools received government launch grants totalling RM3.44m ($1.15m) at the end of 2010 in an effort to encourage the opening of such facilities, especially in rural areas.

In comments made at the 15th Malaysian Education Summit in April, Azman Amin Hassan, the director-general of the National Unity and Integration Department, said in addition to a RM10,000 ($3334) launching grant for each private preschool, the government would provide training for 7000 preschool teachers. The incentives are meant to assist private sector involvement in preschool education and encourage former teachers to become involved in preschool education.

At the same time, another programme to improve rural education is also being carried out in eastern Sabah by the Federal Land Development Authority (Felda). Felda, in cooperation with local company Pembangunan Samudera Sabah, is providing education and training programmes in maritime and hospitality studies with a view to developing Lahad Datu’s human resources potential.

Unemployment is high in the Lahad Datu area, especially among the children of Felda settlers. To address this issue – as well as support GTP goals – Felda is looking beyond its traditional focus on palm oil, moving ahead with efforts to develop the region’s maritime industry. As part of this, a project to develop tuna fishing off Sabah’s east coast is in the works, bringing in technical and academic staff to provide the necessary specialised skills.

“We want to tap the huge potential that Sabah seas have to offer, in particular for the new generation,” Felda’s director-general, Dzulkifli Abdul Wahab, said at a local graduation ceremony for settler children.

The De Ruyter Maritime Institute from the Netherlands is providing maritime courses and ROC Zeeland, also from the Netherlands, is providing hospitality and tourism training. The programme’s first batch of 689 graduates obtained their Level 1 certificates recently, and Felda is now planning to extend the courses to children in neighbouring villages.

With all the activity going on in its education sector, Sabah should be well positioned to get high marks in its pursuit of the country’s long-term vision. For the state to hit its education goals, the federal government also has a key role to play in creating the right conditions for learning in the state.

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