On the Malaysian First Lady and Her Support for Gifted Education

Anyone who monitors international developments in gifted education will be aware of a steady stream of stories about the activities of Datin Paduka Seri Rosmah Mansoor, the wife of the Malaysian Prime Minister.

These prompted me to find out more about her background, her initiatives and their impact to date.

Rosmah Mansoor’s own website sets out the official biographical details, though there is much else of interest online, for Rosmah is clearly a controversial personality.

In what follows, I have tried to present a rounded picture that takes account of all perspectives. I make no personal judgement, as I have never met the subject, nor am I familiar with the wider political context in Malaysia.


Rosmah was born in 1951 in Negeri Sembilan into a family of educators. She attended Tunku Khursiah College, a prestigious boarding school for able girls, before completing a t degree in anthropology and sociology at the University of Malaya.

In 1975, she joined Bank Pertanian Malaysia (now Agro Bank) and, in 1978, completed a Masters in sociology and agriculture at Louisiana State University. She continued her employment with the Bank abroad, eventually returning to Malaysia in 1983 to become Business Development Manager at Island and Pensinular Berhad, a property development company.

During this period, she married Farid Ismeth Emir, a TV news presenter and they had two children. But in 1987 she left her job on becoming married to Dato Sri Mohd Najib bin Tun Hj Abd Razak, at that time Minister for Culture Youth and Sports. The future Prime Minister had divorced a previous wife and also had two children.

Najib became Deputy Prime Minister in 2004 and Minister of Finance in 2008, succeeding as Prime Minister in 2009.

There are unsubstantiated allegations that Rosmah was implicated in the murder of Shaariibuugiin Altantuyaa in 2006, maybe even at the scene of the crime.

In March 2007 she began to establish the PERMATA project to develop Malaysia’s human capital, building up a network that now comprises some 600 Permata Negara centres for early childhood education. The centres give priority to families with a monthly household income of less than 1,500 Malaysian Ringgit (RM) – just over £300. Some 24,000 children benefit from the scheme.

In 2009 the original Permata Programme was expanded to include three strands of gifted and talented education:

  • Permata Pintar for academically gifted children
  • Permata Seni for those with talent in the performing arts and
  • Permata Insan for those with ‘spiritual ability’.

In 2010, the Malaysian Government committed RM100m (some £20m) to the Permata Programme. The 2011 budget increases this allocation to RM111m.

Permata Pintar

Permata Pintar was launched in March 2009 as a partnership between Government, higher education and relevant NGOs.

An inaugural three-week National Residential Camp for 405 gifted learners aged 9-15 took place in December 2009. The participants had been selected through a two-stage process instigated at the launch.

There was initial concern at the low level of participation in the test – only about 1,000 learners undertook the initial test in the first month, out of an estimated 140,000 learners in the top 5% by ability across Malaysia – so efforts were stepped up to publicise the opportunity in all schools.

Eventually some 212,000 children sat the initial test but only 4,682 went on to a second test and fewer than 10% of those were ultimately selected.

The Camp was set up by the Permata Division in the Prime Minister’s Office and the National University of Malaysia (UKM), with support from the Center for Talented Youth (CTY) at Johns Hopkins University in the US. Eight UKM lecturers were trained by CTY to deliver courses in subjects such as mathematical reasoning, biotechnology and cryptology.

Selected students chose two areas of study from three broad categories: science, maths and creative writing. They also took part in outdoor, sporting and artistic activities. In essence therefore, Malaysia is importing the well-established CTY residential summer school model.

Each student received a souvenir mug bearing the image of the Prime Minister and his wife – and the Prime Minister used the opportunity to give the new programme a higher profile.

‘All this while, we notice that our national education policy has classes for normal children and a special class for children with impaired vision, impaired hearing, children suffering from autism, down syndrome where all aspects of impairment and weaknesses are taken into account, but we forget that there are children with extraordinary intelligence. They are extraordinary in terms of how they think, extraordinary in terms of how they study. They too need a good learning method.

The time has come for us to draw up a plan on the needs of these children. I’m convinced that such programmes, whether kindergartens or schools for gifted children will bring a significant change for the better in the development of the people’s resilience in future.

In efforts to build a glorious nation, the fundamental ingredient must be a teaching and learning process that can churn out a knowledgeable society. We are aware that an empire that can withstand the test of time is not one that relies on military power, but one that is based on the power of its educated society.’

He took care to acknowledge the role of his wife, though not without an element of gentle mockery:

‘…although she is my wife, but where credit is due, credit should be given. She and the others are most committed and passionate in ensuring the success of this project. Their meetings are longer than the Cabinet Ministers’ meetings and this shows that they are most committed in creating a change in churning out a future generation that is highly capable.’

The second residential camp in December 2010 had some 600 participants. Well over 300,000 students aged 9 to 15 took the initial screening test, of which 3,900 qualified for the second level test. Almost 75% of the final 600 met the Permata criterion of being from families earning less than RM 1,500 per month.

There were eight overseas students from Brunei, India and Singapore. Students were also invited from Laos and Saudi Arabia, but it is not clear whether any attended. Thirteen different courses were offered in subjects such as Crystals and Polymers, Game Theory, Flight Science, Green Technology and Advanced Robotics.

Rosama made clear her intention that future camps would serve all the countries in the region. She also urged the creation of a charitable foundation to encourage business and industry to support the education of gifted learners.

The Permata Pintar Complex

The inaugural residential camp coincided with the launch of a project to construct a National Permata Pintar complex on the National University of Malaysia campus.

The first phase of the building was completed in January 2011 at a cost of some RM 32m. This included RM 9m for an auditorium and sports facilities, RM3.33m of which was supplied by Saudia Arabian Prince Saud al-Saud.

The Centre will eventually provide residential facilities and a school for 300 gifted students.

They will follow the mainstream Malaysian curriculum at the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) level (taken by all secondary students and broadly equivalent to our GCSE) including two foreign languages. But they will also be able to undertake O-level, A-level and Advanced Placement courses as well as the SAT. And they will be able to take up several first year undergraduate courses offered by the University’s Faculty of Science and Technology.

Fifteen teachers have been specially selected on the basis of their academic qualifications from over 2,000 applicants. The University has invited US and Australian experts to support the teachers’ professional development, including contingents from CTY, the Indiana State Gifted Program and the University of California.

The staff can look forward to ‘continuous training on weekends to help them discharge their duties effectively’.

So far, 138 outstanding students aged 16-17 have been selected, but only 115 have agreed to enrol – 71 boys and 44 girls. They were identified through the summer camp selection process.

Other parents are concerned about the entrance fee of RM 1,000 for each six month semester (so about £400 per year) but Rosmah has reassured them:

‘Some of the parents are earning below RM3,000 a month. They should not worry about the fees as I will negotiate with certain parties, particularly the prime minister, who is very keen on this school. God willing, we will find ways to address the needs of families who cannot afford to send their children here’

Permata seni

This performing arts programme was launched in January 2010 comprising a choir, for which 51 students passed the audition, and an instrumental programme for a further 32 children. A third dance section was subsequently added and, at the end of the year, 174 children gave two 90-minute performances, one for a public audience and one for special guests.

Each performance included ‘the dances of five races’, five choral pieces and four orchestral pieces and solos. The highlight was an ensemble finale performance of songs by Tan Sri P Ramlee.

Permata Insan

This Islamic religious education programme was developed by the Islamic Science University of Malaysia with support from the Islamic Development Department and is a collaborative effort with the King Abdul Aziz University, Riyadh, which has implemented a similar programme in Saudi Arabia.

The intention is to educate the students to understand and practise the teachings of the Koran, Forty-eight participants were chosen from some 9,000 candidates at Malaysia’s Islamic religious schools. They attended a residential camp and received additional online support to study at home.

The curriculum features the Koran and Sunnah, English, Arabic and human development (the latter incorporating creativity, ICT, mental arithmetic, critical thinking and problem solving).

First Ladies Summit

Rosmah proposed that the wives of national leaders should meet together to discuss issues in which they have an interest and where they can have an impact.

The idea was borrowed from Mrs Mubarak, Egypt’s first lady, who convened a similar event under the auspices of the Non-Aligned Movement in July 2009. Rosmah attended this event.

The Summit took place in October 2010 and has its own website. This is somewhat optimistic in claiming that

‘More than 20 First Ladies from Africa, Asia, South America, the Caribbean and Europe are set to attend’

Indeed, the initial target was to attract at least 30 first ladies but several dropped out and Western representatives were almost without exception absent.

In the event, just 14 made it in person, from Albania, Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Jamaica, Kiribati, Laos, Mauritius, Mozambique, Nigeria, Paraguay, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka and Zambia. There were also a further six representatives and 20 ministers of various nationalities.

The Summit had the theme ‘A Child Today; A Leader Tomorrow’. The Prime Minister opened it with his customary tone:

‘I know many people who think that when a bunch of wives get together, then it could be trouble for their husbands when the meeting is over. But I think this time it’s a bit different. It’s different because, firstly, the husbands are not the topic of conversation. And secondly because these remarkable ladies, who have been the strongest supporters of national leaders across different parts of the world, are here for a very determined purpose of doing something that is important for all of mankind. They are here to discuss and consider ways of teaching, moulding, and creating the leaders of tomorrow, the very people who will determine the fate of our future world.’

The key outcome was a declaration which refers to needing:

‘future leaders who are responsible and far-sighted, understand the impact of their decisions and are willing to go beyond self interest and boundaries to commit to a global partnership. These leaders have the ability to anticipate and solve current and future challenges with ethically and morally driven solutions for the welfare of their local and global communities. We agree that the future our children inherit will be the result of choices we make today.’

and sets out a resolution and commitment to tackle options drawn from a menu including:

‘Enhance teacher-training programmes to enable teachers to differentiate instructions for students with different needs, ranging from those with special needs to those who are gifted and talented…

Embrace innovative pedagogies to enhance critical and creative thinking and problem solving skills for all children….

Focus on integrated enrichment approaches including support to parents, to develop talent and creativity in all children…

Invest in programmes and services such as student councils, student government or parliament, youth fora, cultural exchanges and other leadership programmes to create young leaders with compassion, confidence and courage….

Partner with businesses, media and non profit organisations to establish scholarships, connectivity and other forms of support for children to develop their talents.’

Declaring the Summit a success, Rosmah concluded her closing speech by confirming Malaysia’s willingness to host the next event in 2012 – and expressing the hope that it would attract a wider range of participants ‘including those from the developed nations’.

Negative Reactions

The UN Secretary-General Ban-ki-Moon received and accepted the Declaration:

‘”Ban told me he would read the declaration and, if necessary, he would convene a summit where all first ladies would be invited to attend,” said Rosmah, who had accompanied Najib [her husband] to the 17th Asean Summit’

But the Wikipedia coverage notes concern that the limited attendance did not justify the excessive cost, put at MR 24 million.

There is also widespread concern that Rosmah does not have the constitutional right to assume the title of First Lady of Malaysia, which is reserved for the Queen Consort of Malaysia, Tuanku Nur Zahirah

A flavour of the wider domestic criticism faced by Rosmah can be gained from this blog and this newspaper article which argue that:

  • She is engaged in self-promotion which undermines her husband’s position.
  • Only one first lady from an ASEAN country (Laos) chose to attend the summit while Malaysia’s neighbours Singapore and Thailand elected to stay away.
  • Using the taxpayers’ money to support such self-aggrandisement is an abuse of power.
  • She spends too much money on herself, shopping on a vast scale and investing in opulent homes and expensive redecorations.
  • Permata receives special treatment, securing a huge grant within a week of the Prime Minister’s appointment and exempted from proper regulation.
  • She is in meddling in politics while unelected and so unaccountable to Parliament

It is clear that Rosmah divides opinion in Malaysia. Some fear and dislike her; others cannot fail to be impressed by her energy and commitment.

The Past and Future of Gifted Education in Malaysia

It remains to be seen whether the Summit will bring about greater Malaysian and global support for gifted education, but Rosmah must be commended for taking the initiative.

She may attract controversy and opposition – and her way of doing things may not always be consistent with a Western approach to democracy – but it is clear that the life chances of many gifted disadvantaged Malaysian children have improved significantly as a direct result of her work.

As her initiative develops she will need to ensure that it is sustainable beyond her husband’s term of office – and that it develops a Malaysian pedigree from its initial, very American origins.

This blog reminds us that there is prior experience of gifted education in Malaysia from which Permata can learn, notably the BAKA project, established by the University of Malaya in the 1980s. BAKA has its own website and is now clearly a commercial operation.

The writer, Azly Rahman, believes that Permata Pintar is importing a foreign model without considering its suitability to the Malay context. He celebrates the MARA Junior Science College which was designated as the first gifted and talented residential school in Malaysia and based on BAKA and an adapted version of Renzulli’s enrichment triad model.

He says the future

‘lies in the conception of intelligence as a cultural-bound, multi-faceted, multi-dimensional, and egalitarian construct. It also lies in the fact that a successful program need not be one borrowed from a faraway land in which costs and context become a criticism of an otherwise potentially successful endeavour. What can a multi-million Ringgit program do….rather than…showcase schools that will only potentially benefit a selected few?’

It sounds as though he is arguing for the integration of gifted education throughout Malaysia’s school system. I wonder whether Rosama will move in that direction next.


January 2011

2 thoughts on “On the Malaysian First Lady and Her Support for Gifted Education

  1. Several things struck me as I read through this post for the third time as well as several of the links therein: 1) It is a shame that so much drama surrounds someone who could really make a difference; 2) Concerning the First Ladies Summit … it is more important ‘who’ attended rather than how many attended and the outcomes of this summit as outlined in this post are an excellent argument for any gifted educational program; 3) the world could learn a lesson concerning the need for financial assistance for gifted students to receive educational opportunities lacking in public schools; and finally, 4) a society’s culture must be respected when considering how it will educate its youth. Thank you for yet another thought-provoking, well-researched post that should be read by everyone in the gifted community!

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