Malaysia: This is no time to mess with our kids' future

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Wed Sep 10 15:21:23 UTC 2008

This is no time to mess with our kids' future
By : Zainul Arifin

OBVIOUSLY, opinions are varied on the contentious issue of the
teaching of Mathematics and Science in English. People are divided, as
they should be, and so let the debate begin. It is better than the
latest political shenanigans. In this newspaper at the weekend, an
academic reeled off statistics and test results affirming the failure
of the current policy, and that as a result it should be ditched. We
best now teach our children the two subjects in Bahasa Malaysia,
Mandarin or Tamil. There are, ladies and gentlemen, as they say,
statistics and statistics. Now depending on what strokes one's fancy,
the glass is either half empty or half full. Hence, the policy is
either serving or failing our kids.

Last week, I alluded to the danger of making the right decision based
on flawed conclusions. I think this might be the case here, especially
when it is widely admitted that one of the main problems is that many
teachers lack proficiency in the language. As a result, many seek the
easy way out and teach in languages they are comfortable in. When it
was first introduced in 2002, the idea was to have teaching aids,
mainly computer software and hardware, which would help teachers and
pupils familiarise themselves with the language. Reports now suggest
that many of the computers are used for many things but that.

I would like to believe, again, in the adaptability of the young to
prove that the problem is not in the policy but its implementation.
Blaming the previous administration for introducing this policy is
disingenuous. Surely, given the situation we find ourselves in
vis-a-vis the English language, the idea has merit. These are
desperate times, requiring radical ideas without slinking into our
comfort zones.
Everyone talks about the need to improve the teaching of English in
schools, which surely is our collective wish. But this is something
that is nowhere near the horizon now.

If we now are lamenting some teachers' problem with the language even
when conducting fact-based subjects, pray tell where are we going to
get the teachers who can teach our kids grammar and syntax, not to
mention double negatives and alliterations? English is taught not as a
language, but a subject, which one needs to study and cram for
examinations. It is even referred to as BI, short for Bahasa Inggeris,
which emphasises its alien-ness. It is only when the medium of
instruction of Mathematics and Science is English that it becomes
alive as a language.

Now consider this possibility, too: the level of comprehension or
comfort in English among Year Six pupils -- those who have lived
through six years of the policy -- is better than those before them
who had less exposure to the language. Have there been studies on the
state of English proficiency arising from the policy, studies as
thorough as the one on the level of achievements in Science and
Mathematics? If my hunch is correct, then obviously, the policy,
having met its English language objective, cannot be deemed a failure.

And if that is the case, then we should not ditch it but instead work
towards improving it to serve our Science, Mathematics and English
objectives better.

Are we using linguists or English experts in developing our children's
curriculum to structure a gradual, orderly and pedagogically sound
entry into Mathematics, Science and English?

There are arguments that rural, poor children are at a disadvantage
when Science and Mathematics are taught in English. This is, of
course, a bogey, since who among us would want to deprive our rural,
poor brethren of a better future.

Are the rural poor, now working or studying, and having lived through
the previous policy, better served by it?

Are their abilities to score in Mathematics and Science, taught in
Bahasa Malaysia, Mandarin or Tamil, an advantage when pitted against
those slacker urban kids whose only salvation is being glib-tongued in
the imperialist language?

Perhaps someone should look at the borrowing habits in our local
universities and see how many English reference books, where most
knowledge resides, are checked out. Someone should also see whether
there is an economic correlation between socioeconomic achievements
and English language proficiency.

These are also studies worth doing. Statistics and damned statistics, eh?

Let us look at this issue beyond our obsessions on the number of A's
our children get, which is now to be the guiding principle for our
decision on the policy. The nation's fate and future cannot be gambled
based on our 12-year-olds' results.

Most supporters of the policy are not blind to the fact that it is not
perfect and neither are they rabid Anglophiles. Mostly, they are
likely to be practical people, parents and employers, who see a

They care about the future of our children, and our country. Parents
are rightly emotional on the issue, but they harbour no political
agenda and thus need not test the pulse of the electorate to decide.
Their constituents are their children.

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