Malaysia: Going for a compromise?
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Sun Dec 21 19:43:07 UTC 2008
Going for a compromise?
By LEANNE GOH and KAREN CHAPMAN
The stakeholders have spoken, both for and against the teaching of
Maths and Science in English. It will not be an easy decision to make
but a compromise may be the way out. THE writing is on the wall. The
policy of teaching Mathematics and Science in English at both primary
and secondary levels is likely to change in some ways. A senior
education officer who has been a strong advocate of the teaching of
the subjects in English and pretty optimistic up till recent months
that the policy would stay, concedes that "it's a slippery uphill
Since the change of medium of instruction six years ago from Bahasa
Malaysia to English, the voice of the dissidents has always been
louder and more dogmatic than of those in favour. And politically, it
has been a challenging task for Umno and MCA to soothe the ruffled
feathers of those who feel that the status and importance of the
national language is at risk and the Chinese school fraternity who are
upset that the role of the mother tongue is being compromised. Only
MIC stayed above the fray. By the time the Education Ministry had
concluded its fifth and final roundtable on the subject on Tuesday, it
still had not made a stand and was in the process of seeking the views
of Tamil schools and teachers.
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. But
the calls for reverting to Bahasa and mother tongue (Chinese and
Tamil) is strongest at the primary level. This is where a compromise
may be struck. Vernacular schools may revert to Chinese (the subjects
are currently taught in bilingual) and Tamil. Since there is
relatively subdued protests at the secondary level, especially from
the Chinese educationists, English would remain the language of
This would be the probable move should there be any change in policy
although views from the five roundtables have been summarised to offer
seven options. Some options suggest varying levels for the transition
from Bahasa to English while one is to revert to Bahasa at primary and
One of the more radical options would be to give schools autonomy to
decide for themselves their preferred language option. When the
suggestion was mooted before Education Minister Datuk Seri
Hishammuddin Tun Hussein in a recent interview with Sunday Star to
give more schools autonomy along the lines of cluster schools, he
"In principle, it is a good idea. But how can we implement this in a
manner that is feasible; who decides, how does the school come to a
It was clear at the fifth roundtable (the only one the media was not
barred from) that the stakeholders were clearly divided on the issue;
none sat on the fence except for perhaps the MIC representatives.
Deputy Education Minister Datuk Dr Wee Ka Siong who chaired the
day-long event, and assisted by director-general of education Datuk
Alimuddin Mohd Dom, picked a range of speakers (each were given
strictly six minutes) who represented divergent views.
There were Malay nationalists who expressed concern over the
displacement of Bahasa for the two subjects with one participant
saying "mati bahasa, mati bangsa". There were just as many who chose
to present in impeccable English and said they were no less patriotic
or Malay because of their proficiency in more than one language.
The representatives from MCA (including Dr Wee as chairman) and the
Chinese educationist group Dong Zong themselves, who were impressive
with their fluency in three languages, stated categorically that
children at Chinese primary schools must be allowed to master their
mother tongue through more than one subject while at the same time
improving their English.
Even Hishammuddin conceded at the interview that to make Chinese
schools teach Maths and Science in English would leave Chinese
language as the sole subject taught in that language. The other
subjects are Bahasa Malaysia and English language. The Chinese
educationists are naturally concerned and wary of further erosion of
the Chinese school culture and at the outset of the English policy,
the schools had collectively decided to encourage their pupils to sit
for the Primary School Achievement Test (UPSR) papers in Chinese.
Hence, one reason for the very low 2.86% who answered in English for
Science and 1.29% for Maths among the first cohort who went through
six years of bilingual teaching and learning.
In Tamil vernacular schools (SJKT), however, 62.76% of pupils answered
in English for Science and 89.11% for Maths.
No matter which side of the divide they belonged to, all the
stakeholders, including those who wished to revert to Bahasa and
mother tongue, were unanimous in their call for English to be
strengthened as a language.
Prof Datuk Dr Abdul Latiff Abu Bakar from the Federation of National
Writers Association (Gapena) who is in favour of reverting to Bahasa
agrees there is a need to strengthen English.
"We agree that English as a subject should be strengthened but does
this mean Bahasa Malaysia will be killed?" he adds.
Analysis of the UPSR results has disclosed that teaching the two
subjects in English has produced better results in the English
language paper, an improvement of 4.4%, while the performance in
Bahasa remained stable,
"Overall, the trend has been positive. Pupils have actually done
marginally better in many instances. More pupils in both urban and
rural schools scored A, B and Cs in the two subjects," says Alimuddin.
Another encouraging sign was that the number of pupils opting to
answer the two subjects in English had increased significantly,
reflecting greater confidence in using the language.
Of those in urban and rural schools who answered their Science paper
in English, 25% of As achieved came from the rural schools while 29%
was similarly achieved for the Maths paper.
Says an education officer who sat in for most of the roundtables, if
the decision were made purely based on the analysis of the UPSR
results of the first cohort, there would be no need to change the
medium of instruction. The pupils are coping satisfactorily and the
teachers are becoming accustomed to teaching in English.
Although there is still room for improvement in its implementation,
the results are pretty clear. However, he says that this cannot be the
sole criterion for the decision as there are other considerations in
the big picture.
There are stakeholders who feel there should not be a change
mid-course as six years is too soon to come to a conclusion either
way; the ministry should wait till this batch of students complete
their SPM in five years. If Hishammuddin – who had deferred making
this very difficult decision despite pressure for the past three years
and had insisted on waiting for the UPSR results first – seeks further
reprieve, he could go along with that.
Former Curriculum Development Centre director Dr Sharifah Maimunah
Syed Zin, who was part of the team which helped to implement the
teaching of Science and Mathematics in English when it was introduced
in phases in 2003, says: "There are always challenges with any
Dr Sharifah Maimunah feels that teachers who have problems should be
given more time and support to continue.
"I can understand that those in rural areas are left behind but there
is no guarantee that reverting to the old policy will mean they will
do better. At least their English will be better now (with the policy)
as they should not be deprived of the exposure to the language
(English)," she adds.
The language for Science
Several academics advocated the use of English in the teaching of
Maths and Science as it was the better language to learn scientific
terminology in. In the fast moving era of digital information and
scientific breakthroughs, there is nothing like being in sync with the
rest of the world.
Breaking through the world university rankings too would be aided by
publications in English which would be much more readily picked for
citations. And for that, says Universiti Sains Malaysia's Prof Dr
Ambigapathy, the nurturing must begin very early.
Prof Datuk Dr Nik Safiah Karim who is an advisor to the Linguistic
Society of Malaysia, however, questions the choice of Maths and
Science as the subjects for teaching in English.
"Would it not be better to select subjects which use more spoken and
written language such as History and Literature?" She believes "a
win-win situation" is one where due recognition is given to Bahasa
Malaysia as the national language of the country and English is
accepted as an important language in the global setting.
She says Bahasa Malaysia will play its role within the national
perimeters and English remains the language with access to new
knowledge frontiers and the language for international communication.
This however implies that most citizens in the country will practise
bilingualism and be proficient in at least two languages, Bahasa
Malaysia and English.
"Due recognition should be given to Bahasa Malaysia as the national
and official language, the language of government administration, and
the language in all formal and official activities," she says.
At the same time, Prof Nik Safiah believes that the teaching of
English in schools should be improved to ensure that students will
acquire it at a very satisfactory level.
"Not only should the methodology be changed but other factors such as
the creation of more opportunities for using the language within and
outside the school environment and increasing the motivation to study
English be increased," she says.
Those in the classroom
Parent Action Group for Education (PAGE) chairman Noor Azimah Abd
Rahim says there is no need to feel threatened by the teaching of the
two subjects in English as 60% of teaching time in school is still in
Bahasa Malaysia. Co-curricular activities, assemblies and other
activities as well as the administration of a school are all conducted
in the national language.
Noor Azimah, who claims that PAGE represents 3,000 schools in both
urban and rural areas, shares that the huge majority of the schools
want the subjects to continue being taught in English.
"As parents, we feel that the students' English will improve if the
policy continues. It will also give students a competitive edge."
She says the ministry should only assess the success rate of the
policy after the pioneer batch of students sit for the SPM examination
"It is premature to assess the policy any earlier than that."
SMK Bandar Tasik Selatan parent-teacher association president Morina
Abdullah shares that she conducted a survey among the parents in her
school on whether they wanted the teaching of Science and Mathematics
in English to be retained or reverted to Bahasa Malaysia.
"I found almost 60% want the policy to continue in English although
the students at the school are mainly from families living in low-cost
flats and their parents can't speak English.
National Association for Gifted Children Malaysia president Zuhairah
Ali says that it should be the children and not the adults who should
have a bigger say in a policy that affects them the most.
"We should be listening to the children here. Why aren't the children
Perhaps Ascalomi anak Daub, a Year Five pupil from SK Pesang Begu in
Padawan, Sarawak, encapsulates what many of his peers feel when he
says in halting English: "I want to learn Maths and Science in
English. Echoing him is Olivia Vun, a Fourth Former from SM All Saints
in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, who started learning Science and Mathematics
when she was in Form One in 2005.
"Although I was in a Chinese primary school, I did not have many
problems switching to learning the two subjects in English when I got
to secondary school as my friends and I often converse in English,"
After having taught Science in Bahasa Malaysia for five years, Biology
teacher Loh Su Ling from Olivia's school found it hard to teach the
subject in English.
"Initially, it was tough as we had to get used to the terms although
the ministry's PPSMI courses really helped.
"But I treated it as a challenge as I knew my students were also going
through the same thing," shares Loh.
Among the strongest voice to call for change is that of MCA and the
Chinese educationists and schools.
Senator Lee Chee Keong from MCA says the party wants Science and
Mathematics to be taught in the mother tongue in primary schools.
"The statistics show that very few students in Chinese primary schools
are answering in English. In fact only 2.86% answered in English for
Science and 1.29% for Maths."
This shows that students are either not able to understand or unable
to answer in English. At the same time, he adds, there should be more
English periods in schools in order to ensure students are not left
"However, students should be able to study the two subjects in English
at secondary-school level," he says.
Dong Zong (United Chinese School Committees' Association of Malaysia)
chief administrative officer Kuang Hee Pang says the ministry must be
clear on whether the decision behind the policy was to improve English
proficiency or to improve Maths and Science in English.
"Pupils in primary schools should be able to use the mother tongue to
study the two subjects. We feel strongly that Chinese is the best
language to learn Maths," he says.
»My father says English is important for my future. He encourages me
to speak to him in English every day« ASCALOMI ANAK DAUB
In fact, for the past few years, Chinese educationists have been
expecting the change of policy at the primary level.
A Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka representive is of the view the two
subjects should revert to Bahasa Malaysia.
"English as a subject can be strengthened but the two subjects should
be taught in Bahasa Malaysia.
"We should be like France, Norway, Japan or Thailand where all
subjects are taught in the national language. We must keep this
element in our education system but we can strengthen the learning of
English as a language subject," he adds.
Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Datuk S.K. Devamany
says MIC does not have an official stand on the issue yet. "We want to
get stakeholders to put forward their views before we make a stand."
He adds that the MIC education bureau had met Tamil school headmasters
and those from the teaching fraternity and the feedback received was
Devamany, who is an MIC central working committee member, says the
party planned to meet with parents next.
"Parents have the right to decide what they want for their children," he said.
No easy decision
Now that the ministry has heard from a wide spectrum of stakeholders,
the report will be submitted to Hishammuddin for consideration before
it goes to Cabinet for the final say. Whatever the outcome, one set of
advocators will be unhappy. This is no easy decision but the minister
is determined to review the policy "based on facts, figures and
"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 too.
"We've even had 16 research papers on the pedagical and linguistic
aspects. 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," he says.
One thing is clear though. Any change will only affect those entering
Year One in 2010. The minister says should there be a change, he would
like to have a year to make preparations for it and he would like a
decision to be made as soon as possible.
There is some speculation on the timing of the report. Would it be
submitted to Cabinet by March under Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah
Ahmad Badawi's leadership or after the Umno general assembly in March
and after Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak takes over
While most stakeholders want the decision to be made in the interest
of the child and not superceded by a political agenda, it is common
knowledge that education is closely entwined with politics and no
major decision is made without first weighing the political
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