Malaysia: An issue of language and policy

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Mon Sep 22 00:39:50 UTC 2008

An issue of language and policy

An unimportant primary school assessment has suddenly gained great
significance to determine a major government policy. IT WAS a very
tense two weeks for my daughter as she fretted, mugged and brooded
over her Year Six government examination, or Ujian Penca­paian Sekolah
Rendah (UPSR), which took three days to complete. Since then she has
been drifting from being bored to enjoying her liberation from exams.
Of course, she has been quietly telling me she is worried about her
results. Despite me telling her that the UPSR is not important, to her
it is. She has set herself a lofty target of scoring all As.

I have a funny feeling that she will probably do it. After all, her
class teacher told me at the last school open day that my girl is one
of those whom the school had targeted to score five As. On Tuesday,
she called me excitedly after school saying that she had scored an A
for her Bahasa Malaysia Kefahaman paper. When asked how did she know
(as results are not due until December), she said she and her teacher
went through the question paper and checked the answers she gave. To
my girl and the other more than 500,000 Year Six pupils the most
important thing is their own results. But unknown to her and other
12-year-olds, this year's UPSR holds great importance not only for our
education system but to the country as a whole because the Government
will decide whether Science and Mathematics will continue to be taught
in English, based on the results of these half-a-million young

I wanted to explain to her the significance of her exam but I thought
otherwise because it was too heavy a responsibility for such young

Education Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein said a final
decision would be made after the results were analysed.

My daughter and her peers are the first batch to study both subjects
entirely in English since the policy was introduced in 2003.

Since then there has been various quarters calling the Government to
reverse the decision and allow the subjects to be taught in either
Bahasa Malaysia at Sekolah Kebangsaan or in their mother tongues in
vernacular schools.

Malay nationalists found support from Chinese and Tamil educationists
to stop the two subjects being taught in English.

However, there are also those who oppose this and want English to be
used to teach these subjects.

The Malay nationalists and the Chinese and Tamil educationists are
against the use of English for obvious reasons €" to protect the
language that they promote.

(At this juncture I would like to declare that I am very nationalistic
and am very proud of our Bahasa Malaysia. Furthermore, our discussion
here is about practicability.)

Their fear is twofold €" firstly, a decline in the language they are
promoting and secondly, their respective communities be at a
disadvantage because of the use of English.

However, the middle-class (of all ethnic groups) oppose any such
change because they feel comfortable with English as most of them
studied Science and Mathematics in that language when they were in

A poll by Star Online ( found overwhelming support
for the two subjects to be taught in English.

>>From over 8,000 respondents to the online survey, 7,392 were for the
present English policy to be continued, 448 to revert to Bahasa
Malaysia and 228 for the use of the national language at lower primary
level only.

Interestingly none of those who took part in the poll supported Bahasa
Malaysia being used to teach the two subjects in lower secondary.

Hishammuddin noted that the feedback received by the ministry so far
showed that opinions were equally divided. He said his ministry would
probably come out with a compromise solution.

It is this that worries me. We are forever seeking compromise
solutions that do not solve problems but instead try to appease as
many people as possible.

Education should be above politics but unfortunately, like all other
countries, education is a pillar of all political manifestos.

One of the major problems faced by pupils, like my daughter, is that
their teachers are not very proficient in English.

To me it is not the teacher's fault, he or she was after all taught
everything in Bahasa Malaysia.

The Government by the stroke of a pen decided that the two subjects be
taught in English while teachers would in the meantime be trained for
this. As a stopgap measure, all Govern­ment examinations have a
two-language option for the two subjects.

All these half-measures will contribute to the confusion of the
teachers and students as well as poor results.

I think we can safely say that the Science and Mathematics results for
this year's UPSR will not be great because they were the first batch
to be taught in a hodgepodge manner because of the half-measures.

A better way would be to examine results of the next three batches for
the ministry to get a more accurate reading.

The first batch is no measurement of the policy's success or failure.

Meanwhile, what are we going to do with the five batches at teachers
who have been trained to teach the two subjects in English? Will we
have to re-train them to do so in Bahasa Malaysia?

This is the kind of reverse engineering that we do not need.

The decision will, sadly, be a political one. It should not be, as the
decision must be made based on economic reasons. After all, the reason
for introducing it a decade ago was because of economics.

Then prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad insisted on the change
from Bahasa Malaysia to English because he said the language had
become the language of science and technology.

Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has always placed emphasis on
development of human capital in order to push our country to the next
level of development.

So, the Government must stick to its guns and make the decision on
economic reasons.

A director of a public-listed company told me that one of the main
reasons Malaysian professionals and firms are so sought-after by MNCs,
Japanese and Chinese companies is because of their English.

"This is one of our economic advantages and anything done to affect
this advantage amounts to economic sabotage," he added.

Hishammuddin acknowledges the importance of English and gave
assurances that "whatever happens, we will continue with our agenda to
improve the English proficiency of students."

All I want is a sound and well thought-out decision and not one that
will be changed a decade later.

Hishammuddin must be brave and impartial. Why not? After all, it is
our children's future we are talking about.

Our Deputy Executive Editor Wong Sai Wan is obviously English-biased,
but is in love with our Bahasa Malaysia.
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