Malaysia: TEACHING SCIENCE AND MATHEMATICS IN ENGLISH: Policy has long-term benefits

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Thu Sep 11 12:46:30 UTC 2008

11 Sep 2008  NST

I REFER to the report by Aniza Damis and Elizabeth John, "Study
reveals policy flaws" (NST, Sept 7), and the letter by Rembau member
of parliament Khairy Jamaluddin, "It's high time we ditched this
policy" (NST, Sept 9). The contention of the report and the letter is
that the policy of teaching Science and Mathematics in English,
introduced by former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, is a
flawed policy and should be abandoned. In the report, the argument
given is that Bumiputera students from rural areas and low economic
background will lose out because of their poor command of the English

The survey presented (on the percentage of Year Five students who
correctly answered each question in the Mathematics test according to
race) showed that in Question 4, only 29 per cent of the students got
the answer correct, hence supporting their view of the policy's
failure. But there is a flaw in that argument.  I will translate the
question into Bahasa Malaysia: "Perpustakaan di SK Pulai ada 4,038
buku Bahasa Melayu dan 3,529 buku dalam Bahasa Inggeris. Jika 793 buku
dibawa keluar dari perpustakaan, berapa buku yang tinggal?"

I seem to remember getting the answer wrong when I was in primary
school (when we learned Science and Maths in BM). Why?

Simply because this particular question has nothing to do with command
of the language, but the use of logic and manipulation of numbers, the
fundamentals of Mathematics, no matter what language is used. And let
us look at Question 5 of the same survey (4/5 - __ > 7/10).  This is a
direct question to the students with no English in sight, but only
19.4 per cent of the students got the answer right. What this means is
the English language cannot be made the scapegoat for the students'
failure to score in Maths and Science while other factors, such as not
studying and an inclination towards the liberal arts on the part of
the students, are ignored. Let us now turn to Khairy's arguments.

He concurred that the English language is "the undisputed lingua
franca", especially in this information technology age where knowledge
spreads fast and authoritative reference books are in English.  But I
disagree with his arguments that teaching Maths and Science in English
is wrong because the poor students in rural areas will lose out.  From
what I understand, rural students will always lose out in terms of
education compared with their urban counterparts, no matter what
language is used. The problem is not with teaching Maths and Science
in the English language.

The problem is with the lack of access to good libraries and lack of
good teachers in rural schools and this could only be solved if time,
staff and money are allocated to improve rural schools. As a former
substitute teacher of the English language in a primary school, I do
agree that the command of the English language among students is
appalling and I do agree with Khairy in giving the students a sound
foundation in the English language itself.
But I disagree with his argument that "they will have few problems
understanding Science reference books and journals in English … they
just need to be proficient in English".

The reason this policy was introduced was that students who were good
in Maths and Science could not cope with the subjects in universities,
where they are taught in English. The policy's aim is to make sure
that these students are exposed to complex mathematical terms and will
not experience shock upon entering university. English, as taught in
our schools, focuses on teaching grammar and literature, and cannot be
expected to help students grasp the basic mathematical and scientific
formulae, something which is taken care of in this policy. In defence
of Dr Mahathir's policy and Samuel Yesuiah's letter ("Let us continue
with the policy" — NST, Sept 8), it is better that this policy goes
through for the long-term benefits.

RUZAINI FIKRI, Universiti Malaya
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