Are students getting smarter or SPM questions getting easier?

THIS is not about being a sour grape or trying to undermine/offend the success of recent Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia’s (SPM) top achievers a.k.a. straight ‘A’s pupils. After all, each and every SPM 2021 candidates had gone through a very challenging process from learning to sitting for their examination due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some 9,696 or 2.53% of last year’s SPM candidates obtained straight ‘A’s or a slight increase from the previous year’s 9,411. In 2021, there were a total of 407,097 candidates who sat for the examination, an increase of 1.49% from 2020’s 401,105 candidates.

But hidden beneath the joy and pride of both the candidates and parents alike, the very fact that Malaysia has been producing ‘brilliant young brains’ while at the same time being confronted by high numbers of unemployed or under-employed graduates is very worrisome to say the least.

To bluntly put it, such very baffling correlation warrants the Malaysian Examinations Syndicate (MES) which is entrusted to plan, set examination questions and conduct examinations at national levels to really re-look into the most fundamental issue – the setting of questions and/or marking of answers.

These concerns surfaced following a viral social media observation purportedly attributed to Datuk Dr Agoes Salim, an economist and first secretary-general of the National Unity Ministry or the little known individual responsible to coin Malaysia’s Rukun Negara (National Principles) and the New Economic Policy (NEP).

In rationalising the high passing rate of 88.09% for SPM 2021(candidates who are eligible to be awarded the SPM certificate), Agoes has presented a satirical illustration (repeat, “satirical”) of how this could possibly happen.

“The objective of the SPM is to pass people, right? Are students getting smarter? Or are SPM questions getting easier?

Let me put things in their proper perspective. During your grandfather’s time, they would ask questions in the examination like (the following):

  • In what year did Parameswara find the kingdom of Melaka?

The correct answer was “1402” and they found that only 10% of the students managed to answer the question correctly.

This did not go down too well with the government authorities because the objective of the examination was to pass people. I mean, what is the point of having examination if people fail?

So later, they found another way to ask the same question:

  • Parameswara founded the kingdom of Melaka in the year:
  1. 2001
  2. 2004
  3. 1986
  4. 1975
  5. 1402

Tick the correct answer.

The results were better in that 20% of the students passed. But, it was still not good enough, so the authorities tried a different tactic a few years later.

  • Parameswara founded the kingdom of Melaka in the year 1402. True or false?

Well, half of the students guessed “True” and the other half guessed “False”. Fully 50% passed. The results were getting pretty acceptable by now but, still not good enough.

Most other countries would be satisfied with a 50% passing rate but not us. We are a better country because we are a boleh country. The authorities then cracked their heads to come out with this one:

  • Read the following sentence carefully.

Parameswara, the cousin of Proton-Iswara, founded the kingdom of Melaka in the year 1402. Underline the name of the person who founded Melaka.

60% underlined “Parameswara”, 30% underlined “Proton-Iswara” and 10% underlined “1402”. Yeah! 60% managed to pass! So clever!

But for some reason, the authorities were still not contented. So last year, they came out with this gem:

One day in the year 1402, Parameswara founded the kingdom of Melaka. Then he went home to have dinner. What did he eat?

13% (smart students) handed in blank answers; 57% wrote “Maggi Mee”; 10% wrote “Kentucky Fried Chicken” and 20% wrote “Nasi Lemak”.

The correct answer was anything that concerned “Food” of course! After the marking was over, it was found that 88% of the students had passed. Wow! 88%. That was pretty impressive!

So, it was true. Now the authorities are very happy that the students are indeed getting smarter.” Close quote

Doubtlessly, the above illustration is merely a satire – and need not be true – but if it indeed does bear any semblance to the way the Malaysian Examinations Syndicate (MES) has been instructed t(by certain quarters) to raise the passing rate, then there is a cause for every Malaysian parent to worry.


As it is, the present generation of Malaysian pupils – generally speaking of course – can boast scoring an impressive string of ‘A’s but can hardly construct a decent sentence.

Or even if they can boast academic excellence, they are not even street-smart enough to survive in today’s dog-eat-dog world. This will be another topic as we delve into key weaknesses of the Malaysian education system that the authorities themselves have to acknowledge (rather than be defensive). – June 30, 2022

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