By Nur Dianah Suhaimi
MALAY pupils in primary schools are slipping in mathematics, and doing worse than pupils of other races.
In the last 10 years, the proportion of Malay pupils who passed maths in the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) has declined from 63.4 per cent in 1999 to 56.3 per cent last year.
The slide is worse when compared to the national average, which was 83.1 per cent last year.
As for the Chinese, the corresponding decline is just 2 points (from 91.6 to 89.6 per cent) while for the Indians, it inched up from 72.8 per cent to 72.9 per cent.
The deteriorating performance of Malay pupils was shown in the Education Ministry's report on the performance, in the past decade, of the different ethnic groups in Singapore's three national examinations: the PSLE, O levels and A levels.
At the O-level and A-level exams, however, their academic performance improved over the last 10 years.
At the PSLE, they fared worse in all subjects, but maths was the weakest link.
The downtrend in maths was flagged about a fortnight ago by Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim in an interview, when he also lamented his community's problems with dysfunctional families.
Yesterday, teachers, educationists and Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Education Masagos Zulkifli gave several reasons for the poor results.
Teachers blame it on Malay children believing they are, by nature, poor in the subject. Malay self-help group Mendaki points at indifferent parents who do not bother sending their children to its free tuition classes.
Mr Masagos, who is also Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs, believes the decline is due to a policy change in 2000 that saw more EM3 pupils being promoted to EM2 level.
Since 2000, Primary 5 pupils from the weakest EM3 stream needed a pass grade in only one subject, instead of two, to move to EM2. This change meant more weaker pupils sat for PSLE at Primary 6.
Although it caused a decline across all races, the steepest was among Malay pupils. Their maths pass rate fell by 7.4 percentage points between 2000 and 2001, against 1.3 percentage points for Chinese and 3.3 percentage points for Indians.
Primary school teachers say they see many Malay pupils who would not ask them for help when struggling with maths concepts because they are convinced it is a personal flaw.
Said a teacher who spoke on condition of anonymity: 'Their parents are concerned but can't afford a personal tutor. So they send the children to mass tuition classes where they get little attention from the tutor.'
Mendaki offers many free programmes, including intensive maths lessons before the PSLE. 'But the take-up rate is not that great,' said a spokesman.
Added Mr Masagos: 'Mendaki's programmes are very focused and effective but the outreach is not so good.'
Schools, such as Jing Shan Primary in Ang Mo Kio, send pupils for these Mendaki lessons but 'it is not easy getting 100 per cent attendance for these classes', said its principal Azizah Ismaun.
Mr Masagos stressed that it was important to nip the problem in the bud by ensuring that all Malay children attended the classes.
Most children who are not in preschool are Malays but he noted that since 2007, the proportion has shrunk from 5 per cent to 2 per cent.
'This is a long-term issue. So hopefully, we will be able to see some improvements soon,' he added.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.