KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - MRS Chong, a mother of two, is deeply worried about her 11-year-old daughter's studies.
The reason: The Standard Six pupil does not seem to have much homework from her Mandarin-medium school in Seri Kembangan, a predominantly Chinese middle-class enclave that is 30 minutes' drive from Kuala Lumpur.
Although school has just started, others in her daughter's year have already been inundated with schoolwork in preparation for the year-end government examination that Standard Six pupils take.
But her daughter and her classmates 'appear to have been spared the burden', although they are 'not very good' in their studies, said the 38-year-old housewife, who declined to give her full name.
Those familiar with the Chinese school system in Malaysia will understand Mrs Chong's anxiety.
It is not uncommon for these schools to neglect the less academically inclined, and lack of homework is one of the signs. Teachers are too busy coaching the potential top-scorers to spend time on the weaker pupils.
'Some schools are overly focused on those who can score a string of As. These are the students who give their schools a good name. But they (the good students) are the minority,' said Chinese educationist Goh Kean Seng.
The result is that those who fail to keep up with their schoolwork drop out of school in later years, said Mr Goh, principal of a private Chinese secondary school in KL and an active member of an influential Chinese education group.
The situation is worsened by the switch from Mandarin to Malay as the medium of instruction when the pupils go on to secondary school, he added.
Government primary schools use either Malay, Mandarin or Tamil as the medium of instruction. But all government secondary schools teach in Malay.
About 90 per cent of Chinese children in Malaysia go to Mandarin-medium primary schools, which are run by the government.
But less than 5 per cent go on to Mandarin-medium secondary schools, which are privately-run and fee-paying. Parents prefer to send their children to government schools, where education is free.
'Many drop out because they cannot cope with the change in the medium of instruction,' said Mr Goh.
It does not help that some parents refuse to send their children to 'Remove Classes', a year-long preparatory programme in secondary schools to bring children up to speed in the Malay language.
Pupils who fail their Malay language exam at Standard Six are required to go on this programme before they can start Form One. But those who do so are often perceived to be slow learners, so parents try to get their children exempted from it.
Deputy Education Minister Hon Choon Kim told The Straits Times: 'Many parents see Remove Classes as a dumping ground, which should not be the case.'
The Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) estimates that 25 per cent of Chinese students quit studying before they are 18, when they are due to sit for a government exam equivalent to the O levels.
This estimate puts the annual dropout figure at over 100,000 - what the party's youth wing calls a 'silent epidemic'.
There are no official figures on the number of dropouts among the Chinese, but feedback that the MCA gets from the community suggests that the situation has deteriorated, especially over the past five years.
Among the dropouts, some become apprentices in workshops, picking up skills like plumbing or motor-repair. But many more, eager to make a quick buck, find themselves in illicit trades, such as peddling pirated DVDs or collecting debts for loan sharks.
Police statistics do not show the number of dropouts involved in criminal activity. But MCA officials say anecdotal evidence suggests that more youngsters these days are prepared to break the law to earn a living.
Malaysia's crime rate has been soaring over the years, going up by 7 per cent last year compared with 2006.
'It's very sad to see young Chinese dropping out of school at the age of 15 to 17 and ending up trying to evade police arrest every day,' MCA Youth's education bureau chief Wee Ka Siong told The Straits Times.
The party is deeply concerned, not only because education has always been important to the Chinese community.
'With globalisation, not having the paper qualification puts you at a disadvantage. We do not want young, able Malaysians to lose out,' said Mr Wee, also a lawmaker from Johor.
The MCA has set up a series of programmes to address this problem, one of which helps the less academically inclined enrol in vocational schools.
This way, they not only acquire skills like electrical wiring or tile-laying, but also have a piece of paper that says they are qualified.
The party also arranges for students with mediocre or poor grades to get extra coaching after school.
In addition, it has set up a RM6 million (S$2.6 million) fund to subsidise dropouts undergoing skills courses.
Datuk Hon said that the Education Ministry, together with the MCA, has undertaken a pilot project in about 10 Mandarin-medium primary schools nationwide to reduce the number of dropouts. It is aimed mainly at boosting the self-confidence of those who are not exactly star students.
'Sometimes, we hold essay-writing competitions that exclude straight As students. If we open the contest to all, only the good students will win,' he explained. Parents are invited to the prize-winning ceremonies of these contests.
He noted that the programme has had encouraging success, with students showing more enthusiasm for their studies. The ministry plans to expand the programme to more schools.
'We just do not want anyone left out. Every student counts,' Datuk Hon said.
This article was first published in the The Straits Times on Jan 30, 2008