Malaysia: Let the schools decide what language we teach in

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Fri Dec 19 15:26:29 UTC 2008

Let the schools decide

DEC 19 — The language debate has polarised the country yet again.
Today, front and centre is the issue of education: what language
should we teach our children in? The government has been pushing for
pro-English reforms, while prominent educationist groups have been
pushing back. One insists on a uniform pro-English policy; the other
insists on a uniform pro-mother tongue policy. But if you ask me, it
seems silly to expect one policy to be as effective in one place as it
is in another; each community has different needs, and different
priorities. Why not let each school decide on an individual basis how
and where to use English?

That local control has been considered as a possibility is apparent:
at a roundtable meeting of Education Ministry and NGO representatives,
one alternative policy mentioned was to permit different primary
schools to set their own policies on the teaching of science and
mathematics in English. I have to say I am rather disappointed it
seems that this unusual proposal was not looked into further. It
strikes me as the most sensible and workable compromise to the variety
of perplexing problems we face.

Realistically, any cookie-cutter policy we decide on is going to be
harmful to somebody. Let's say 99 per cent of all communities in the
country would be positively affected by the teaching of science and
maths in English, and 1 per cent would be negatively affected. Making
everyone learn science and maths in English would negatively affect
that 1 per cent. You can also look at it the other way round; if 99
per cent of all communities benefit from teaching science and maths in
the mother tongue, and 1 per cent do not, then the 1 per cent loses
out. But if we give each school the freedom to choose what language to
teach in, we circumvent this problem: the 99 per cent for whom it is
beneficial will adopt the policy themselves, and the 1 per cent for
whom it is not will take the other route — and everyone wins.

The only reason you would not want to do this is if you believe
individual schools either do not have the best interests of students
at heart, or are too stupid to pick the policy which would benefit the
most students. The solution to this would be greater accountability.
At the moment, parent-teacher associations aren't much beyond
fundraising groups and figureheads in most schools; they could be an
effective outlet for conveying parents' sentiments to the
administration. The Education Ministry also ought to play a more
proactive role in disciplining school administrators who do not pay
attention to the problems parents bring to their attention. Combined,
these provide a powerful incentive for schools to pick the policy
which is best for their students: there is every reason to believe
that giving schools a choice would ultimately benefit more students
than settling on one uniform policy for every school in the country.

If you are not convinced, let's think about this further: there are
many pros and cons to teaching science and maths in a particular
language. However, the applicability of these pros and cons will vary
from school to school and student to student. In some schools, the
parents and teachers will find using English in science and maths
conducive to enhancing students' command of the English language; in
other schools, parents and teachers might find it a hindrance instead.
Some parents believe strongly in the importance of English, while
others dismiss it as not very useful. Both sets of parents can have
their way if the language policy is determined on a school-by-school

You might see this as a wishy-washy compromise because it avoids
passing judgment on who is right; it lets individual schools decide on
what works best for them. But that is the whole beauty of the idea: it
acknowledges that God makes each of us as different people, with
different beliefs, different abilities, different personalities, and
different styles of learning. What is right for you may be wrong for
me; one man's meat is another man's poison.

And there is no reason to limit school autonomy to just the issue of
teaching science and maths in English; I believe most of our public
schools could do with a lot more freedom. I think a
commonly-overlooked potential reason for the educational success of
Chinese schools — and why they have such fanatic defenders — is the
nature of how they are governed. Because they are run by independent
school boards and accountable to the community they serve, they have a
much greater incentive to respond to the demands and desires of
parents, creating better educational outcomes. There is no reason we
cannot replicate this governance structure in our other public

We tout our diversity all the time, but rarely do our policies and
politicians actually try to deal with diversity. Pushing the same old
cookie-cutter policies, which work by assuming what is good for one
must be good for all, will not accomplish very much in a society as
plural as ours. Every community and every individual in this country
has different wants and needs. Isn't it time we had an educational
policy which tried to cater to these differences, instead of ignoring

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