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Smart Schools: Can Malaysia make the quantum leap?

By Amar Hakim
July 23, 1999

Malaysia's oft-repeated goal of becoming a knowledge-based society by the year 2020 hinges crucially on rapidly growing a technology-savvy workforce.

Thousands of software-skilled, Net-literate Malaysians are expected to be churned out from its education institutions in the coming years, and unleashed onto the information-rich workplace. These armies of cyber-workers will form the backbone of the country's drive to stay competitive and exploit the dynamics of the new digital economy.

The Smart Schools project, one of the seven flagship applications of the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC), is a primary component in that game plan.

Essentially, the ambitious project seeks to shed forever the shackles of a British-inherited education system and cast aside its exam-oriented, rote-learning structure in favor of one that is more self-directed, participatory and collaborative.

Technology is to be the central enabler. Discarding the conventional delivery of knowledge to the young, students and teachers will have online access, multimedia courseware, and be able to tap into various databases and electronic libraries.

"To achieve developed nation status by 2020, the education system must undergo a quantum leap," said Education Minister Najib Razak recently.

But those lofty aspirations appear to be a long way off.

The government's plan to convert 8,500 schools into Smart Schools by 2010 was to have started officially with a pilot project involving 90 schools in January this year. The pilot project has lumbered on in fits and starts since a tender was called for the implementation of the project's infrastructure components in June 1997.

Two years on today, critical pieces--such as new schools to be built from scratch and courseware modules--have yet to materialize. A primary reason for the sluggish implementation was the Asian financial crisis, which hit Malaysian shores just as the Government was about to put the pedal to metal for the MSC's flagship applications.

The ensuing recession forced the government to severely curtail public expenditure and choked credit lines for the majority of Malaysian companies--a major setback in this land of Malaysia Inc, where the government relies heavily on its close partnership with the private sector, and vice versa.

An initial outlay for the Smart Schools project of RM400 million (US$105 million) was drastically slashed to RM53 million (US$14 million), leaving the schools without enough computers or the promised new syllabus.

The Government seemed to have reneged on one of the critical factors identified in the project's blueprint - sufficient funds and resources. One glaring example was the stalled construction of the Sri Bintang School complex in Ulu Pudu, Cheras in Kuala Lumpur.

Sri Bintang was to be the showpiece of the project and a concept model for other schools. Initially scheduled for completion by the beginning of the year, the complex's development has been quietly put on hold, possibly due to difficulties faced by its developers in obtaining financing.

The school complex was to house four schools, with multiple four-storey blocks for primary and secondary school sessions, a swimming pool and an eight-storey apartment block. What remains of the project today are buildings in a semi-completed state, with no new completion date in sight.



Amar Hakim has been a technology journalist for three years and never lets his schooling interfere with his education. Email us your comments.


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