Malaysia: Two letters on Science and Math policy

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sun Sep 7 16:44:56 UTC 2008

Two letters on Science and Math policy

Wanted to highlight two letters, one written to the DG of the MOE and
another written to NST, on the possible reversion in the policy of
teaching Science and Math in English. I've been agnostic on this issue
thus far but I think both writers make good points in favor of
continuing this policy, flawed as it may be. Better to try to improve
its implementation instead of doing another U-turn.

Letter to the NST, written by Cheng Yi, who's also a friend of mine.

I REFER to Zainul Arifin's "Let parents decide on English policy" (NST, Sept 3).
It is indeed ironic that many of our prominent politicians send their
children to private or international schools where English reigns

When Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad announced the decision to teach
Mathematics and Science in English, it rekindled my hope in the local
education system.

As it is, most of my peers had opted to send their kids to either
Chinese or private schools. But with the teaching of Mathematics and
Science in English, I thought there was perhaps a spark of hope in our
national schools.

I am sure that many pupils from the rural areas will suffer initially
but, as Zainul says, kids are better adapters and adopters than
adults. I am sure that many of our English-speaking elite did not hail
from English-speaking families. I have many Malay friends who speak
perfect English although their parents did not.

To children from English-speaking backgrounds, it doesn't make much difference.

When I was doing my matriculation in Australia, although I studied in
Bahasa Malaysia-medium schools, I had no problem coping with the
sudden switch to English when learning Mathematics and Science.

However, my peers who did not speak English (this includes those of
Chinese descent) did have problems adapting. As a result, most of
their High School Certificate scores were compromised.

At the end of the day, it is better to suffer a bit in primary school
than to struggle learning a language later in life.

It is this same rationale that persuades many Malaysian Chinese
parents to send their children to Chinese schools. "Although we don't
speak Chinese at home, the kids can cope", I often hear them say.
Children do pick up much more easily than adults.

I have yet to meet anyone who says, "Oh, I am so glad we did not study
Mathematics and Science in English during our school days".

Extra knowledge is a good thing. I look at the pullouts in the NST
like Didik, and am impressed by the Mathematics and Science questions
in English. It gives our syllabus an international feel. And it gives
me no qualms to send my children to a national school.

Zainul's suggestion for a referendum within each school is a great
one. I am almost sure that parents in my children's school will vote
to retain the policy of teaching Mathematics and Science in English.

The government should look into proper training of teachers. Don't
deprive the children of Malaysia of a brighter, international, global
future because of bad implementation of a good policy.

The letter to the DG of the MOE. Much longer than the first.

YBhg Dato' Alimuddin Dom, Director of Education

YBhg Dato',

With reference to the above matter, I would like to present to you my
view on why it's necessary to continue teaching of Maths and Science
in English.
A brief introduction of myself and my family is necessary to get a
better perspective. My wife and I, aged 42, finished our primary and
secondary education in Sekolah Kebangsaan and subsequently graduated
in accountancy and computer science, respectively, in Melbourne
Australia. We have two children, Standard 1 and 6, schooling in
Sekolah Kebangsaan Taman Megah Petaling Jaya.

On hindsight the decision to pursue my tertiary education in Australia
was correct and every single penny well spent despite the major
financial obstacle and various challenges. I majored in Computer
Science and Instrumental Science and hence, Physics and Mathematics
are the core subjects throughout the course. I never grasped Physics
until my 1st year and consistently received distinction and the credit
goes to Mr Jack Venema my physics lecturer. During my final year,
National Productivity Board of Singapore interviewed me and offered me
a job upon graduation and so did State Electricity Commission of
Victoria. But I declined both offers because my heart tells me to
return home to contribute to the nation.

Before I delve into why we should continue to teach Maths and Science
in English, let's look back at the history of our education policy.
The change to medium of instruction in Bahasa Melayu began in 1970 for
Standard 1 and by 1983 the whole exercise was completed in tertiary
education [read here]. Which means we've used Bahasa Melayu as medium
of instruction for Maths and Science for 32 years.

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, our revered Bapa Permodenan, the architect of
modern Malaysia, who transformed our agricultural economic base to
manufacturing economic base, realized that if we don't make our
workforce be proficient in English, then the FDIs [Foreign Direct
Investment - source of employment] will continue to bypass us.
Already, we're seeing a worrying trend of our traditional FDI
investors like Motorola, Matsushita moving out to China, Vietnam, etc.
and hence, his decision to change teaching of Maths and Science to
English is one of his greatest gifts to Malaysia.

An extract of TDM's speech entitled "Approaching 2020 – Major Trends
that will Impact Malaysian Business" [read attachment for detail]

8. A mass consumer market will make local manufacturing more viable.
And there are many things that we can produce. Like Korea and Taiwan
we would learn to design and manufacture many things not just for our
markets but for export as well.

9. Against this, expect increased and less restricted imports. We must
be more competitive. We must develop skills in hi-tech products and we
must pay higher wages. The days of low labour costs would have been
over before 2020.

10. Our workers must be highly qualified and be trained in higher
skills. The workers we would need must be able to handle and service
automatic machines, not just assemble things. We will learn to design
and produce some of these machines.

11. Training of the workers must be done at specialised training
centres. Computer programmes will be needed to do this.

12. What all these means is the business of specialised education and
training would become big business. The training centres would also
cater for foreign students if we use English as a teaching medium.

13. Malaysia cannot any longer offer itself as a cheap labour country.
But the chances are our highly trained workers would still cost less
than similarly trained workers in the developed countries. This may
mean a shifting of some middle range hi-tech industries to Malaysia.

14. Our advantage today is still the ability to take instructions in
simple English. But there will be a spread of English language
capabilities in China, Vietnam and other competitors of ours.

15. Accordingly our advantages seem likely to be eroded not only
because others are acquiring working knowledge of English but we
ourselves would probably downgrade learning of English.

16. I hope that the teaching of science and mathematics in English
would continue. But I am not sure. If the decision is made not to,
then the hi-tech industries are going to bypass us.

I agree with him that education system is one the most politicized
subject. On his part, he has written detailed explanation entitled
for detail] addressing the Malay speaking community to convince them
the importance of English. Personally, my encounter with a YB's
response on this matter ["..Mr 70% parents of vernacular schools are
against it…] confirms TDM's view. Lawmakers are more concerned about
votes for their self-interest rather than nation interest by
articulating to them to look at the big picture. Besides TDM, I have
not heard of any other community leaders or lawmakers view on this
very important matter.

TDM said "Malaysia is the most planned country in the world. But
people do not follow the plans prepared for them. If people had
followed the plans, we would have been a developed country by now."
When TDM saw the opportunity in knowledge base economy, he quickly
embarked on MSC in Cyberjaya. However, the FDI investors are not just
interested in the first class infrastructures and venues and
incentives. They needed competent IT workforce conversant in English
but we could not provide enough for their needs. Instead, they have to
recruit from Bangalore [our rival] which negates the purpose of MSC.
It doesn't take a genius to figure out why Bill Gates setup their only
offshore software development centre in Bangalore because they've
largest pool software engineers in the world.

Education System must be versatile and evolving to be in-sync with the
changing employment needs. A case study of a strategic planning of
Singapore is worthwhile. When Singapore government decided to open the
two casinos, even before the operators were selected, they have
started to introduce courses related to this industry. This is so that
by 2010 when the casinos are open for business, the required skill
sets are available. These operators are one example of FDIs and one of
the operators is our homegrown company ie Genting Berhad. On
hindsight, had our education system been planned and executed properly
according to our FDI investors' needs, today MSC would have been
another economic pillar and we would be closer to a developed nation.

In my opinion, if we analyse carefully, the noises getting louder
against teaching of Maths and Science in English are groups of people
complaining about the symptoms of bad implementation plan. I would
like to use the analogy of a ship. Education policy is like a big ship
and the captain is the head of MOE, teachers are the crews and
students are the passengers. If we see an iceberg ahead, the captain
will change the direction and it takes time to navigate to avoid the
obstacle to reach the final destination.

I think the most important question our policymakers should ask is
what should be the determinant of our education policy ? Is it not
employability ? Parents and students take pain to consult career
guidance about career opportunity. If we agree on this then let us
look at the big picture, otherwise why bother to spend 3 years prep
school + 6 years primary + 7 years secondary + 4 years tertiary = a
whopping 20 years!

Who creates employment opportunity ? FDI investors like Intel, Dell,
Samsung, Motorola, Matsushita, etc are some the names we are familiar
with. What will attract them to Malaysia ? What makes Dell setup their
worldwide callcentre and laptop manufacturing plant in Penang ?
Perhaps, Penang workforce have the necessary skill sets and have the
necessary English proficiency. The same question applies to Intel's
chip design centre in Penang. It is a fact that FDIs are getting
scarce and we are competing with China, Vietnam, India and not
forgetting Thailand, Indonesia and Phillippines. Hence, we need to
continue produce the same skill sets to attract more FDIs.

What type of employment should we focus then ? As mentioned earlier,
under TDM's administration we have diversified our economy to
industrial/manufacturing base. In the E&E [Electrical & Electronics]
industry, we have to move up the value chain. We can't continue to
rely on simple assembly manufacturing because countries like China and
Vietnam are offering cheap low skill labour cost to companies like
Motorola, Matsushita,etc. The other areas are biotechnology,
information technology, telecommuncation, pharmaceutical, etc

In the era of globalisation, to attract inflow of FDIs we must have
the capability of producing higher value-added products which demands
medium to highly skill workforce with the ability to take instruction
in English. The goods produced are then exported and in return we earn
foreign currency. Also, the spin-off FDI to supporting goods and
services industry is enormous which create more employment
opportunity. Through these economic activities, the Government
generates revenue in the form of taxes to pay for the expenditure as
outlined in the yearly budget.

Shouldn't we be consulting with our economic think-tank such as NEAC,
EPU, Bank Negara, MIER, ASLI, CPPS, MITI, Economic Council [newly
formed] since they're at the forefront of dealing with inflow of FDIs
before we make any hasty decision on such an important issue ?

In my opinion, the main issue that we should focus our attention on is
to iron out the teething problem of implementation and not whether we
should revert. I am quite disappointed with NUTP for changing its
tune. On 8/3/08 NUTP was very supportive with an article on NST
entitled "Do the math, keep it in English" to 4/9/08 postion entitled
"Teaching Science and Mathematics in English: 'Wrong to learn language
this way". Perhaps, they should read TDM's speech again, "Approaching
2020 – Major Trends that will Impact Malaysian Business". It's the
function of teachers to execute the education policy to meet the needs
of the nation.

I am not an educator but perhaps, I can give some input on the student
perspective. Let's examine some facts about the implementation,
beginning with an extract of from newspaper. Earlier in the Dewan
Rakyat, Deputy Education Minister Datuk Razali Ismail said the
Government spent RM2.21bil on information and communication technology
equipment in 2003 to implement the policy of teaching Mathematics and
Science in English. He said another RM2.4mil was spent on software,
RM317mil to train teachers and RM638mil as subject incentives.

Since when does equipment become more important than human in
teaching. I graduated in Computer Science without owning a PC and
those days writing a program was using punch card and a very tedious
process, contrast to today.

>>From an economic standpoint, the money spent on the equipment is an
outflow of foreign currency because they're all imported [at most, we
assembled it]. I would rather that the money be spent on training
teachers which also ensure the money stays in our economy. Wouldn't it
be better used if we tapped on the retired teachers and implement
'buddies' system where a retired teacher is assigned one to one basis
and complimented by night classes.

I disagree with the notion that our students can cope especially those
in the rural area. If the teachers are well equipped and confident
then the learning process will fall in place. Ultimately, it's how the
lesson is delivered. The success is making learning fun and relevant
to daily life and not about mugging and as with my experience in
Physics. Besides formal learning, in today's digital era, students are
exposed to the Internet for additional reference source.

I would like to relate a story about a Malay friend who is now a CEO
of a statutory body. He was remembered as "a student who came to
school on borrowed shoes" and one of very few Malays in an English
medium school. He was proud to tell me that he received a Colombo Plan
scholarship and a Bachelor of Arts in Australia. My point is that it's
duty of the policymakers to give everybody a chance especially those
in the heartland, as a means to get out of poverty.

I think it's far more productive for MOE and principals, teachers
concerned to have continuous discussion to smoothen the edges rather
than raising the white flag at this stage. Remember our teachers
managed to switch the medium of instruction from English to Bahasa
Melayu in 1970s and I don't see any reason why we can't do it now.

In conclusion, Malaysia needs to attract more FDIs bring us closer to
a develop nation and hence, MOE needs to produce more employable
workforce who possess technical skill set and good command of English.
Therefore, it is necessary to continue with teaching of Maths and
Science in English. History will be our judge for whatever decision
you make!

Yours faithfully,
Benjamin Choo

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