Malaysia: No regrets despite barriers

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sun Jul 6 20:11:28 UTC 2008

No regrets despite barriers

THE Education Ministry has said it may review its policy on the
Teaching of Science and Mathematics in English at the end of the year.
Let me share my bitter-sweet experiences in going through the changes
in the medium of instruction over the last fifty years, from the time
I was a school boy up to the time I retired from the education
service. I studied in a Chinese primary school during the 1950s. I
remember having to memorise passages of Chinese parables and poems.
Nevertheless, the learning of the National Language or Bahasa
Kebangsaan (BK) was emphasised and encouraged. We also learnt English
from Standard Four onwards.

I "graduated" from primary school and was amongst the top students in
class. I was confident and fluent in Mandarin and I thought I was
equally good in BK and English. I moved on to a Chinese secondary
school. Then, my late father had a 'vision' that English would be
important. As was the norm then, I was transferred to a government
English secondary school and placed in a one-year remove class for
"remedial" English lessons. I began to experience the "agony" of
changing the medium of instruction. I could not understand or even
read many of the words in the texts. I learnt to my frustration and
amazement" later that those were just texts used in Standard Four,

Even at that young age, I knew that it was a journey I had to do on my
own. I remember having to keep referring to an English-Chinese
dictionary to understand the meanings of words I read.

Even when the translated meanings of some words in a sentence were put
together, they made no sense to me at times. Though we studied
different subjects, including elementary Science and Mathematics, the
emphasis was on the English language. At times it was so difficult
that I cried.

I wanted to switch back to the Chinese secondary school. But, my
parents wanted me to persist. Chinese school had trained us well in
memorising things. I did much of that so that I could answer some
essay questions in English during examinations.

Going into Form One the following year brought a bigger, albeit
interesting challenge. I met up with the "top students" from the
English primary schools. Their standard of English was way ahead of
mine and my fellow remove class friends

I was once "top student" myself, but because of the language
"deficiency", I was made to feel less competent and incompatible.

I saw the favourable treatment most teachers gave to those from the
English stream. We who were from the Chinese or Tamil schools were
hesitant, and even a little withdrawn in class because we were not so
conversant in the language.

I must say though, that for those of us who worked very hard, our
written English improved by the day. I managed to score in
examinations though much effort had to be put into memorising.

The breakthrough came when I was in Form Three. We had an English
teacher who believed in the "grammar and drill" approach to improving
English. He made each of us do a total of 13 exercise books of grammar
drills before we sat for the LCE (Lower Certificate of Education)
exams. My friends and I from the Remove stream who had faithfully gone
through the "regimen" got an A for English as well as the other
subjects. I believed then that I had finally got it. I could then
write and speak English more confidently and fluently.

With a strong foundation in grammar, I also had the tool to improve my
English further, even on my own. I moved on to Form Four and then Form
Six Pure Science classes, doing all subjects in English.

When I was in the university in the early 70s, there were indications
that Bahasa Melayu (BM) would be the main medium of instruction in all
secondary schools in the near future.

My university took the proactive step of making all its Science
students do a course called Scientific Malay.

We, the Science undergraduates, were made to translate some simple
science passages into BM and we had tests on this too.

It was fun then learning terms like karbon dioxida, lensa, sulfat,
imej maya, sahih and others. My degree was completed in English.

I got into teaching after obtaining a Diploma in Education. It was in
the mid-seventies. The teaching of upper secondary (Forms Four, Five
and Six) Science and Mathematics was still in English. But, the change
in the medium of instruction to BM had begun in the lower secondary

We were sent for courses in BM. By the late 70s, I was teaching in
either BM or English, depending on the class. With the advantage of
having followed Scientific Malay, it wasn't really that difficult for
me. In fact, I enjoyed the experience.

To ensure the teachers' proficiency in BM, a credit at MCE level
(Malaysian Certificate of Education; present-day equivalent is SPM)
was required of all teachers.

Again, I had to sweat it out, together with many other teachers, to
get that much-cherished credit in BM.

In the 80s, I was transferred to the state education department. By
then, all administrative work was done in BM and school subjects were
all taught in BM. I had to quickly improve my proficiency in the
language especially in Science and Mathematics.

Meanwhile my contemporaries who stayed on in schools improved their BM
by leaps and bounds. By the mid-80s, they were equally, if not more
competent, in teaching Science and Mathematics in BM than they were in
English. It was a challenge we had overcome through sheer hard work so
that our students could benefit.

In the-mid nineties, I was made a principal of a secondary school. Two
years to my retirement at the age of 56, the new policy on Teaching
Science and Mathematics in English was introduced.

As principal, my main task was to assure my teachers that this
challenge for them although difficult, was not insurmountable. Now,
after retirement, I am a part-time tutor in a private university,
teaching some primary school teachers who aspire to earn a degree in
Science Education.

All the teaching modules offered are in English. It is amazing that
the medium of instruction has come around in a cycle and I have
journeyed back to where I began.


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