Teaching Science and Maths in English (Malaysia)

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Sun Apr 3 18:55:05 UTC 2005

>>From the New Straits Times, April 3.

                 OPINION: Too early for a verdict
                 Abdul Razak Ahmad

                 Objections on teaching Science and Maths in English
became a hot topic when framed within the interests of the national
language and the Malay community.  ABDUL RAZAK AHMAD examines the
arguments and discovers them unfounded.  WHAT can threaten the development
of Bahasa Malaysia and put the future of Malays at risk?

                 The English language, when it's used to teach Science and
Mathematics in schools. The assertion sounds far-fetched, but when it came
up during the Second Malay Education Congress in Kuala Lumpur last week,
it landed squarely in the spotlight of public attention.  After all, this
is not just an issue regarding two school subjects. Unhappiness over the
two-year-old policy to switch the teaching of the two subjects to English
has somehow become intertwined with clarion calls about the importance of
defending the national language, Malay interests, and a sprinkling of
anti-colonial sentiments.

                 "The potential of Bahasa Malaysia as a medium of
communication in Mathematics and Science is denied and seemingly
unrecognised (because of the policy), and because of this the language
(BM) will never develop,"  wrote Kamal Sukri Abdullah Sani in the findings
of his research entitled, "The Effects of Using English in the Teaching of
Science and Mathematics in Malaysian Education Institutions".  Kamal
Sukri's research was one of several compiled into a book, copies of which
were included in the kit handed out to participants of the congress.
Another paper included in the book was by Dr Nor Hashimah Jalaluddin and
entitled, "The Acceptance of the Teaching of Science and Mathematics: A
Conflict Between Two Classes". Her paper puts it that the policy would,
among others, be harmful for national unity.

                 "The regression back to the education policy of the
colonialists invites problems in (widening) the gap between the ethnic
groups," she wrote.  Other research papers included in the book said that
since the acquisition of knowledge in Science and Mathematics can happen
in any language like Arabic, Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean, then why do
we need English in the first place?

                                 Congress committee chairman Tengku
Razaleigh Hamzah in his speech at the opening of the event on March 26
echoed the concerns and criticisms. "We must take immediate action to
correct any wrong or bad decision before hundreds of thousands of Malay
pupils bear the negative impact, which is not due to the pupil's fault but
possibly due to the mistake of policy.  "Many quarters suggest that the
policy should be re-examined. Either reverse it, or take a middle path,"
was Tengku Razaleighs point.

                 The critics assertion that the policy is damaging the
position of the national language and would disadvantage many rural Malay
pupils, appears to make for a strong case to revert back to Bahasa
Malaysia in the two subjects.  But Professor Datuk Dr Shamsul Amri
Baharuddin, director of the Institute of the Malay World and Civilisation
at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, is unimpressed.  "I've been pondering
the arguments for quite some time and the conclusion I have made is that
the critics are confused," he says.

                 Shamsul says he finds the arguments by the policys
critics hard to swallow because they do not seem to understand the
distinctions between two very different roles of language: As a
nation-building tool, and as a tool to impart knowledge.  "The critics say
we can only have one common language to build our nation, which in our
case, is Bahasa Malaysia. Fine, because they are arguing on the basis that
you can only have one single language for nation-building, "And then they
say we can use any language to acquire knowledge, not just English, which
is the universally accepted medium in the fields of Science and

                 "So how can they go on to assert that we should only have
Bahasa Malaysia as a medium for Maths and Science, if their argument is
that knowledge can be imparted in any language?"  He calls this technique
of arguing an epistemological "silap mata" (sleight of hand). "These
people are switching their arguments between two very different concepts
of language. They end up singing the wrong tune at the wrong event."
Shamsul is also upset over the critics' dire predictions that Bahasa
Malaysia will die out as a language of imparting knowledge because of the
policy. "I protest this line of argument and will stand up to defend
Bahasa Malaysias ability to thrive. Why prejudge the language to fail in
imparting knowledge just because we switch the medium in two subjects?"

                 Despite the differences of opinion, there is common
concern over how pupils are coping. The Education Ministry recently raised
worries on the performance of pupils at rural schools in the two subjects,
which remains weak since the policy took effect in 2003. The performance
of secondary schools was meanwhile classified as merely "average".  But
the key to untangling the web of sentiments attached to the issue is
deciding what the problem is in the first place. Is it a weakness in
Mathematics and Science, or is it a language issue, or one of nationalism,
or a lack of infrastructure or properly trained teachers?

                 The missing link, according to Shamsul, is actually
English language proficiency.  "Let's deal with the proficiency aspect,
because then it wouldn't matter if the policy is maintained or reversed,"
he says.  Dr Ismaznizam J Azyze from UKM's School of Language Studies and
Linguistics, cites an example. A pupil scores an "A" for English in his
Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia and is accepted into a public university to
pursue a degree in English.  "We then discover that he is not able to
communicate in the language, and you wonder how our pupils are taught
English in schools," he says.

                 The other hurdle is the shortage of teachers.
Secretary-general of the National Union of the Teaching Profession, Lok
Yim Pheng, says the reluctance of many teachers to serve in the smaller
towns and villages is to blame for the current shortage of rural
Mathematics and Science teachers.  "We end up having to rope in Bahasa
Malaysia teachers to teach Mathematics and Science, which they are not
familiar with, and using English to boot," says Lok.

                 "And because the post- training monitoring is poor, no
one really knows for certain how these teachers get along and what
problems they face."  Despite the difficulties, neither Ismaznizam nor Lok
feel that it is wise to reverse the policy. Both say that although there
are serious problems requiring urgent attention, Malaysia has to forge
ahead.  "Reversing to Bahasa Malaysia in the two subjects now will create
more negatives than positives," says Lok.

                 "We just have to be patient and not expect overnight
success," says Ismaznizam.  As ex-Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad
put it in an interview with Utusan Malaysia on Tuesday, the only way for
Malays to progress is if they were willing to face some initial hardships.
Asked whether he saw it necessary to "force" the teaching of Science and
Maths in English upon Malays, because the community would not be able to
gain mastery in the language and subjects otherwise, Dr Mahathir, under
whose administration the policy was introduced, replied:

                 "I think that if there is no element of forcing, then it
just wouldn't work. If we merely want life to be easy, then in the end we
will not have an easy life.  "If we are willing to face some hardships, in
the end we will make it."


More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list