Malaysia: Consensus on language debate unlikely

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Tue Dec 16 16:37:45 UTC 2008

Consensus on language debate unlikely
By : Koh Lay Chin and David Yeow

KUALA LUMPUR: The final roundtable on the teaching of Science and
Mathematics in English will be held today but it is unlikely that
common ground will be found, according to sources involved in the
discussions. The battle lines have been drawn and have remained fixed.
There are those for the continuation of the six-year policy, and those
against. There are those who seek a compromise, such as teaching in
English for only upper primary pupils. There are those who advocate a
"to each his own" approach, where schools are allowed to teach the two
subjects in whatever language the parent-teacher association agrees

Sources familiar with the discussions say one thing is certain --
there is no unanimity, either in Malay and Chinese groups or among
teachers and parents. Even within organisations and political parties
there are differences. The New Straits Times understands that in the
National Union of the Teaching Profession, parent-teacher associations
and political parties, there are heavyweights with views contrary to
the "official stance" of their bodies. Caught in the middle of the
polemics is the Education Ministry, which had expressed its desire to
be neutral and consultative.

Education director-general Datuk Alimuddin Mohd Dom acknowledges that
the issue has been a difficult one to navigate but that the ministry
was committed to getting views from all sides before Minister Datuk
Seri Hishammuddin Hussein makes his case on the policy to the cabinet.
"Nothing is in black and white now, and we have had very interesting
views from across the board. What we are trying to do here is to
register all the opinions. "It is not like we are going to debate in
the meeting and attempt to reach a decision there itself," he said

There will be 200 politicians, academicians and representatives of
non-governmental organisations and parent-teacher associations
gathering today, but unlike previous discussions, which allowed some
debate, the meeting today will be simpler. The parties will be allowed
to state their views for about five minutes each. There will be three
papers presented on the merits and demerits of the policy -- an
analysis by the Malaysia Examination Syndicate in view of the recent
Ujian Pencapaian Sekolah Rendah results, a summary of the views
presented at the four previous meetings, and a presentation by the
Australian Qualification and Standard Assessment Body.

The Australian presence has been sought because the body has been
involved with the ministry for several years in analysing the standard
of public examinations here, in this case the UPSR. The most vocal of
the "Go English" proponents are the Parent Action Group for Education
(Page), who had stated they wanted the policy to stay in primary and
secondary schools.  Its chairman, Noor Azimah Abd Rahim, said while
there was the perception that Page represented just the views of urban
teachers and parents, it had received support from parents in rural
areas like Keningau and Tawau in Sabah and Long Lama in Sarawak.

"Even parents of children who attend Chinese and Tamil schools have
conveyed to us their desire for the policy to be maintained.
"Some of these parents themselves do not speak English yet they
understand its importance and urge us to speak on their behalf."
But there are deep divisions among parents. The National
Parent-Teacher Association Council, which is against the policy,
recognises that some of its members, the more educated or from higher
income groups, want the subjects taught in English. However, council
president Prof Dr Mohamad Ali Hassan said the council was of the
opinion that up to three-quarters of the stakeholders involved were
advocating that primary schools teach the subjects in the mother

"It is clear that Chinese and Tamil schools want to revert to Mandarin
or Tamil, and around 70 per cent of Malays want it taught in Bahasa
Malaysia. So what is there left to debate?" Teachers are also split,
with urban teachers saying the policy must remain for the betterment
of pupils, and others are insistent that rural pupils are unable to
cope with the subjects in English.  Many are of the opinion that at
the very least, younger primary pupils should be allowed to learn in
their mother tongue and that Science and Mathematics terms in English
are gradually introduced.

On the other side of the debate are Malay and Chinese linguists, who
want a complete policy reversal to teach the two subjects in Bahasa
Malaysia or Mandarin. It is understood that the ministry, while
appearing neutral, privately hopes to continue the policy as it would
rather obtain more concrete statistics and analyses on examination
results, instead of switching it midstream.  "What is interesting is
that during one particular round-table, even students and teachers
from the same school were divided in their opinions.
"Some teachers wanted to revert to the mother tongue, but the students
said they were fine with learning the subjects in English," a ministry
official said.

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