International Schools in Malaysia

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When I first arrived in Malaysia in 1998, education for my two children was of prime concern. They had spent their entire educational experience outside of their native United States in various school mediums. My husband, a hotelier, was posted to Seremban when our children were 11 and 16 years old. We were pleasantly surprised by the selection offered throughout Malaysia, particularly the plethora of excellent international schools in greater Kuala Lumpur.

We opted to send our 16-year old to the renowned boarding school with a national stream as well as UK A-levels, Kolej Tuanku Jaafar in Mantin, Negri Sembilan; and our 11-year-old son to the British-based Alice Smith School campus in Seri Kembangan, Selangor, a 45-minute drive from our resort home in Seremban.

Our son later successfully passed 11 GSCEs and enrolled in Informatics College for an ICT Diploma. Our daughter, with her A-levels completed, enrolled for one semester at HELP Institute, now HELP University College, in their American Degree Programme, and then transferred to an Australian university. We believe our children vastly benefited from their diverse educational experiences here in Malaysia. As a former university academic in the US and on faculty at Nilai University College in the late 1990s, as well as faculty head and school librarian at preparatory schools in the US, I have had the opportunity to evaluate the state of international education in Malaysia over the past decade.

Currently, international school education in Malaysia is thriving. More than a dozen international schools have been built since I arrived, as well as the several academically outstanding K-12 and British Primary through A-levels schools in East Malaysia such as International School of Kota Kinabalu and Tunku Putra International School that have expanded campuses and curriculums. Long time Sayfol International School is now opening a campus branch in Sabah too.

Penang is also well served with the International School of Penang at Uplands, Dalat International School, St Christopher’s Primary Elementary School, Tenby International school has a campus among their five locations throughout the country, and the soon to open Prince of Wales Island International School is staffed with a majority of native British teachers.

Most United Kingdom- and US-based schools, including schools offering the IB Diploma, along with international schools including the French, German, Japanese and Indonesian International Schools have waiting lists. Several new, top notch schools have opened just in the past three years including the Taylor’s College-owned, Nexus International School located in Putrajaya, Nilai International School in the State of Negri Sembilan and the British International School. Set to open in September 2011 is the International School @ Park City and the prestigious Marlborough College is opening their own international school in September 2012. Meanwhile, the International Islamic University Malaysia operates the International Islamic School which is highly regarded with over 60 different nations represented in their student body.

The majority of schools use English as the medium of instruction. However, major exceptions are the German School (Deutsche Schule of KL) and French International School (Lycee Francais de KL) which use their national language and find this to be of broader appeal to expat parents who want their children fluent in other major languages.

Another important trend to note is the privatisation of education in the country. For example, the Taylor’s Education Group owns and manages Taylor’s University College as well as four international schools: Garden International School, Australian International School, Nexus, and now Sri Garden International School, all in greater KL. Sunway University owns Sunway International School with its highly regarded Canadian stream while developer SP Setia Bhd. has designed the Tenby International School into its Setia Eco Park residential enclave in Shah Alam, Selangor. Many of the schools, such as the Alice Smith School and the American International School of KL (ISKL), are nonprofit organisations controlled by a board of directors.

But it is not just expats who are spoilt for choice in Malaysia; local students are also allowed to attend if they can afford the fees. Three years ago, laws were enacted giving international schools a quota to fill for local students and they were quickly topped out. All of the International Schools have varying degrees of scholarship programmes and financial aid packages to help enable local students to join them. The ratio quota now is 40% local to 60% foreign students.


For people not yet involved in international education, the nature of those termed international schools can be puzzling. Most of us go to school within one educational system. It is this experience that forges our educational beliefs. When families first explore international education, they discover a world of differences which often collide with some of the beliefs and values that families hold dear.

First, we need to dispel some of the myths that surround international schools. The term “international” is confusing and ambiguous. Do we mean the curriculum or syllabus is international in scope? Are we referring to the teachers in the school? Is it the assessment procedure that is international? Before we can answer these questions, we should look at the way in which international schools were established. It is generally recognised that the first schools describing themselves as “international” began in 1924 with the International School of Geneva.

There were many such schools by the 1960s, but it is in the last 50 years that international schools have come of age and have proliferated globally. Most are set up to serve the needs of a particular group of expats working in an overseas location. The founders of such a school generally design the curriculum to reflect the education system of their home country. This accounts for much of the diversity in international education.

The many international schools are rooted in the various traditions of the groups they were founded to serve, almost by definition an educational system other than that of the host country. The result is that a given international school will relate to a particular national education system. While the students attending the school may be international, the curriculum is usually not. To meet the needs of expat communities, international schools tend to base their programmes on the education system of the country representing its predominant group of parents. This also means a range of choice, including but not limited to, as host country Malaysia can attest – French, German, American, Australian, Japanese, Korean, and British schools.

International schools meet four criteria that almost have in common: They have a curriculum that differs from the host country, they serve the educational needs of an expat community living in a host country, they have a student population that is international and inclusive of local students, and they have modified their curriculum to make the most of the international setting and emphasize the host country’s customs. For parents considering international schools, an awareness of the diversity that is offered in Malaysia is crucial. Parents need to understand the varying natures of each school if they are to make the best decisions for their children when moving abroad. Understanding and managing the differences in international schools is the key to ensuring that the family makes a smooth transition to their new location. Inability to consider educational issues can lead to unnecessary failure in the overseas assignment process. Statistics consistent since the 1960’s show that of overseas postings that fail, 70% are due to the spouse and children not acclimating.

For children of school age, school placement is a prime consideration. The decision about whether to place a child in an American, British, private, parochial or even a local school is a decision to be carefully researched. The age, grades, maturity and social skills, special needs, and interests of the child are of paramount importance. The school’s curriculum, language base, distance from home, transportation to and from, and costs lie on the other side of this equation. Many parents also want a majority of the faculty to be native to their country while other parents look for strong and nurturing pastoral care. A desired balance will be vital to discourage any unhappiness, resentment or anger the child may be feeling, and these feelings can easily result in behavioural and academic problems at the new school, all of which serves to undermine the success of the posting.

This article was written by Marybeth Ramey
Source: The Expat Education Guide 2011/2012

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