Malaysia: The selfishness of all sides

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sun Dec 14 13:08:45 UTC 2008

The selfishness of all sides

In case any of our readers are wondering, no, I've not lost track of
the current debate on teaching Science and Math in English. Partly
because of time and partly because of the complexity and the deep
feelings which all sides have on this issue, I've tried to take a
little bit more time to digest and reflect on the latest round of
reactions and counter-reactions to this issue. My gut tells me that
the Education Minister, Hishamuddin Tun Hussein, will probably revert
to teaching Science and Math in BM, Chinese and Tamil at the primary
school level but allow this policy to continue at the secondary school
level. It will be a political decision, even if the Minister says
otherwise. The sad thing for me is that most of the people who are
pushing for a reversion back to the old policy are doing it for
selfish reasons and do not have the benefit of the students in mind.
I'll explain what I mean by this.

Most of those who are pushing for a reversion to the previous policy
of teaching Science and Math either in BM or in a student's mother
tongue (Chinese and Tamil) are doing so because of 'nationalist'
reasons. I say this because of a few reasons. Firstly, the results for
the first batch of students who have undergone 6 years of this policy
and took their UPSR exams recently, have not been announced yet. These
will be made public soon, according to the Minister. If the results
have not yet been divulged, I'm not sure if any of these groups who
want to revert to teaching in BM, Chinese or Tamil, can make the claim
that the policy has caused a deterioration in the Science and Math
results of these students. They may point to anecdotal evidence for
this occurring but they would not have been able to back it up with
the proper statistics.

Secondly, all or most of these groups 'claim' that they do think that
improving the command of English among students is something that they
care about and is something important to them, but almost all of them
do not put forth any credible suggestions on how the standard of
English among our students can be improved after the reversion of
teaching Science and Math back to BM, Chinese or Tamil. Other than the
not very helpful suggestion of putting more resources into improving
the teaching of English itself. My sense is that these groups would
not protest one iota if the they got their way on the Science and Math
issue and nothing is done about improving the quality of English
courses in our schools.

It seems a little ironic to me that the different 'nationalist'
groups, who are usually at each other's throats, can unite over this
issue because of their aversion to the policy of teaching Science and
Math in English. While one may doubt the efficacy of this policy in
terms of either improving the quality of English or the standard of
Science and Math among our students, I have no doubt that reverting to
the previous policy, without doing anything else, will definitely NOT
improve the standard of English among our students.

I have a few thoughts on this issue after having a long conversation
with a friend a few weeks back. I'll share them with you here. There
is no way that the command of the 'mother tongue' among Malay, Chinese
and Indian students will be and has been significantly affected by the
teaching of Science and Math in English, especially if they come from
families where the dominant language is their mother tongue. They will
continue to remain proficient in these languages. Their job prospects
in the future will not be affected because they did not study Science
and Math in their mother tongue.

In addition, I do not suspect that the results of any of these
students in Science and Math would have been greatly affected by this
policy change. My rationale for this is simple. The results of
students is affected much more by their home environment firstly and
by the quality of teachers, secondly, regardless of what language they
teach in. Students from families which are stable, middle class and
who have degrees and / or are teachers themselves are likely to do
better in school and in Science and Math compared to students from
families which are less financially stable. Students from urban areas
are much more likely to do better in school because they are likely to
have better teachers in their schools.

Let me give you a more concrete example. I have a friend who's about
to graduate from Duke. His family is from a semi-rural part of
Selangor and he was from a Chinese primary school and a national
secondary school were the main medium of communication was Chinese
even though all of the subjects were taught in BM. He probably had a
better command of English than many of his peers because of his
diligence but he would be the first one to admit that the standard of
his English was nowhere near that of his counterparts from the urban
areas in Penang, PJ / KL and Ipoh. He was a good student (all A1s in
his SPM except for Chinese). Because he could not get a JPA
scholarship (A2 in Chinese was his 'downfall'), he looked for other
avenues including applying to the United World College (UWC) system.
He got the scholarship but it was clear to him that his preparation as
well as his standard of English was nowhere near those who applied and
also got this scholarship. In fact, he was the fist person from a
Chinese school background to successfully apply for and get this

My point of bringing up this person's experience is this. The networks
that can be found in urban areas that help kids apply for scholarships
such as the Asean scholarship or the UWC scholarship cannot be
replicated in the rural areas or even in the Chinese schools in the
urban areas by having Science and Math taught in English. But by
forcing these kids and exposing them to English earlier in life
(meaning from the primary school level), you would be giving SOME of
the them the opportunity to be exposed to things that you would only
have gotten through a decent command of English, including the
opportunity to apply for scholarships in overseas universities and
also private institutions locally. Not having any exposure to English
at an early age provides an immediate disadvantage to these students.
Not to mention the impact it would have on their job prospects later
in life.

I know I am going to accused of being elitist when I say this but if
one were to do a survey of the non-Malays in the top universities in
the UK, Australia and the US, one would find that those who are NOT
from a Chinese primary school background would be severely over
represented, even after controlling for things like family background
and income.

The hypocrisy of the situation is ever worse when one considers that
many of the leaders in these 'nationalist' organizations actually have
the means and the opportunity and the networks to have their children
achieve a relatively proficient level of English. Certainly to a level
which would enable many of them to apply and gain entry into some of
the top universities in the English speaking world.

Furthermore, my sense is that those who would be the worst affected by
a reversion back to the policy of teaching Science and Math in the
mother tongue language are Malay students in rural areas. Chinese
students, and to a lesser extent, Indian students, can find
alternative ways of pursuing a higher education in Taiwan or China or
India and even gain employment in these countries after that,
especially with the rapidly growing economies of China and India. But
even then, the ability to have a good command of English are important
in both these countries especially in China where many locals are
making themselves more marketable by learning English. (Indeed one of
the strengths of Msian workers in China is that their command of
Chinese is as good as the locals but they have a far superior command
of English. I'm talking about those from Chinese schools of course.)

The Malay kids from the rural areas don't have this option. If their
command of English is not good by the time they enter university,
their employment options are extremely limited and their promotion
prospects are also extremely limited.

One of the main beneficiaries of the low standard of English in our
country is the limited number of professionals of all races who
possess a good command of English. Ironically, the middle class
parents from English speaking backgrounds in the major cities in
Malaysia should join in the chorus of these 'nationalists' by
insisting that the ministry reverts back to its old policy of teaching
Science and Math in BM, Chinese and Tamil. Better yet, ignore the
slide in the standard of English in this country. This way, their sons
and daughters can continue to benefit by having the advantage of being
more proficient in this language compared to their peers from non
English speaking backgrounds, especially those from the rural areas.

I will propose one suggestion here which I think may be part of an
overall program that may reduce this rural-urban divide in terms of
the standard of English of our students. It probably will make a small
dent in this divide but it's a start. I propose that the government
set up something that is similar to Teach for America or Americore
where teachers / individuals are given incentives to spend a year or
two or three to teaching English (or other subjects) in rural schools.
I recall that something like that was arranged by UKEC (sorry for the
earlier error) called Project Kalsom but what I'm proposing is
something more long term and involves professionals / students /
individuals spending more than one week or two in the rural areas.
This way, these teachers can not only bring their skills in terms of
teaching of different subjects in English but also bring their know
how in terms of teaching these kids how to apply for different
scholarships and also exposing them to the larger world beyond that in
their own 'kampungs' so to speak.

Another suggestion put forth is the establishment of rural Islamic
schools that uses English as the main medium of instruction. This was
put forth by Bakri Musa who discusses this issue in great detail and
with great measure. I'd encourage everyone who's interested in this
issue to read Bakri's post.

To conclude, I'd advise everyone who has an interest in this issue of
think of the implications of reverting to the previous policy of
teaching Science and Math in BM, Chinese or Tamil. Think specifically
of what other policies can and should be introduced to improve the
standard of English among Malaysian students especially those from
rural areas and those from non-English speaking backgrounds.
Especially if you think that having a good command of English is an
important asset to possess.

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