Malaysia: English must stay

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Fri Oct 31 13:30:19 UTC 2008

English Must Stay

 Article by Datin Frieda Pilus, Chairman of Cempaka Schools, as to the
importance of being proficient in the English language here in our

Sunday October 26, 2008
English must stay

With 25 years of experience in teaching and its administration, I am
naturally concerned about the teaching of Science and Mathematics in
English. This is an important issue deserving the maximum of thought
and the minimum of emotion. After only a few years, we are now engaged
in a vigorous controversy questioning whether that policy should

The current controversy is mired in certain concerns, namely:

·The policy of teaching Science and Mathematics in English has
"failed" because the pupils, after a few years of its implementation,
are still lacking in English proficiency; and

·The policy has "failed" because many rural children are not doing
well in English, Mathematics, or the Sciences.

Accordingly, as the current discourse goes, we should abandon the
existing policy and revert to the teaching of Science and Mathematics
in Bahasa Malaysia (BM).

There is yet another argument that touches on "unity" proffered by Tan
Sri Dr Ismail Hussein, who said recently that "we need BM to unite
(Malaysians) …"

Dr Ismail Hussein, a retired academic, taught me at Universiti Malaya
nearly 40 years ago.

Over the last four decades, the world has undergone the digital and
Internet revolutions, and other changes beyond recognition.

This country, too, has developed and changed enormously.

My views have responded to these changes and evolved accordingly.

But apparently, Dr Ismail's views haven't.

I shall, first of all, answer the trite argument that making everyone
conversant in a common language "promotes unity". This is a

The argument has been found to be simplistic and baseless, as
demonstrated in every country with a diverse population.

Countries such as the United States, France, Ireland, Iraq, South
Africa - which all have a common, predominant language - have all
experienced serious communal strife. National unity has remained

There are therefore other, even stronger, determinants of national unity.

Reliance on a common language alone to achieve national unity has been
found to be naïve and inadequate.

We must realise that national unity is a far more complex matter,
requiring the interplay of a constellation of factors and forces,
including deep communal understanding, genuine respect, sensitivity
and a sincere acceptance of one another's culture.

It is argued, in the current discourse, that if English were used in
the teaching of Science and Mathematics, rural children would be left
behind and lose out.

I disagree. This argument has got the facts in reverse. The rural
children would gain if the subjects were taught, and taught properly,
in English.

To reverse the policy would permanently relegate the rural children to
the backwaters of education, and to be left behind in a world that is
economically global, urbanised, and moving ahead at the speed of

I wish to offer real life examples. My late father was born in a
village in Negri Sembilan.

His father, even at that time, saw the value of English as a language
through which one could acquire knowledge and seek opportunities.

He sent my father to an English school in Kuala Pilah and, later, to
KGV (now SMK King George V) in Seremban. My father had to cycle three
to four hours a day to attend school.

After obtaining his Cambridge school leaving certificate, one of the
earliest Malays to do so, he joined the Police Force.

As a police officer, he learnt Hokkien, so that he could communicate
with the Chinese community and gain their trust.

He fought heroically during the Emergency and later wrote a book on
his life. He passed away recently at the age of 91, a patriot,
ceaselessly reading, thinking and writing.

Nobody questioned our family's patriotism and love for this country.

We were ordinary kampung folk, undeterred by the difficulties of
learning a new language.

We just bit the bullet and worked hard. We realise that was the only
way to succeed in life.

Knowledge in another language is always an advantage, never a fault.

Even countries like Japan and China are moving very fast in the
teaching of English to benefit from the global technological advance.

China is targeting 200 million children to be proficient in English in
one generation. Leading German and French universities are now
offering a broader range of courses in English.

It is self-evident that science and mathematics are critical to
economic progress and growth, especially in the new century.

Language is an instrument to access such information and knowledge.

This is particularly crucial now when economies are increasingly

Today, the creation of wealth is based more on brains than on brawn,
and the flow of information is vital to the development and growth of
an economy.

English is the language of the Internet, of Google, as well as of many
other search engines.

We need, urgently, to leapfrog to the fast changing world of
technology, with the language of technology.

That is the purpose of the policy.It is practical and utilitarian: to
understand technical subjects and access technical knowledge. It is
not meant to appreciate Shakespeare's sonnets or to explore T.S.
Elliot's complex poems.

The idea, clearly, was not to make the students generally proficient
in English: only to hone their ability to access technical knowledge,
especially in the sciences and mathematics.

However, along the way, it is highly probable that the general
proficiency level will rise.

We must also understand that the policy is not designed to diminish
the position of BM. On the contrary, BM must remain our national

The policy is aimed solely at equipping our students with a working
knowledge of English to succeed in the competitive technological world
of tomorrow.

This objective, this vital nuance, appears to be lost in the fog of
the current politicised controversy.

I agree that this policy will not be easy to implement. It will be
difficult, and will take time. But that does not mean we should give

In the process, if some children are found to be lagging behind, is
not the most logical thing to do to analyse the problem and remedy the
fault, which is to improve the teaching of English and to provide
better training for teachers?

Surely it is neither sensible nor logical to abandon the policy, and
throw the baby out with the bath water.

The Government needs to plan ahead.

We are going to face a highly competitive world 15 years from now,
when our oil and mineral resources have run out.

We will then face the harsh realities of international economic competition.

When our natural resources are depleted, we will be left only with our
human capital. It is here that the Education Ministry plays a vital

A few options have been suggested, such as to run two streams of
teaching (in English and in BM) in parallel.

Running two systems will be more expensive and may even lead to a
"credibility" issue. Instead we should be focused and single-minded in
implementing the policy.

We are left with only one serious option: to teach the sciences and
mathematics in English.

With due respect to my old professor, we need to save the next
generation of Malaysians and equip them with the skills to survive in
a highly competitive world tomorrow.

Malaysia will survive, or perish, by the skills of its human capital.
The signs are there for all to see.

DATIN FREIDA DATUK MOHD PILUS Chairman, Cempaka Schools.

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