As Malaysia strives to achieve developed-nation status by 2020, the education sector is undergoing detailed improvement and development. Having launched its first blueprint in 2011, the Ministry of Education has recently drawn up plans for new reforms at all levels, in line with the country’s long-term development plan, the Economic Transformation Programme, which identifies education as one of 12 National Key Economic Areas.

Ever since 1996, when foreign and private universities became free to establish branches under the Private Higher Education Institutions Act, the number of colleges and vocational training institutions has been growing, and there are now 400. The resulting increase in competition and funding has improved the quality of education and is drawing increasing numbers of international students. With a solid foundation to build on, the government is eager to raise standards and broaden access in conjunction with the goals it has set for 2020. Two key elements of this are foreign direct investment and collaboration from private institutions.

Education Blueprint

The government is currently implementing the first of three “waves” in its Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-25, designed to broaden access, raise standards and improve the quality of instruction. At the plan’s release in September 2012, Prime Minister Najib Razak emphasised that it would help bring Malaysia’s education system up to international standards.

Starting with primary and secondary school, the plan outlines techniques to improve both the way that children learn and how the community is involved. The blueprint has six focal points: knowledge, thinking skills, leadership, languages, ethics and national identity. Changes include more focus on languages – proficiency will be required in two – and more emphasis on ethics and Malaysian identity. The Ministry of Education (MoE) also wants to see more parent participation in lesson planning and school development. So far, parents have begun putting up murals, cleaning up the areas around schools and assisting with traffic safety. While drawing up the blueprint’s objectives, the MoE consulted with students, non-government organisations, foreign education entities and community leaders to determine the best techniques for moving forward.

Higher Education Plan

Having set the current blueprint in motion, the MoE is now planning to launch the National Education Blueprint for Higher Education 2015-25 (Higher Education Blueprint). The ministry told The Star in May 2014 that, among the 55,000 sector experts and advisers assisting in the project’s development, the chief consultants are UNESCO, the OECD and the World Bank.

Building on the first blueprint, which focused on primary and secondary school, the Higher Education Blueprint will focus on oversight, equal access and ensuring graduate employability. As it is gradually implemented, the government hopes to see Malaysia’s universities strengthen their international reputations. “Under the higher education plan, Malaysia expects that by 2020 at least one university will be ranked within the global top 50 in the QS Rankings,” Mohd Amin Jalaludin, vice-chancellor of the University of Malaya, told OBG.

While the blueprint purports to offer a holistic solution to the system’s weak points, the challenge will lie in execution. “In the education blueprint, the policies are there, but good implementation is needed,” Lim Een Hong, CEO of Eduspec Holdings, told OBG. “This should include the decentralisation of decision-making to schools and parents. The adoption of information and communications technology helps with this, allowing schools to do as they see fit and be competitive. One size does not fit all, and the government cannot do everything.”

Initiatives For The Young

To expand access to education in rural areas and help implement new curricula, the MoE has inaugurated the Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) programme. In line with the goals of the national blueprint’s first wave, which runs from 2013 to 2015, this project provides 1250 schools with access to a private cloud computing system containing online classroom resources developed by the MoE. To access this database does not require complex computer systems, thus the VDI was deemed most appropriate for use in rural areas. With classrooms now able to access updated learning materials even in remote regions, Malaysia has taken a large step towards achieving its goals for primary and secondary education.

In another initiative, Boeing recently partnered with Malaysia in an effort to steer more students towards professions in science, technology, engineering and maths, known as the STEM subjects. In September 2013, Malaysia hosted Aerospace Education Day, where pupils in primary and secondary school were allowed to try out a flight simulator and take part in exhibitions by Boeing, GM, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman. The event was part of the Human Capital Development Initiative, which is aimed at boosting young students’ interest in high-demand careers. For Malaysia to achieve its developed-nation goals by 2020, it will need 500,000 new employees in the fields of science and technology, according to the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation. By sparking student interest early on, partners like Boeing hope to ensure that human capital needs will be met through 2020 and beyond.

Colleges & Universities

Malaysia currently has 65 universities and colleges with degree-awarding status, comprised of foreign branch campuses, public universities and privately held, locally invested universities. Of this total, 45 are private institutions. “The private sector has overtaken the public in both the number of institutions and the number of students enrolled in tertiary programmes,” Elajsolan Mohan, president of the National Association of Private Educational Institutions, told OBG. Each year about 480,000 students graduate from high school, and roughly one-third of these move on to some kind of tertiary programme, according to In-fusion Solutions, an education services firm. If Malaysia is to reach its development goals, it is vital that these figures improve. Skills-based and vocational training programmes should be a top focus of investment as Malaysia moves forward with industrialisation.

As for the health care workforce, each year Malaysian colleges and universities graduate 4500 doctors, 1000 medical specialists and 8000 nurses, according to the Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council, a branch of the Ministry of Health. As the health care sector continues to grow, especially in medical tourism (see Health chapter), Malaysia must ensure these graduates are employable and have the incentives to work in Malaysia rather than seek employment in other ASEAN countries or beyond. “More investment should be filtered into e-learning,” Mohamad Salmi Mohd Sohod, managing director of In-fusion Solutions, told OBG. “This would be an effective and cost-efficient way to develop the skill sets of medical professionals.” Demand is particularly high for specialists in geriatric medicine, rehabilitation and the treatment of non-communicable diseases. Innovative training techniques of this sort could help put Malaysia ahead of its regional competitors in niche areas of the medical industry.

Malaysia is the world’s 11th-largest exporter of education services, and foreign students at its colleges and universities represent 100 countries, Muhyiddin Yassin, Malaysia’s deputy prime minister and education minister, told Kuwait News Agency.


Iskandar Malaysia, a special economic zone covering 2200 sq km along the Straits of Johor north of Singapore, has produced a roadmap of its own. Its comprehensive development plan includes education services in nine economic sectors and details specific areas where investment is vital to achieving its development goals. One such target is to recruit 200,000 international students by 2020. Universities in Iskandar have been successful at attracting foreign investment and are poised for more as its 2.4-sq-km multi-campus education cluster, EduCity, prepares to expand.

The zone’s three biggest advantages are location, clustering and price. The cost of a university education in Malaysia is less than half of that in Singapore, where there is an overflow of student numbers. EduCity has therefore become an attractive alternative place of study, and is in the process of expanding. The site is host to many partnerships between local and foreign universities, including the foreign branches of Newcastle University, Southampton University and the Netherlands Maritime Institute of Technology. Iskandar is also only 5 km from the Singapore border and, once the high-speed rail opens between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, students will be able to commute more easily from Singapore while studying at EduCity’s.

Expansions are already under way. The Management Development Institute of Singapore began construction in Nusajaya in autumn 2013, and Raffles University Iskandar is set to open its classrooms in 2015. More international institutions are also expected to establish branches in the coming years.

International Students

Malaysia once sent its students abroad for a high-quality university education. In recent decades, though – as the sector grew rapidly, quality rose at home and its reputation spread overseas – Malaysia has in fact become a top destination for international students. One reason why is the mix of quality and price: a degree in Malaysia currently costs between $3000 and $10,000, much lower than in Europe, the US or Australia.

Most foreign undergraduates in Malaysia attend private institutions, due to restrictions on student ratios at state universities. “Public universities in Malaysia can only have 5% of their undergraduate student body come from overseas.” Ibrahim Komoo, vice-chancellor of University Malaysia Terengganu, told OBG. “This makes it difficult for them to create international programmes at the undergraduate level, and encourages them to focus more on postgraduate programmes to attract foreign applicants.”

As Malaysia and Turkmenistan look to develop their trade ties, which are already strong, the two nations are focusing on university education exchange programmes to nurture their future workforces. During PM Najib’s visit to Turkmenistan in June 2014, the two governments inked a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to enhance cultural and educational initiatives. As of the MoU’s signing, there were 144 students from Turkmenistan studying in Malaysia, most of them attending Universiti Teknologi Petronas in Bandar Seri Iskandar, a new township in the peninsular state of Perak, where they are preparing for careers in the field of technology.

Others were studying hospitality and tourism management, particularly in the hotel segment, at Malaysia’s private institutions. Turkmenistan is Malaysia’s third-largest trading partner in central Asia, according to Norman Muhamad, the Malaysian ambassador in Turkmenistan. As outlined in the MoU, the two countries intend to further the relationship by focusing on education, culture and halal foods.

An Islamic Flavour

alaysia has long been an appealing destination for Muslim students, as it offers a hospitable environment, easy access to halal foods, widespread religious services and connections to community. In June 2014, Malaysia hosted “Education Malaysia Open Day” to showcase the quality and affordability of education in Malaysia and to highlight the advantages it offers to students who prefer to study in a Muslim environment. With representatives in attendance from University Malaysia Pahang, Sunway University, Asia Pacific University and MultiMedia University, this event gave the education sector a chance to reach out to students from Qatar and the greater Middle East. One of its aims was to boost recruitment of foreign students.

Appealing to Muslim students makes a certain sense. According to the Gulf Times, of the 120,000 foreign students currently studying in Malaysia’s private higher education system, 25,000 are from the Gulf. Malaysia has a particular interest in drawing more students from Qatar, and the Minister of Tourism, Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz, recently highlighted the potential for the two countries to seek bi-lateral ties on tourism, noting that 7264 Qatari tourists visited Malaysia in 2013. Thus, drawing more Qatari students into Malaysian education could in time boost tourism numbers, as students returning home share experiences from their host country.

Malaysia is also increasing collaboration with New Zealand. Already long-time allies – as early as 1960, the former British colony helped fund the building of the agriculture department at Universiti Malaya – the two governments are keen to increase the number of students they exchange. New Zealand receives about 1500 Malaysian students at its universities each year, Izak Human, New Zealand’s regional director of education for South-east Asia, told Bernama, the state news agency. Because international students pay the same tuition as citizens, New Zealand is a top choice for Malaysians. With 60,000 Muslims now living in New Zealand, Hunan says the country is looking for ways to increase cultural and religious awareness and appreciation.

Though already host to a large number of international students, the sector wants to recruit more vigorously from abroad. The top concern, according to Mohan, is that bureaucratic processes and red tape may discourage students from choosing Malaysia. “Education Malaysia Global Services was designed to be a one-stop centre for processing of international students,” he told OBG. “But since the MoE began outsourcing some immigration documents processing, the time taken to complete international student applications has been elongated.” Such delays, he says, are deterring foreign students.

Malaysian universities can also offer a unique product. “There is a huge value proposition for local universities to steer towards the ASEAN story,” Wan Ahmad Saifuddin Wan Ahmad Radzi, CEO of Unitar International University, told OBG. “Those universities that can do this will not have to worry about foreign branches setting up in Malaysia, because domestic universities will offer a differentiated product.”


With the year 2020 not far off, there is much work to be done if Malaysia is to reach developed-nation status by that time. The government has done well to prioritise education, since what the country needs in order to meet its human capital requirements is to strengthen domestic institutions, increase access to education, and improve training and development of skills.

With the regional single market, the ASEAN Economic Community, to be inaugurated in 2015, Malaysia must prepare its workforce for increased competition across the region’s top industries. For its part, the education blueprint treats reforms holistically, targeting areas where need is greatest, but most crucial will be how the plans are implemented. Investors can look forward to public-private partnership opportunities as blueprint plans are executed.