Cultural Differences and Mathematics Learning in Malaysia

Lim Chap Sam

School of Educational Studies

University of Science Malaysia

11800 Minden

Penang, Malaysia



This paper reviews and highlights findings of some studies (Lim & Chan, 1993; Munirah & Lim, 1996; Yong et al., 1997) that have been carried out in Malaysia with regard to cross-cultural comparisons on mathematics learning. In the light of these three studies, I wish to ask whether cultural difference is the determining factor in mathematics achievement. What can we learn from these studies? We know that culture can be a dubious term that encompasses many things, from ideology to technology (White, 1959). Perhaps the issue is not that one culture or ethnic group might be fundamentally better at mathematics teaching, learning and achievement than another, but what and how we can learn from different cultural practices, beliefs and values to help us to improve mathematics learning in all cultures. I will discuss the possible cultural impact and the need to do further research on this issue. Some proposals for further research will also be suggested.


Several international comparison studies (Husen, 1967; Robitaille & Garden, 1989; Mullis et al, 1997) in mathematics achievement have shown that students from each major level of education in Asia seemed to outperform their counterparts in Europe and North America. These and many cross-cultural studies on mathematics learning suggest that language and cultural differences may be an important factor pertaining to mathematics teaching and achievement. These studies mostly involved students from different countries with different cultural backgrounds. An interesting question is whether mathematics learning is different among the different cultural groups within the same country as well.

In this paper, I aim to review and highlight findings of some studies (Lim & Chan, 1993; Munirah & Lim, 1996; Yong et al., 1997) that have been carried out in Malaysia. These studies compare mathematics learning among the different cultural groups. First of all, I will briefly describe the background of primary mathematics education in Malaysia because it is at this level that mathematics learning is introduced in the different cultural settings. I will then highlight three related studies (Lim & Chan, 1993; Munirah & Lim, 1996; Yong et al., 1997) and comment on what can we learn from these studies. At the end of this paper, I hope to suggest some issues that need to be researched further.


Malaysia is a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural country. The major ethnic groups are Malay (60%), followed by Chinese (27%) and Indian (9%). Its educational system is unique because there are three choices of primary schools available depending upon the medium of instruction. These are: (a) Malay medium national schools (SK); (b) Chinese medium national type schools (SRJKC), and (c) Tamil medium national type schools (SRJKT). In general, the majority of the Malay pupils (over 95%) enter the Malay medium schools and the majority of the Chinese pupils (over 85%) enter the Chinese medium schools (Yong et at, 1997). A minority of the Malay pupils will enter the Chinese medium schools while a minority of Chinese pupils will enter the Malay medium schools. However, virtually no Malay or Chinese pupils enter the Tamil medium schools. For the Indian pupils, about 40-50% enter the Tamil medium schools, and nearly the same proportion of them enter the Malay medium schools. Lately, there is an interesting trend that more and more Malay and Indian parents are sending their children to Chinese medium schools. It is estimated that about 10% of those attending the Chinese medium schools are made up of Malay or Indian pupils.

Although the medium of instruction is different, all schools follow a national mathematics curriculum, and all pupils sit for a national examination, the Primary School Achievement Test or UPSR at the end of the six years of primary schooling. For the past decades, the results of the national examinations have shown that pupils from the Chinese medium schools perform significantly better in mathematics than those in the other types of schools. Table 1 displays the passing rates of the various types of schools in the UPSR examination.

Table 1: Mathematics Achievement in the UPSR Examination (Percentage of Passes) by Types of School


Type of school





























Source: Malaysian Examination Board Yearly Report for the year 1989-1993, and the Star, 20-10-1994.

Since 1992, the difference in mathematics achievement among the different ethnic schools has caused concern to various parties, including the Ministry of Education. Some common themes that appeared in the local news media reflect this concern. For example, "Maths help from Chinese schools" (The Star, 21 January, 1992); "Ministry studying Chinese approach to mathematics" (New Strait Times, 21 January 1992); "Teaching maths the Chinese way" (The Star, 3 September, 1992) and lately "Success of Chinese students in science, maths to be studied" (Business Times, 2 September 1999). Indirectly, these titles reflect the eagerness of the Ministry of Education to upgrade the mathematics achievement of the Malay medium schools. There is also an assumption that Chinese medium school pupils perform better in mathematics because the Chinese medium schools have something "special" in teaching mathematics. But, is this a fact or an illusion?

Even the Prime Minister himself has advocated the need for government school authorities to emulate the commitment of the Chinese schools in education. The Malay medium schools are asked to adopt the teaching approach of the Chinese medium school. Some ministers even suggest the possibility of 'importing' mathematics teachers from Chinese schools to the Malay schools (The Star, 21 January, 1992). However, this proposal is yet to be tried out. Of course, this issue is not that simple. As has been stressed by Stigler & Barnes (1988) and Bishop (1988), mathematics is a form of culturally transmitted knowledge. So, the success in mathematics learning among these schools may have been related to the school culture and its related community culture. Thus, can culture be "imported" from one school to another, by just exchanging the mathematics teachers?

In response to the above concern, there are still not many studies carried out to investigate the possible factors of the differences in mathematics achievement. Perhaps as recognised by Yong and colleauges (1997) that " this is due in part to the reason that cultural influences are difficult to study as much of it appear tacit, implicit and hidden from awareness" (p. 6). However, there are a limited number of exploratory studies that aimed to fill this gap.

Below are three studies (Lim & Chan, 1993; Munirah & Lim, 1996; Yong et al., 1997) that have been carried out in Malaysia with regard to cross-cultural comparisons on mathematics learning. I shall briefly describe each study before I make a critical discussion of all of them.

Study 1: A case study comparing the learning of mathematics among Malay pupils in Primary National schools [SK] and Primary National Type schools (Chinese) [SRJKC]

Study 1 was carried out by Lim Soo Kheng and Chan Toe Boi of the Specialist Teachers’ Training College of Malaysia in 1993. Their study aimed to compare the teaching strategies, learning facilities, amount of exercises given, and mathematics achievement of Malay pupils between two types of primary schools, the Primary National schools [SK] and Primary National Type schools (Chinese) [SRJKC]. Their study is interesting because unlike other cross-cultural studies, they were only interested in observing pupils from one ethnic group, the Malay pupils who were studying mathematics in the different ethnic schools.

Their sample consisted of 41 Year Six Malay pupils from eight SRJKC schools and another 41 Year Six Malay pupils from one SK school. As noted in the background section of this paper, for the whole country, there are only about 10% of the Malay pupils studying in the SRJKC schools. Perhaps this might be the reason that the sample of this study has to be collected from 8 SRJKC schools. However, it was not known why the other sample was not collected from an equal number of SK schools, instead of just one SK school. The question is, "can we assume that this one SK school is representative of all other SK schools?" Similarly in the discussion of results, it was not reported clearly that the observation of mathematics lesson was made in only one SRJKC school or all the eight schools. These are some weak or doubtful points of Study 1.

The study used an obervation checklist, a facilities checklist, a survey form and three mathematics achievement tests to collect data. Some observed differences between the two types of schools are highlighted below:

Explanation of concepts/skills

In the SRJKC school, 64% of the 30 minute mathematics lesson was spent on explaining concepts or skills. But in the SK school, only 43% of the time was used for the same reason.

Reinforcement activities

Two types of reinforcement activities were carried out in the SRJKC schools: group competition and solving problems on the chalkboard. The learning atmosphere was found to be more lively as nearly half of the pupils in class took part in these activities while the other half observed or checked the answers. Pupils from the SK school were given exercises to do individually in class while the teacher walked around to help those who needed help.

Besides these differences, Lim and Chan also observed some similar activities that have been carried out by both types of schools.

Teaching aids

The use of teaching aids to explain mathematical concepts was not frequently used by both types of schools.

School facilities

In terms of school facilities, both types of schools were found to have set up "the mathematics corner" and the "the mathematics teacher committee". The mathematics corner was a small space on the notice board at the back of the classroom. In most cases, they found that only some charts were displayed on it. Meanwhile, the mathematics teacher committee was set up among the mathematics teachers to plan and discuss annual activities and teaching problems. Their planned activities include tuition classes and mathematics quizzes and competitions.

Mathematics achievement

Lim and Chan used three tests to determine the mathematics achievement of the Malay pupils. Test 1 aims to test the understanding of basic concepts, Test 2 the computational skills and Test 3 the ability to solve word problems. Their results show that the Malay pupils of the SK school performed better in Test 1 and Test 3, whereas the Malay pupils of the SRJKC school did better in Test 2. Perhaps this is not a surprise because to understand the mathematical concepts (Test 1) or to solve word problems (Test 3), one needs a mastery of language used. As most Malay pupils from the Chinese medium school (55%) failed their Chinese language in mid-year examination, this shows that they are weak in the language used as the medium of instruction. Thus this may explain their low performance in the two tests too.

Nevertheless, this is a very interesting finding because it highlights the important role of language factor in mathematics learning. Although the Chinese medium schools appear to have better teaching strategies and better learning environments, this is still not enough to help their Malay pupils who are weak in their non-mother-tongue language, the Chinese language.

However, it was observed that the Malay pupils from the Chinese medium school performed much better in Test 2 (testing computational skills). Acccording to the researchers, the better performance in Test 2 may have been attributed by the strong emphasis of drill and practices given by the SRJKC school. Is this the possible reason?

Study 2: Primary mathematics learning and teaching in Chinese and Malay schools

Munirah & Lim (1996) compared mathematics teaching in two different ethnic schools – one Chinese primary (SRJKC) and one Malay primary school (SK). Both schools are located at the same region, just opposite each other. The methods used include observation of mathematics classes (one from each standard) and interviews with the headmaster, mathematics teachers and some pupils of the respective schools.

They observed differences in both headmasters’ and teachers’ approach to teaching and learning mathematics, particularly in the aspects of homework, learning of multiplication tables and tuition classes. Teachers from the Chinese primary school gave comparatively more mathematics exercises (a difference of 10-40 more questions in one thirty minute lesson) than the Malay primary school. Learning and memorisation of multiplication tables started much earlier in the Chinese primary school (from Standard Two) as compared to the Malay primary school (from Standard Five). Although headmasters of both schools used tuition classes as a means to improve their students’ mathematics achievement, the Chinese primary school headmaster regarded tuition classes as remedial classes for students who have difficulty in mathematics. Thus, tuition classes in Chinese primary school might start as early as Standard Four. Meanwhile, the headmaster of the Malay primary school seemed to hold a different aim for having tuition classes. As it was aimed to increase the number of students who would achieve higher grades in examinations, the tuition classes were given to pupils of Standard Six and of high ability groups only. These results suggest that there are cultural differences in both the headmaster and teachers’ preferences and choices for teaching mathematics between the different ethnic schools.

Study 3: Basic number concepts acquisition in mathematics learning: An exploratory cross-cultural study

Unlike the above two studies, which relate mathematics achievement to mathematics learning in general, Study 3 focused only on the acquisition of basic number concepts. It was a group project headed by Dr Yoong Suan and his colleagues in 1996-97. The main aim of the study was to investigate the acquisition of basic number concepts among the Malaysian Primary One students of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. The sample included 152 Primary One students, distributed as shown in Table 2.

Table 2: Distribution of sample by school type and ethnicity

Ethnic group


School stream (medium)

Row total

SK (Malay)

(3 schools)

SJK (Chinese)

(3 schools)

SJK (Tamil)

(2 schools)



Row %

Col %














Row %

Col %














Row %

Col %













Col total

Col %









Source: Yong et al, 1997, p.12

The main instrument used in this study was the Basic Number Concepts Test (BNC), developed by the research team in collaboration with three experienced primary school mathematics teachers. These three teachers, one each from each type of school, conducted the clinical testing to their pupils in the respective language media.

The BNC test consisted of 8 dimensions:

  1. General counting
  2. Skip counting
  3. Concrete counting
  4. Comparing quantities
  5. Word-symbol representation
  6. Place value concept
  7. Basic number concepts achievement
  8. Counting time up to 50

Highlights of main findings

1. By means of school mathematics test scores, the results show that there were more high mathematics ability students among the Malay sample than among the Chinese and Indian sample. It follows that there were more high mathematics ability students among the SK school than the other two types of schools.

2. The results of the overall BNC test show that students in the Chinese medium schools (SRJKC) performed significantly better than students in the Malay medium schools (SK), even though the Malay and Indian students scored significantly better than the Chinese students. This is interesting because it shows that school stream by medium of instruction may be a more important factor for mathematics achievement than ethnicity.

3. Comparing the different sub-dimensions of the BNC Test, the results suggest that students in the Chinese medium schools (SRJKC) performed significantly better than students in the Malay medium school in Counting Time to 50, Skip counting, word symbol representation and the acquisition of place value concepts.

4. The Malay students in the Chinese medium school performed significantly better than their counterparts in the Malay medium schools on the overall BNC Test, Counting time to 50, General Counting and word-symbol representation. The trends were similar for both high and low mathematics ability students of the Malay medium schools.

5. The Indian students in the Tamil medium schools (SRJKT) performed consistently better than their counterparts in either the Chinese medium or the Malay medium schools in terms of Skip counting, Concrete counting and Compare quantity. However, it was noted that the sample of Indian students in this study was over-represented by the high mathematics ability students and the Tamil medium schools were also mono-ethnic. Therefore caution is needed in comparing the results with other medium schools.

In general, the findings of this study suggest that there may be a strong Chinese cultural advantage in counting skills and basic number concepts acquisition. Yong et al (1997) propose that this advantage may have been related to the simpler and consistent number system of the Chinese language, as compared with that in the Malay or Tamil language. However, this claim is yet to be confirmed by further research. Although there is some evidence to show that some Malay students from the Chinese medium schools tended to use the Chinese number-naming system in their mental or oral computation even at higher grades.

Another interesting aspect of the finding is the importance of language in counting and basic concepts acquisition. The results of this study show that the low mathematics ability students who entered a school stream whose instructional medium was other than their mother tongue performed badly. This may be partly due to their poor mastery of the language. This problem was found to be universal for all the ethnic groups.

What can we learn from these studies?

Although all the above three studies are still exploratory in nature and their findings are far from conclusive, there are at least two significant issues that can be drawn out. Firstly, language seems to play a significant role in mathematics learning. As pointed out by Yong et al (1997), the Chinese language seems to have a cultural advantage over the other two languages, Malay and Tamil, particularly in terms of its simpler and consistent number-naming system. It follows that any student--Chinese, Malay or Indian--who is trained to use this numbering system may be able to count faster and memorise the number system faster than his counterparts who use other languages.

However, one needs to master a language well enough to understand the mathematical concepts and skills, to understand and solve mathematical problems that are posed in words. Thus, we observed that the Malay pupils who learn mathematics in a language which is not their mother tongue such as Chinese, may face difficulty in understanding the problem and thus do not do well in mathematics tests that involved word problems. Similarly, Chinese pupils from the Malay medium schools were not found to perform better than the Malay students of the same schools. Instead the Malay pupils from the Malay medium schools were found to perform significantly better than their Chinese counterparts in the acquisition of Basic Number concepts. Does this suggest that it is better to teach or learn mathematics in the pupil’s mother tongue language?

Secondly, findings from the above three studies strongly suggest that there are differences in teaching approaches that were adopted by the different medium schools. Chinese medium schools seem to favour more "lively learning atmosphere in class"; "plenty of drills and practices"; "more homework", "more tuition" as well as "more competition and quizzes". Consequently, pupils of the Chinese medium schools tend to perform better in computational skills and counting of number, as well as memorisation of multiplication tables. Even the Malay pupils from the Chinese medium schools were found to perform better than their counterparts in other medium schools with regard to computational skills.

Indirectly, all these findings seem to point to the direction that ethnicity may not be an important factor that determines a student’s achievement in mathematics. Language and teaching approaches that are adopted by a school may be more important than ethnicity. Implicitly, this means it is not that Chinese students are better than Malay students in mathematics, but it is the language and the mathematics learning culture that matter most.

In fact, it is the whole culture that supports successful mathematics learning. We know that culture can be a dubious term that encompasses many things from ideology to technology (White, 1959). In general, the word ‘culture’ can be taken as "a system of shared knowledge and belief that shapes human perceptions and generates social behaviours…"(Bennet, 1990, p.47). In other words, one shares similar models of perceiving, believing, doing, evaluating and interpreting within the same cultural group. Thus, culture is learned and not inherited (Hofstede, 1997). Thus, we see that it is not the issue that one culture or ethnic group might be fundamentally better at mathematics teaching, learning and achievement than another, but the different cultural practices, beliefs and values that might have helped to improve mathematics learning.

Suggestions for further study

However, there are much more to be explored and researched further if we are to look into the impact of culture on mathematics learning. One derives one’s culture from one’s social environment. Consequently, understanding our own and other cultures may help us "to clarify why we behave in certain ways, how we perceive reality, what we believe to be true, what we build and create, what we accept as good and desirable, and so on." (Bennet, 1990, p.47)

Therefore, to look into the impact of culture on mathematics learning, I suggest that further studies need to look at the following aspects:

  1. As suggested by Bishop (1988), there are 6 activities that have been found to be universal in every culture. These are counting, measuring, playing, locating, designing and explaining. Therefore further research may study the other 5 activities, to see whether there are cultural differences even within Malaysian culture.
  2. According to Hofstede (1997), values are the deepest manifestation of culture. Values are broad tendencies about how one ought to behave or prefer certain states of affairs over others. Thus, we need to study the different social and cultural values that have been manifested in the process of the teaching and learning of mathematics. These values include:
    (i) values that are manifested in goals and objectives of mathematics curriculum/education; (ii) values that are inherent in mathematics as a subject or discipline of study;
    (iii) values that underpin a mathematics teacher’s decision making and philosophy of teaching, such as preferences or criteria for making decisions during mathematics teaching (iv) values that influence teachers’ and students’ behaviours and attitudes towards mathematics, such as attributes or qualities of a successful mathematics learner;
    (v) values that are hidden behind unwritten rules or curricula (decided implicitly by all members of the school and its social community).
  3. All of these studies have sampled primary school pupils. Further studies therefore need to look into whether cultural differences that are rooted in primary school may be brought up to secondary and higher learning, too.

In fact, this list is by no mean exhausive.


Although there are not yet enough studies to make a substantial claim, a review of these studies suggest that it is not ethnicity that determines better performance in mathematics learning. Indeed, ethnic differences may bring about cultural differences in terms of language, practices, ritual, attitudes, values and beliefs. Perhaps these are the factors that give rise to different ways of teaching and learning approaches towards mathematics, and consequently might have resulted in differences in mathematics achievement.

It is true that all these constructs are so subtle and tacit that most of the time it is difficult for us to distinguish them. This may be one of the reasons that there are so few studies trying to untangle this mess. However, if we can show that ethnicity is not the causal factor, then we can argue that mathematics ability is neither inborn nor inherited. This also implies that we can improve mathematics achievement by ‘adopting’ some cultural beliefs, values, attitudinal changes of other cultural groups, even to the extent of ‘modifying’ disadvantages in language factor by adopting some new sign and symbols in language. This is not impossible if we strive hard enough. Of course, it is not easy to ‘change’ one’s culture or to ‘adopt’ others’ cultures. After all, culture can be learned and it is not inherited (Hofstede, 1997).


Bennet, C. I. (1990). Comprehensive multicultural education. Allyn and Bacon.

Bishop, A.J. (1988). Mathematical Enculturation-a cultural perspective on mathematics education. Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Hofstede, G. (1997). Cultures and Organizations: Software of the mind. McGraw Hill.

Husen, T. (Ed.). (1967). International study of achievement in mathematics: A comparison of twelve countries. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell.

Lim, Soo Kheng & Chan, Toe Boi (1993). A case study comparing the learning of mathematics among Malay pupils in primary national school and primary national type [Chinese} schools. Journal of Science and Mathematics Education in South East Asia, 16(2), 49-53.

Mullis, I.V.S. et al (1997). Mathematics achievement in the primary school years: IEA's third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).Boston College, MA: TIMSS International Study Centre.

Munirah.Ghazali & Lim, Chap Sam. (1996). Chapter 7: Primary mathematics. In Lee, Molly., Yoong, Suan., Loo, Seng Piew., Khalid, Khadijah., Ghazali, Munirah., & Lim, Chap Sam. (1996). Students' orientation towards science and mathematics: Why are enrolments falling? (Monograph series number 1/96). Penang, Malaysia: Universiti Sains Malaysia.

Robitaille, D. F & Garden, R. A. (Eds.). (1989). The IEA study of mathematics II: contexts and outcomes of school mathematics. Oxford: Pergamon.

Yoong Suan, Santhiran Raman, Fatimah Salleh, Lim Chap Sam, Munirah Ghazali (1997). Basic number concepts acquisition in mathematics learning: an exploratory cross-cultural study. Programme Innovation, Excellence and Research (PIER) grant. (research report)

Stigler J.W. and Baraness, R. (1988) Culture and mathematics learning. In Ernst, Z. Rothkorf (ed.). Review of Research in Education, v15, 1988-89. Washington D.C.: American Educational Research Association.

White, L. A. (1959). The evolution of culture. New York: McGraw-Hill.