SPM Absentees: What The 10,000 Students Are Not Telling You

Attending the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) is a rite of passage for young Malaysians to make their first step into adulthood and working life. But, the announcement of 2023 SPM results caught Malaysians off guard with as many as 10,000 students absent from the titular exam. Let’s dissect into this worrying phenomenon.

When the Malaysian Ministry of Education (MoE) announced the 2023 SPM result, what caught the eyes of the Malaysian public was not how many students scored straight A’s, but the fact that 10,000 students were absent from the exam. Even more eye-watering was there were slightly fewer students registered for the examination in 2023 compared to 2022 (373,525 students in 2023 versus 373,974 in 2022, a reduction of 449 students).

Compilation of an SPM certificate and two mainstream social media platforms. Image collage by Danny Liew. 
Compilation of an SPM certificate and two mainstream social media platforms. Image collage by Danny Liew. 

Both mainstream and alternative media pointed out that these students did not take the exam because social media influencers claimed the SPM was not critical. Many students aspire to be social media influencers. Indeed, some school-age influencers flaunted their wealth on social media. One influencer, Yousaf Iqbal, was quoted saying SPM has no value. The young influencer received tonnes of flak for his views, rightly or wrongly.  

But how true is it? I come from a circle of contacts with many teachers and here are a few matters I have noted.

Post-Pandemic SPM Students Absent from Classes

The 2022 and 2023 SPM cohorts are the first batches of post-pandemic cohorts. These students spent a large part of their education years under pandemic conditions; online classes with many do not even have suitable devices to attend schools. Therefore, many students were absent from classes during the pandemic period. Many of them were even absent from their school-level examinations during and post-pandemic. The MoE can glean data from the Aplikasi Pengkalan Data Murid (APDM) to identify schools potentially facing this issue in the next nine years (Malaysia practices the K12 education system).

Disruptive Technology at Play

These post-pandemic students are probably the first batch of students who get to experience full-blown disruptive technology. As the Pandemic forced classrooms to go online, the workforce too got disrupted. Students saw their seniors and even their compatriots opting to work in gig jobs getting handsome pay during the initial days of the COVID-19 pandemic and felt earning big bucks was easy even without the certificates. Despite the gig industry of food delivery and e-hailing drivers having now slowed down significantly, the experience of seeing office workers, factory workers, and other non-essential service providers unable to work and get paid during the Pandemic gave them a skewed view of the working world. Add in influencers that we covered earlier, no wonder they have this skewed view.

Compacted School Syllabus

If anything should be a clue, the batches that undergo schooling from 2023 to 2025 may see an increasing number of students dropping out of the system or missing the SPM altogether. These cohorts had their syllabus compacted significantly to accommodate the time needed to adjust the school calendars back to the pre-pandemic calendar years by January 2026.

Compulsory Extra-Curricular Activities

Despite having a more compact school syllabus, the MoE expects school students to participate in extra-curricular activities. The MoE divides extra-curricular activities into uniformed bodies, sports, and clubs. A student needs to participate in all three activities, even when the activities are supposedly “extra-curricular” in nature, and many schools do not have sufficient facilities for some sports. For example, Malaysian schools have swimming clubs for sports but do not have swimming pools at their schools, and school badminton clubs have hundreds of members even though there are only two badminton courts.

Granted, a student participating in these activities gains good experience in the long run. But under the circumstances we are in, do we need to force these students to attend all of these activities when we already recognise these as “extra-curricular activities” in the first place?

Burnt-Out Teachers

Next on the line is our teachers are having burnt-outs. Deputy Minister of Education, Mr Wong Kah Woh told the Parliament in February this year that 6,394 teachers had opted for early retirement. The figure is a slight increase in the number of teachers opting to retire early in the previous year. He cited financial stability, retirement benefits, health reasons, ever-changing education policies, and digitalisation of education as reasons for opting for early retirement.

If you get to talk to a teacher, especially those assigned to be class teachers (analogous to homeroom teachers in other countries), you will find them getting an increased workload. Not only do they have their normal teaching duties, but they are also responsible for obtaining student welfare data; every year, these classroom teachers need to identify students who qualify for financial assistance by getting the students’ parents to declare their financial position. These additional responsibilities do not come with additional pay.

Pre-Bestari.net era, this responsibility means the teachers need to update students’ performance and attendance in the classroom record book. With the introduction of APDM, they now need to update the same details in the APDM AFTER tracking the student’s attendance and performance separately.

We have not gotten into their responsibilities as the extra-curricular activity teachers-in-charge, which includes accompanying students to competitions and other activities.

Assistant Teachers

Years ago, there was a promise of appointing assistant teachers to help out at schools. These positions are non-teaching positions for people to assist in school data entry. We have not seen any change to the promise, the latest being mentioned in March 2024. We might want to have another checkpoint in 2037.

Other often-heard complaints within my circle of friends who are teachers are the often long hours of late meetings. This problem is less apparent at single-session schools, as the school can conduct the meeting after school hours. But at many Malaysian schools that are two-session schools, that means meetings that may even end at late midnight!

Malaysian teachers did try to share their problems. But like any other things in Malaysia, they either get transferred to rural schools or worse, might find themselves needing to resign from the teaching service. One such teacher, Cikgu Fadli Salleh who often criticised the Malaysian education system, decided to throw in his towel in February this year.  

How about students who did not make it to SPM?

Forget the 10,000 students who were absent from the SPM examination. How about those that fell into the cracks? Students drop out of school because they are delinquent. Students who choose to participate in the economy as low-wage earners for their families. There is no clear analysis of the number of students who registered for schools when they first entered the system against the total number of students taking the SPM and the equivalent certificates in private schools in Malaysia. Until then, we do not know how badly our education system suffered under years of neglect and unfulfilled promises. – NMH

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Danny Liew
Danny Liew is a freelance writer with extensive experience in defence, geopolitics, and economics for about 20 years. He contributes to the Perajurit defence portal, Malaysia Military Power (MMP), amongst others.

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