Language Barrier splits Malaysians into Classes

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sat Sep 27 14:26:26 UTC 2008

Language barrier splits Malaysians into classes
Posted by St Low
Saturday, 27 September 2008 11:20

KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 27 — A visibly angry Maimunah Hamid shook her head
in desperation as Education Ministry officials struggled to explain to
angry parents gathered at a parent-teachers meeting at a national
school in the city last week. "I have had enough, I am moving my
daughter to an international school," said Maimunah, an accountant
with Maybank, Malaysia's biggest bank. "I am sick of this flip-flop
policy, why can't you all make up your mind?" Most of the 120 parents
agreed with Maimunah, 46, a mother of two daughters aged nine and 12.

"Make up you mind please — English or Malay. Don't torture the
children," said another parent Kanagaratnam Vellupillai, 39. "This
issue has been going on for years and years." In fact the issue —
English or Malay as a medium of instruction — has been hotly debated
and remains unresolved since the British colonialists left in 1957.
After acrimonious debate the matter was settled in 1967 that Malay
would be the medium of instruction in all national schools, but that
Chinese and Tamil vernacular schools could continue teaching in a
mixture of Malay and their own mother tongues.

However, in a decision in 2002, which was widely opposed by parents,
officials, opposition lawmakers and even civil servants, Tun Dr
Mahathir Mohamad ordered the return of English on the grounds that
national education in Malay narrowed student minds, retarded economic
growth and that if continued, Malaysia's competitiveness would
collapse against Singapore, Hong Kong and Bangkok. The return of
English was widely supported by middle-class parents such as Maimunah
and Kanagaratnam, who were already westernised and inclined to want an
open, English-based education for their children.

However Malay nationalists, Chinese educationists and Tamil parents,
who wanted Tamil as medium of instruction for Tamils, strongly
objected to Dr Mahathir's desire to bring back English. The veteran
politician offered a compromise — only science and maths would be
taught in English. All other subjects would be in Malay and vernacular
languages. That decision has been hotly debated ever since and the
latest round erupted last month with academics, teachers and parents
hotly divided over whether to continue Dr Mahathir's policy or revert
to teaching all subjects in Malay.

The matter remains an emotive issue in this multi-ethnic society
divided by race, religion and now mother tongue education. Five years
after Dr Mahathir retired in 2003 his successor, Datuk Seri Abdullah
Ahmad Badawi, still finds it difficult to reverse the "science and
maths in English" policy now widely described as a "silly legacy". At
the time it was introduced, the move was strongly opposed by parents,
educators and teachers, but Dr Mahathir pressed on. Opposition
continued over the years and has reached a peak in recent weeks with
top educators openly arguing that the five-year-old policy has
seriously damaged students' grasp of not only English but also science
and maths.

"You cannot study a language by studying maths and science in that
language," said Ungku Aziz, a former vice-chancellor of the University
of Malaya. "The tragedy of our time is that students have no idea what
is grammar and syntax, they are not proficient in English," he told an
education forum this month, adding his weight to chorus of demands to
end the policy. "English or any language should be learnt as a
language on its own right."

National Union of Heads of Schools president Pang Chong Leong agreed
with the argument against using English as the medium of instruction
for science and maths. "If the intention is to improve the pupils'
English, then they should start with the arts subjects, such as moral
studies, and also increase the number of English periods," he said at
an education forum last week. "Science involves a lot of thinking
while maths does not use too much language and vocabulary. It goes
against the principles of education and does not achieve any

Dr Mahathir reasoned though that by teaching the two subjects in
English students would not only master the language but also science
and maths to make the economy technology-driven, and implemented the
policy against strong opposition in 2003, months before he retired
after 22 years as prime minister. Neither aims, however, have been
achieved, experts argue.

They say English proficiency fell because less time was devoted to it
in language study, while grasp of science and maths also suffered
after the sudden switch from Malay. English originally was taught five
times a week, 45-minutes a session in primary schools, but that time
was reduced to once a week under the new policy. The saved hours were
used to study science and maths in English, leaving teachers and
students in the lurch.

The government pressed ahead, spending billions changing school
textbooks to English, training teachers to work in the language and at
one time even importing scores of teachers from England to fill a
shortfall. Over the years several government "review committees" have
studied the issue and recommended to end the policy, but Dr Mahathir's
influence in the political arena was so great that a final decision
was always postponed.

Another reason for the indecisiveness is that long-time education
minister Datuk Hishamuddin Hussein is a Mahathir loyalist and
unwilling to embarrass the former prime minister by ending the policy.
However, at a teachers' meeting early this month, Hishamuddin promised
the government would make a firm decision — abandon English for Malay
or continue the policy — by year end. Some parents, such as Maimunah,
are not prepared to wait for the government to decide.

"I want my daughters to have a wholesome, internationally recognised
education so they can work and live anywhere in the world," she said.
"Later this year I am pulling them from the national school and
registering them in an international one that follows the English
semester system. It's expensive but worth it." However, parents like
Kanagaratnam, a City hall bus driver, cannot afford expensive private
education. "English is a must for world commerce and the future. We
must have a strong grounding in English," he said.

"I hope the government keeps instruction in English just for science
and mathematics. We don't want out children to return to Malay and
play catch up all over again." The government appears reluctant to
reverse the policy five years after spending so much money on
textbooks and retraining teachers to switch science and maths from
Malay to English. "We have already lost one generation switching from
English to Malay. By reversing I fear we will lose another," said
retired teacher Kathy Fong in a letter to the New Straits Times daily
last week.

- South China Morning Post

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