Malaysia: Implementation at fault

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sun Nov 2 13:58:38 UTC 2008

Implementation at fault

THE debate on whether to jettison the policy of teaching Maths and
Science in English continues. Some parents have suggested that schools
be given the option to teach both the subjects in English. A
comparison between the English and the Malay dailies predictably
reveals two schools of thought - one for, and the other against. The
latter is concerned with how the Malay language has been robbed of its
status as a language of Maths and Science, in other words a language
of intellectual and scientific discourse.

Those who hold the other view urged the government to continue with
the policy so that their children will be able to compete in the job
market and on a global level. They have seen how thousands of
graduates have remained unemployable because of their poor command of
the language. The astonishing thing is that those who wrote in to a
daily voicing their support for the continuation of the policy were
Malay parents. One would expect vocal support to come from the English
educated non-Malays. It wasn't so - a positive indication that Malay
attitude towards the English language may have undergone a paradigm

Many have argued that improving the command of the English language
should be done by increasing the number of periods alloted to its
teaching and not by learning it through Maths and Science. As it is,
the timetable is heavily loaded, and increasing it for English would
be at the expense of other subjects. The long-term objective of the
policy, however, is not only to expose students to the use of English
for communication, but also English as a language of Maths and
Science. But "Malay nationalists", as one parent wrote, have
vehemently opposed the move as one that downgrades the importance of
Bahasa Malaysia (BM) as the primary language of instruction.

Further, the present government, under tremendous political pressure,
would most likely bend to the populist demand to revert to BM just to
appease both the Malay heartland and the vernacular educationists.
When political expediency becomes the over-riding concern, the
educational system becomes a political football. We do not need to go
very far back to know how a switch in the medium of instruction could
lead to either success or failure.

The early 80s saw a switch in the medium of instruction from English
to BM. Teachers, who in the past received their education in the
English medium, were provided with only bilingual textbooks to teach
and they did a remarkably successful job for the simple reason that
they somehow had to be a role model to their charges. And they worked
hard to fulfil the role of a committed teacher, even though initially
handicapped by a weak command of the language.

What has happened to that dedication, the drive to do a good job, to
provide the best education for their charges? It is this commitment to
do a good job that is sadly lacking in the teaching profession.
Moreover, how many teachers are really proficient in English to
explain mathematical and scientific concepts properly? Was the crash
course they had undergone sufficient to equip them to teach
It is not as though these teachers do not know English. They have
studied the language for at least 11 years, so they are not exactly
strangers to the language.

In the 70s, I saw how admirably quick the American Peace Corp
Volunteers picked up BM after one month of study and to this day,
some, if not several, can still speak and write the language. I
believe that behind their success is a spirit unfettered by prejudice,
their desire to learn and their love for things unfamiliar and
wonderful. And above all, their willingness to serve and contribute.
While we raged and screamed at the former Prime Minister over his
"foolish" decision, it would do well to look at the Philippines'
bilingual education policy, which uses Filipino as a language of
instruction for social studies and English for Science and
Mathematics. The country has been doing that for years, and the people
are none the worse for it.

An interesting digression here is that a group of some 50 Korean
teachers went to the country recently to study how English is taught
as a subject and as a language of instruction for Science and
Mathematics. Students are no fools; they can spot a phony a mile away.
I contend that the failure of the policy lies squarely on the
shoulders of teachers who accepted the change with lukewarm enthusiasm
and taught with even less enthusiasm. We should seriously do some
soul-searching so as not to throw out the baby with the bath water.

N.b.: Listing on the lgpolicy-list is merely intended as a service to
its members
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)

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list