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Dr Alex Tang


General education in Malaysia is deeply influenced by the state schools system in Britain and the church Sunday school movement. The state schools in the British Isles, which adopted the schooling-instructional model, were developed in 1870s to efficiently train a workforce to be minimally literate for the industrial revolution. Australian educator Brian Hill calls this “schools for the industrial society” (1985, 42). The Sunday school movement was started earlier in the 1780s and was influential in teaching children how to read, write and numeracy skills as well as learning about the Christian faith. In the nineteenth century, after its formation the state schools began to take over the function of the Sunday schools in teaching the children in the 3 Rs (writing, reading, arithmetic). The Sunday schools gradually began to focus solely on religious education. However, following the state schools, they adopted the schooling model (Hill 1985, 46). During the nineteenth century, the schooling-instructional paradigm found its way into other formative areas of Christian faith communities and gradually became the mainstay of education in Christian faith communities.

When the missionaries from Europe came over to British Malaya, they began to set up mission schools. Notable examples began under the banner of the Catholics, Anglicans, Basel, Brethren, and the Methodists (Ho 2001). St. John’s Institution in Kuala Lumpur, the first major English school was set up in 1904 by the French Catholic Brothers of Christian Schools.[i]  The smaller Penang Free School was established by the Anglicans in 1816 (Loh 1993, 4). Whether these schools were meant for evangelism or societal building is still being debated as was seen in the earlier discussion on post-colonial legacy in the previous chapter.  What was significant however is that the movement brought with it a state school system modelled after the schools in their home countries that had a pedagogy that was following the schooling-instructional paradigm. After the Second World War, the British government set up a “National type” school system modelled after the mission schools. When Malaya became an independent country and later became Malaysia, the National type schools continued and many mission schools were absorbed into the system. However, the education paradigm remains the same.

The Chinese were also allowed by the British to set up schools where the medium of instruction was Chinese (Mandarin). These vernacular Chinese schools drew heavily from the schooling system in their home country, China, which was based on the Confucian way of teaching. This pedagogy depended heavily on memorisation, repetition, and recitation of the classics. Its philosophy is similar to the schooling-instructional paradigm in that both systems aim to produce conformist literate students. The Western model was to produce workers for the industrial society while the root of the Confucian model was to produce civil servants for the administration of the vast Chinese empire. Columnist Joceline Tan of the Star newspaper notes that Malaysian Chinese can be broadly divided into two groups. She named the larger group (85%), the “three pillars Chinese community” group because of their emphasis on three issues: Chinese vernacular schools, Chinese language media, and Chinese clans and societies. The second group (15%) is named “banana Chinese” community because they are English speaking and Western educated[ii] (Tan 2007). The majority of Christians in English-speaking Presbyterian churches in Malaysia are educated in the National type schools[iii] and are English-speaking and Western educated. They also belong to the latter group of Malaysian Chinese.

When the missionaries brought the Gospel and the state schooling system to Malaya, they also introduced the Sunday school system to their newly planted churches. The Sunday schools follow the British model which was for children only. The pedagogical methodology was the instructional-schooling paradigm. This had such an impact in the young country that ‘education’ itself becomes synonymous with instructional-schooling paradigm. Education is regarded to be for children only. The concept of adult learning and life-long learning is relatively recent in Malaysia. The missionaries from North America introduced the idea of  “All Age Sunday School”[iv] or Sunday school for all age groups which has been adopted into churches.  Again, the pedagogy is predominantly instructional-schooling paradigm.

In summary, the missionaries brought with them the Gospel and mission schools. The mission schools modelled after the British day state schools were instrumental in bringing formal schooling to Malaya. The main pedagogical method in these schools was schooling-instructional paradigm. As the intention of these schools was to transfer information and knowledge, it worked well for a period. These missionaries also planted churches and brought along with them the British Sunday school system for the children of their new churches. The British Sunday school also utilises the schooling-instructional paradigm. Slowly with time, this continued as the mainstay of formative processes in Christian faith communities in Malaya and later Malaysia.



Hill, B. V. (1985). The Greening of Christian Education. Homebush West, NSW, Lancer Books.

Ho, D. (2001). Malaysia. A Dictionary of Asia Christianity. S. W. Sunquist. Grand Rapids, MI, Willian B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: 513-514.

Loh, S. C. (1993). Past Christian Contributions to Malaysian Education. Educational Challenges in the Malaysian Society: A Christian Response. Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, National Evangelical Christian Fellowship: 1-35.

Tan, J. (2007). One Race, Two Sets of Views. Sunday Star. Kuala Lumpur: F26.



[i] The order was founded by St. John Baptist de la Salle. see Loh, S. C. (1993). Past Christian Contributions to Malaysian Education. Educational Challenges in the Malaysian Society: A Christian Response. Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, National Evangelical Christian Fellowship: 1-35. p.4

[ii] A banana is a tropical fruit which has a yellow skin but white inner core. The “banana Chinese” is so called because they look Chinese (yellow) but are culturally Western inside (white). It may be a compliment or an insult!

[iii] National type schools are public schools run by the Malaysian government. Though its medium of instruction is in Malay, its educational pedagogy is Western in its approach. The parents of many of the Chinese students who are sent there have a reasonable command of English. There are attempts by the Malaysian Religious Department to influence the non-Muslims student by process named Islamisation. Muslims students have to attend a religious school or madrasah in the afternoon after the morning National type school is over.

[iv] “all age Sunday schools” means adults is included into the Sunday school system but they have classes and syllabus separate from the children.


|posted 28 April 2010|


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