Malaysia: Ditch the policy?

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Tue Sep 9 13:17:13 UTC 2008

It's High Time We Ditched This Policy

Posted on: Tuesday, 9 September 2008, 00:00 CDT

By Khairy Jamaluddin

IT has been almost a year since I called for a review of the teaching of
Maths and Science in English while debating the motion on education at the
Umno general assembly. I did so based on feedback from grassroots members
and also a consistent opposition to the policy since it was announced by the
previous prime minister. I had felt then, as I still do now, that the policy
was half- baked, lacking in any rigorous analysis and another attempt at
putting a quick-fix band aid on a serious problem requiring structural

The report "Study reveals policy's flaws" (NST, Sept 7) sheds new light to
justify my reservations about the policy. I feel the research conducted by
Professor Emeritus Datuk Isahak Haron of Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris
and other surveys of secondary school students pointing to similar problems
must be perused exhaustively and could prove to be crucial in tilting the
debate on the issue ahead of the government's promise to review its
implementation next year.

For the sake of clarity and lest I be accused of being retrogressive in my
thinking, I would like to reiterate that I believe most Malaysians are in
agreement that a strong command of the English language is an essential
prerequisite for any school- leaver who wants to understand and absorb the
massive corpus of knowledge available in reference books written in English
at the tertiary level, or any graduate who wants to compete in the

The English language has become a basic requirement for students and
job-seekers in this increasingly globalised world where it is, for now, the
undisputed lingua franca.

The issue here is not the importance of English. That is self- evident and
the education system must commit itself to making our students fluent in
English. In fact, in my Umno debate I urged Malays to emulate other
communities in Malaysia by becoming bilingual, even trilingual. The real
issue here is how we improve our children's command of English. I believe
strongly that it most definitely is not through a poorly conceived policy
like the teaching of Maths and Science in English.

UPSI's findings proved my fears were real and it uncovered the harsh
realities our students face in schools due to this flawed policy. In
particular, the impact of the policy on Malay students in national schools
especially in the rural areas and from lower socio- economic backgrounds has
been catastrophic. Not only has it not improved the students' command of
English, it has managed to hamper their understanding of mathematical and
scientific concepts.

Furthermore, the problems and weaknesses of this policy are not confined to
one ethnic group. The study revealed that the ones who gained from the
policy were a small percentage of Malay students from upper middle-class
families who went to good, urban schools. The paper further showed that even
Chinese students struggled with learning Maths and Science when taught in
English, demonstrating that this is a problem that cuts across ethnic lines.

In our effort to bridge the urban and rural divide, the gap between rich and
poor, it is sad to see that in reality students in national schools, mostly
in rural areas and from lower socio- economic backgrounds, have lost out the
most as a result of the decision to teach Maths and Science in English.

The full report of the study also confirmed the often-heard anecdotal
evidence that one of the key problems is that teachers are finding it
difficult to teach in English and consequently students are having a hard
time understanding these lessons that are conducted by teachers who
themselves are not proficient in the language. As a result, almost 85 per
cent of the teachers end up teaching Maths and Science in a mixture of
English and Bahasa Malaysia, exposing a fundamental flaw in the
implementation of the policy. How do you expect to answer exam questions in
English when it is not entirely taught in English in the first place?

I also find myself concurring with the study leader's suggestion that it
would be better to allocate more time, staff and money to the teaching of
English at the primary school level rather than pursuing the teaching of
Maths and Science in English. I have made this point repeatedly, that
English is best learnt by the teaching of the English language and not by
conflating it with subjects such as Maths and Science.

And to answer the point made by Samuel Yesuiah in his letter "Let's continue
with the policy" (NST, Sept 8), if our students are given a sound foundation
in the English language itself with proper instruction given to grammar,
vocabulary and syntax, they will have few problems understanding "science
reference books and journals in English at universities". They don't need to
be taught Maths and Science in English to read reference books in English
later on. They just need to be proficient in English, which clearly this
policy has failed to achieve.

I wrote to this newspaper in November last year calling for immediate
improvements to the teaching and learning of English in our schools. But
that objective must not be pursued through a policy that not only falls
short of its aim to improve English among our students but also seriously
hampers their ability to learn Maths and Science. It is high time we ditched
this policy for the failure that it is and learnt from an episode of a
flawed and ill-conceived policy defeating what were, I presume, noble


MP for Rembau
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