Malaysia: Continue Teaching Science and Mathematics in Malay?

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Thu Jun 19 14:00:37 UTC 2008

Continue Teaching Science and Mathematics in Malay

 The government's decision to revisit (and most likely do away with) the
current teaching of science and mathematics in English is an instructive
example of how an otherwise sensible policy could easily be discredited and
then abandoned because of poor execution. Had there been better planning,
many of the problems encountered could have been readily anticipated and
thus avoided, or at least reduced. The policy would then more likely to
succeed, and thus be accepted. Ironically, only a year ago a Ministry of
Education "study" pronounced the program to be moving along "smoothly," with
officials "satisfied" with its implementation. Now another "study" showed
that there was no difference in the "performance" (whatever that term means
or how they measure it) between those taught in Malay or English.

 The policy was in response to the obvious deficiencies noted in students
coming out of our national schools: their abysmal command of English, and
their limited mathematical skills and science literacy. They carry these
deficits when they enter university, and then onto the workplace. The
results are predictable. These graduates are practically unemployable. As
the vast majority of them are Malays, this creates tremendous political
pressure on the government to act as employer of last resort. Accommodating
these graduates made our civil service bloated and inefficient, burdened by
their deficient language and mathematical abilities.This longstanding
problem began in the late 1970s when Malay became the exclusive language of
instruction in our public schools and universities. Overcoming this problem
would be a monumental undertaking.

 The greatest mistake was to underestimate the magnitude of the task,
especially in overcoming the system's inertia. Today's teachers and policy
makers are products of this all-Malay education system. Change would mean
repudiating the very system that had produced them, a tough sell at the best
of times. In their naivety, ministry officials convinced themselves that
such enormous obstacles as the teachers' lack of English fluency could
easily be overcome by enrolling them in short culup (superficial) courses
that were in turn conducted by those equally inept in English. Or by simply
providing these teachers with laptops programmed with instructional modules!

 Even if we had had the best talents devoting themselves exclusively to
implementing the policy, the task would still be huge. Unfortunately we have
Hishammuddin Hussein as Minister of Education shepherding the change. An
insightful innovator or an effective executive he is not. Being
simultaneously an UMNO Youth Chief, he was also distracted in trying to pass
himself off as the champion of Ketuanan Melayu.
 These factors practically ensure the initiative's failure. The tragic part
is that the burden of the failure falls disproportionately on the rural
poor, meaning Malays, a point missed by these self-professed nationalists. I
would have thought that that alone would have motivated them to succeed.

 A Better Way

 Teaching science and mathematics in English would solve two problems
simultaneously. One, considering the critical shortage of textbooks,
journals, and other literature in Malay, teaching the two subjects in
English would facilitate the acquisition of new knowledge by our students.
With the exponential growth of new knowledge, it would be impossible to keep
up solely through translations, even if we were to devote our entire
intellectual resources towards that endeavor.

 The other objective was to enhance the English fluency of our students. Of
course if that were the only consideration, there are other more effective
ways of achieving it, like devoting more instructional hours to the subject.
But, as the recent Ministry's "study" indicates, there is no difference in
performance between those taught in Malay or English, that in itself would
favor continuing the program because of the twin benefits discussed earlier.
Besides, changing course midstream would not only be disruptive but also
counterproductive. Our educational system needs predictable stability and
incremental improvements, not disruptive U-turns and faddish changes,
especially in response to political pressures.

 A more important point is this. Altering a politically pivotal and highly
emotional public policy requires careful preparation and deliberate
execution. If I were to implement the policy, this is what I would do. Lest
readers think that this is hindsight wisdom on my part, rest assured that I
had documented these ideas in my earlier book, long before the government
even contemplated the policy. Being prudent, as we are dealing with our
children's and nation's future, I would begin with a small pilot project,
analyze the problems, correct the deficiencies, and only then expand the

 First, I would implement the policy initially only at primary and selected
secondary schools, like our residential schools. The language requirements
as well as the science and mathematical concepts at the primary level are
quite elementary, and thus more readily acquired by the teachers. And at
that level the pupils would not have to unlearn much as everything would
still be new. In schools where the background English literacy level of the
pupils is low as in the villages, I would have the pupils take English
immersion classes for a full term or even a year. We had earlier successful
experiences with this with our Special Malay Classes and Remove classes.
This strategy has also been tried successfully in America for children of
non-English-speaking immigrants. Another idea I put forth in my earlier book
is to bring back the old English schools in such areas. As the Malay
literacy level in the community and at home is high, these pupils are
unlikely to "forget" their own language.

 At the secondary level, our residential schools get the best students and
teachers. Consequently the program could be more easily implemented there as
the learning curve would be steep, and mistakes more readily recognized and
corrected. Once the kinks have been worked out, expand the program. Second
is the issue of teachers. Fortunately Malaysia has two large untapped
reservoirs of talent: recently retired teachers trained under the old
English-based system, and native English speakers who are either spouses of
Malaysians or residents of this country. Given adequate compensation and
minimal of hassles, they could be readily recruited. I would add other
incentives especially if they were to serve in rural areas where the need is
most acute. Thus in addition to greater pay, I would give them first
preference to teachers' quarters.

 A permanent solution would be to convert a number of existing teachers'
colleges into exclusively English-medium institutions to train future
teachers of English, science, and mathematics. As the present
teacher-trainees have limited English fluency, I would begin admitting them
right away in January following their leaving school in December of the
preceding year. From that January till the regular opening of the academic
year (sometime in July), these trainees would undergo intensive English
immersion classes where their entire 24-hour day would be consumed with
learning, speaking, thinking, and even dreaming in English. With the
subsequent three years of additional instructions exclusively in English,
these graduates would then be fully fluent in English. With such quality
programs, these graduates would be in great demand within and outside their
profession. With their heightened English facility and mathematical
competency, their educational opportunities would also expand as they could
further their studies anywhere in the English-speaking world. With such
bright prospects, these colleges would have no difficulty recruiting
talented school leavers. Our teaching profession would also be enriched with
the addition of such talents.

  As for textbooks, there is no need to write new ones. The contents of
these two subjects are universally applicable. Meaning, textbooks written
for British students would be just as suitable for Malaysians, so we could
select already available books. With its purchasing clout, the government
could drive a hard bargain with existing publishers. I hope Ministry of
Education officials, including and especially Hishammuddin, would heed these
factors when they review the current policy. They should continue the
current policy, correct the evident errors, and strengthen the obvious
weaknesses. The success of this policy would also mean success for our
students, and our nation. That is a worthy pursuit for anyone with ambitions
to one day lead the nation
N.b.: Listing on the lgpolicy-list is merely intended as a service to its
and implies neither approval, confirmation nor agreement by the owner or
sponsor of
the list as to the veracity of a message's contents. Members who disagree
with a
message are encouraged to post a rebuttal. (H. Schiffman, Moderator)
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <>

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list