Malaysia: Weighing all the pros and cons

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sun Dec 14 13:04:22 UTC 2008

Weighing all the pros and cons

Caught between the rock and a hard place, Education Minister Datuk
Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein faces the difficult decision of whether
or not to revert the teaching of Maths and Science to Bahasa Malaysia.
In the first part of a two-part series, the minister tells Sunday Star
that all will be revealed very soon. FOR and against – there is a
chasm between those in favour of the teaching of Mathematics and
Science in English and those pressuring the Government to revert to
Bahasa Malaysia as the medium of instruction for the two subjects.

>>From the time then Prime Minister and Umno president Tun Dr Mahathir
Mohamad announced the policy change in 2002 to help arrest the
declining standards of the English language among students, there has
been consistent resistance to the move.

Tough decision: For sure the decision awaiting Hishammuddin and the
Cabinet will not be an easy one; whatever the decision there will be
unhappy people.  Within classrooms and staffrooms, in homes and
offices, parents, teachers, students and educationists have expressed
a range of views, while letters to the editors in vernacular and other
newspapers appear almost every day. Even the late Tan Sri Abdul Rafie
Mahat, who was then the director-general of education in charge of
implementing the change in policy faced much opposition amidst the
hasty implementation to the policy, describing the task as "seven
months of hard work".

The Teaching of Mathematics and Science in English (ETeMS or better
known by its Malay acronym, PPSMI) policy was implemented in phases,
beginning with Year One, Form One and Lower Six students in 2003. The
first cohort who completed six years of primary schooling and studied
the two subjects in English received their Ujian Pencapaian Sekolah
Rendah (UPSR) results last month. Education director-general Datuk
Alimuddin Mohd Dom disclosed that between 31% and 46% of them answered
the questions for the two subjects entirely in English (they have a
bilingual option).
A total of 159,234 pupils answered the Science paper in English and
238,153 for Maths, a significant increase over last year's figure of
1,324 for Science and 1,075 for Maths.

The results have been much awaited. Education Minister Datuk Seri
Hishammuddin Tun Hussein announced that he would wait for this
concrete piece of statistics before coming to a decision on whether or
not to revert to Bahasa – and he is under tremendous pressure to do so
from many quarters, including Umno and MCA. When asked if he would
make a politically biased decision on this matter, he says: "I can
only speak for myself and it's definitely not going to be political
one. If it were, I would have changed the policy three years ago when
I became the minister.

"It is something that I came in with; it is not something I created."
Hishammuddin says the Education Ministry (MOE) has held four
roundtable discussions with stakeholders to gather their views on the
policy over the past year. A fifth and final one will be held on
Tuesday to discuss the analysis of the UPSR results. "After six years,
it is time for us to look at it (the policy) – based on facts, figures
and without emotion. "I am glad we had the roundtable discussions
because in the past, we only heard the views of those who are very
loud; but since then, we have seen the silent majority coming forward

"I am sure that whatever decision we take will not satisfy everyone.
There are as many advocates as there are detractors, and the pros and
cons are equally substantive. Both sides have put forth strong and
convincing arguments." For sure the decision awaiting Hishammuddin and
the Cabinet will not be an easy one; whatever the decision, there will
be unhappy people. "Making a decision is not about satisfying any
group in particular, but about making a choice on what is best for the
nation," he adds.

Below is an excerpt of the interview with Sunday Star.

There is obvious mixed response on whether the policy should revert to
Bahasa Malaysia or remain in English. Who makes the final decision?

The Cabinet will make the final decision. As far as how I have been
handling it, it has been non-political. I am glad we had the
roundtables because in the past we have heard the views of those who
are very loud but since then, we have seen the silent majority coming

The views are not just about mastering English but about the fear of
losing the identity in the context of Chinese education; and the
position of the national language.

With the UPSR results, at least we have shown that the "demonisation"
of the policy and the scare tactics of children failing and dropping
out ... that did not happen. I think we made the right decision by
waiting until the first batch completed the UPSR.

In any educational policy, there are always pros and cons – there is
no formula which will satisfy everyone, especially on an issue which
concerns so many.

There is concern that any decision made may be due to political
considerations rather than educational ones. What is your opinion on
this? And how do you ensure (and convince the public that) the
decision is free from political interference?

I am glad that we allowed our first batch of PPSMI students to undergo
this policy until they completed their UPSR examination.

Although we were pressured to make a decision earlier, I strongly
believe that it was a right decision. The students have been given the
avenue to show their capability without undermining their ability.

It might not be a black and white decision or a yes and no decision.
We have to study its overall impact and look at the educational,
social and economic considerations. The decision will be based on the
advice from the professionals in education but we will also take into
account other considerations.

This is the reason for the series of PPSMI roundtable discussions as
we need to listen to the views of the people as the policy will affect
the public at large.

Professionals in education including researchers from our public
universities were invited for the first roundtable.

The second roundtable was attended by representatives from
associations and organisations, professional bodies, corporate,
community leaders, parent-teacher associations and interested
individuals. Students, teachers and lecturers from matriculation
colleges and teacher training institutes attended the third session
while politicians attended the fourth. We also held a special meeting
with representatives from the teachers' unions and associations.

What do you see as the biggest pros for the English policy?

I think the reason for having the policy itself is a confusion – some
see it as a way to master English. Another school of thought says you
have to learn the two subjects in English.

Our solution depends on whether you look at mastering Science and
Mathematics and to do so in English, or mastering English. There are
many ways to do the latter, such as strengthening the subject or
introducing Literature in English.

Our teachers had to be trained to teach in English – it was a double
whammy as they not only had to relearn teaching in another language
but also learn to use the notebooks and projectors.

After six years, I do give credit to our teachers who worked very hard
– it was not a disaster. After six years, it is time for us to see it
(the policy) – based on facts, figures and without emotion. The
roundtables give a good perspective of the views out there.

A concern raised has been what happens if there is any policy change.
Will a child who studied the two subjects in English in primary school
have to study the two subjects in Bahasa Malaysia once he is in
secondary school?

We make it clear that whatever change, if any, will not happen
mid-stream. In other words, it will only affect those in a new batch
of Year One students.

Those who are already in the system will continue to study the two
subjects in English.

Children should not be treated like experiments and guinea pigs.

On the secondary school part, I feel the objection is not as intense
as in the primary school as the issues of national language and mother
tongue languages do not arise there.

Would you arrive at a compromise where the policy reverts in primary
school but students do the two subjects in English at secondary

I don't think I can decide now. It's too early to say one way or
another as I am not the expert. We are not just relying on experts any
more but listening to all stakeholders.

So I can't say that we are going one way or the other until I analyse
all the feedback received. Two things are clear – waiting until after
the UPSR was the right decision in my mind and my conscience is clear.

Secondly, having the roundtables and bringing the stakeholders on
board was the right thing because sometimes the silent majority do not
speak up and now they have had the opportunity to do so.

Many people including the Parent Action Group for Education (PAGE)
from SK Bukit Damansara (in Kuala Lumpur) feel that the best age to
learn a language is when children are young while some political
parties want to go back to mother tongue education in primary school
level. Are there more people now accustomed to and accepting of
English as the medium of instruction?

Various groups have expressed their opposing views during the
roundtable discussions. It is obvious that advocates or detractors of
PPSMI are representing and defending their own interests and opinions
and it is rather impossible to satisfy every quarter.

The decision on the future of PPSMI is indeed a tough decision because
of the complexity of the variables.

At the end of the day, we will need to arrive at a decision and put in
place strategies that will benefit our children.

Making a decision is not about satisfying any group in particular, but
about making a choice on what is best for the nation in the future.

Are you setting a deadline then on when the decision will be made?
Obviously it won't be implemented in the next school year beginning
next month.

No, you can't do it next year. I hope a decision can be made by
January next year. But for any decision made in education, the ground
work has to be done before anything can be implemented.

This is one thing I have learnt. It's one thing making a decision and
dealing with the repercussions. I have to consider the teachers,
textbooks, computers and software.

So without saying one way or the other, I think at least this one year
we have to make the preparation. But a decision on the policy will
have to be made soon. I think we have enough information.

Will it be in your new year address?

It depends on when we can table it to Cabinet and whether they are
happy about it. Then we have to bring it up to the Barisan Nasional

When the policy was first raised previously, it was at the political
level (Dr Mahathir announced the proposal made by the party's supreme
council in 2002).

You have said there is no political considerations but ultimately what
will happen in the decision-making?

I can only speak for myself and it's definitely not political. If it
was, I would have changed the policy three years ago. It is something
that I came in with. It is not something I created. It was already
political then. If I were playing politics, I would have changed it
then. Why go through all the heartache and uncertainty if it is just
merely politics? No, it's not in my nature to risk the future of our

You will be remembered as the Education Minister who reverted to
Bahasa or retained the status quo. Will there be a compromise? What is
your personal view?

Why do you look at it as a yes or no? It could (be a compromise)
because people look at it at politically. In education terms, we don't
have to look at it that way. My personal view is not important.

Do you find this issue to be one of your biggest challenges?

No, I think every issue at the Education Ministry is a challenge. It
is a very heavy ministry. If you combine the police, the armed forces
and health services, it still won't come up to the 480,000 people
that's under me right now.

Any decision that is made, you won't see the outcome, maybe not even
in your lifetime so any decision made must not be on emotions, or even
personal considerations. The consequences are far-reaching and the
issues are huge. PPSMI is just one that is sensational.

Do you feel ready to make the decision by January?

The decision is not mine but I would like to target it so it gives us
more time to prepare for a new intake.

If you want to start at Year One, any changes have got to be done
then. If there is no change, there is no need to prepare.

Once we have decided, we will announce it.

Will you wait and announce the decision after the Umno general
assembly in March?

If it is ready in time for assembly, we will announce it then but
there have been four assemblies before this and I have resisted from
announcing anything. This is a lose-lose situation as you can't
satisfy everybody.

As a politician, I would fight for it not to be announced at the
assembly as there are bound to be people who will be not be happy with

There are parents who are so concerned about the switch that they are
transferring their children from private schools to international

We have teachers who transferred themselves six years ago; but who
have since transferred back. It is fear of the unknown.

Have you taken into consideration the cost if the subjects revert to Bahasa?

I don't think there is a problem as the books are still bilingual as
are the examinations. I don't see any big problem. You have to look at
the majority as you can't cater for the minority.

Next week, Sunday Star looks at the pros and cons of Maths and Science
in English based on the findings of the roundtable discussions and
analysis of the UPSR results.
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