Malaysians at loggerheads over language debate

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Tue Dec 23 17:24:16 UTC 2008

Malaysians at loggerheads over language debate

Associated Press Writer
The Associated Press

Mon., Dec. 22, 2008

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia - A national debate on whether to scrap the use
of English to teach math and science has reached a deadlock, an
official said Monday, deepening a political headache for the
government as it strives to make Malaysian students internationally
competitive. Protracted discussions among the government, teachers,
parents and political activists ended last week with no clear
solution, said Deputy Education Minister Wee Ka Siong.  A decision
that satisfies everyone would be "impossible," Wee told The Associated

"There is no middle path. There can be only one resolution, but I
cannot speculate about what it will be," Wee said. "All the views have
been heard, so we will leave it to the wisdom of the Cabinet." English
was once the medium of instruction in most schools in Malaysia, a
former British colony. Nationalist leaders reversed the policy and
made Malay — the national language — the main medium of instruction
less than two decades after independence in 1957.

In 2003, realizing that poor English-language skills meant Malaysian
graduates could not compete for work against jobseekers from other
countries in the region, particularly neighboring Singapore,
then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad started a program to resume
teaching math and science in English. Other subjects continued to be
taught in Malay. A review to evaluate the success of Mahathir's policy
began this year.

Some school teachers and linguists from the ethnic Malay majority
complained that using English undermines a decades-old struggle to
modernize Malay and to develop a scientific lexicon in their mother
tongue.Some among Malaysia's ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities
opposed the use of English, saying math and science should be taught
in their mother tongues, Mandarin and Tamil. Schools for ethnic
minorities already teach other subjects in the two languages. The
debate comes at a sensitive time for the government, which is trying
to regain support from the minorities after huge losses in March
general elections.

Education Minister Hishammuddin Hussein has said the Cabinet will
likely only announce a decision next year. "Most stakeholders are
ready for a backlash if the policy was to continue, namely from
Chinese and Malay linguists and nationalists," the New Sunday Times
newspaper said in a commentary.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This
material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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