Malaysia: Pragmatic, not political, education policy

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sat Dec 13 16:40:45 UTC 2008

Pragmatic, not political, education policy

By Sekina Joseph
Column: Simple DreamsPublished: December 12, 2008TOOLBAR

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia — In line with the Malaysian government's goal
of developing quality human capital through lifelong learning, more
learning opportunities should be offered in English, as it is both a
universal language and the language of commerce. The end product of a
broad-based education is basically to churn out students with
effective communication skills, the knowledge to apply theory to
practice and an entrepreneurial mindset. While this type of education
does not help students focused on a narrow discipline, it is a
definite advantage for those who wish to develop critical thinking
skills, communication abilities and leadership prowess.

Also, providing quality education to students of all backgrounds and
abilities should be a goal of the Education Ministry, as the present
system is not doing the nation proud as far as race relations are
concerned. Rather, the system is working against national unity. First
and foremost, a comparative study should be undertaken between two
control groups studying mathematics and science, one studying in
English and the other studying in Bahasa Malaysia, the national
language of Malaysia. By doing so, significant differences in the
learning ability of students due to language can be pinpointed. This
can help us understand the impact of the learning environment and the
effectiveness of methodology.

Without a credible comparative study, it is difficult to gauge whether
or not students would fare better if they studied mathematics and
science in English. With a proper study in place, national schools
could then encourage and push for excellence in English as opposed to
basic proficiency.
In 2009, the issue of language and educational policy emanating from
the Ministry of Education will be a focal point of discourse, since
the government will decide whether science and mathematics will
continue to be taught in English. This decision will be based on
results of the current Year 6 government examination, or the primary
school evaluation test.

Some Malay nationalists have support from Chinese and Tamil educators
to cease education of the two subjects in English. However, others
oppose this and want English to be the medium of instruction for the
two subjects. They argue that the areas of science and technology will
dominate in the future globalized world and so the current generation
of young minds should be prepared to deal with them in English.
Although I am very patriotic and proud of my national language –
Bahasa Malaysia – the point is that one has to look at the future of
Malaysian children from a pragmatic point of view.

It is English that is increasingly providing access to science and
technology. So, if Malaysian children are to be part of this
scientific world, they must master not only science and technology,
but also English. The language skills should be mastered from
inception and not in a hodgepodge manner.
The English language policy has been in force for six years since
2002, and it is too early to discard it in favor of Bahasa Malaysia.
Those who are calling for a reversal are not considering the long-term
interests of students and the nation. However, if students do have
problems studying mathematics and science in English, the solution is
not to abandon the language, but instead to find ways and means to
improve their competency in it.

If teachers lack English language proficiency, or if Malaysia has a
shortage of qualified English teachers, then the country must contract
teachers from the United Kingdom through the British Councils, or
through other avenues. This is one way to solve the problem, so that
schools can get highly qualified English teachers. Also, teachers on
their own initiative should enroll in one of many English language
programs or join evening adult education programs in English. Also,
teachers should just start practicing conversing in English, which can
lead to a gradual increase in vocabulary and related skills.

However, the question remains as to why the majority of our students
fail to master even the rudiments of the English language. Formal
procedures and teaching alone are not helping our students to be
proficient, and there could be other underlying problems. Students may
not be taking the subject seriously or may not have any genuine love
for or interest in it. To many, it could simply be a curriculum
requirement, while others may lack proper encouragement from parents
and teachers. Yet others may also find it difficult to understand
books written in English. A student in Malaysia spends around 14 to 15
years learning English in a formal setting, yet the majority of
students continue to have problems with the language.

The advantages of learning English cannot be overemphasized and I
would plead with our children to look at English from the wonderful
perspective that it opens doors wherever one goes, including job
hunting. I hope and pray that the Education Ministry will come to a
well-considered decision, minus the politics – one that is based on
economic reasoning and a premium on human capital, in the direction of
progress and advancement, for the common good.
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