Malaysia: Revise policy for 3 reasons

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sun Sep 28 15:53:53 UTC 2008

Revise policy for 3 reasons

WE have read the views of many in our dailies recently on the issue of
whether the Government should continue with the ETeMS (English
Teaching of Maths & Science) policy or otherwise. One would get the
impression, from reading the English dailies, that the masses are for
continuing with the policy. Actually this is deceptive. We can be
certain that those who speak their minds in these dailies are from the
middle and upper echelons of society whereas nobody is speaking on
behalf of the lower echelon. If only they could voice their opinions
in English. The government needs to revise the ETeMS policy for three

First, for the simple pedagogical reason that our teachers have not
been trained in English and they are not proficient to teach the
subjects in that language. Science and Mathematics involve concepts
that require clear explanation for understanding and cannot be learnt
by just reading textbooks alone. Failure in understanding the simple
concepts will mean failure to understand the more difficult concepts
too. This means many of our children who are not proficient in English
are at a disadvantage. This is especially true of the sciences.

A language like English takes a long time to master. Even many of us
who came from the English medium of the 1960s know that it takes
almost a lifetime. So it is not fair to think that teachers can master
it in six years. To continue with the current policy would mean longer
and intensive training in English for thousands of teachers.

Second, Bahasa Malaysia has been the language for the democratisation
of higher education in this country, as our history has shown. It acts
as an equaliser. The evidence is clear if one looks at the number of
bumiputras who managed to obtain a college or university education
before the 1970s, that is before Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM)
was established and Bahasa Malaysia became the medium of instruction
of all public universities.

It was only after the 70s that there was a rise in the number of
bumiputra professionals and the middle class.

The Education Policy has helped narrow the gap between the rich and
the poor and created a bigger base of middle class, which is a
stabilising factor in society.

Now, if we continue with the ETeMS policy, what the government has
worked hard to achieve will begin to loosen and disintegrate because
the majority of the masses who have no infrastructure to acquire
English, especially those from less privileged schools, homes or
communities, will not be able to get the grades in Science and
Mathematics and thus will fail to become professionals.

Third, this policy, if continued right from primary school-level, will
slowly cause the death of Bahasa Malaysia as the language of

I think many elderly readers still remember how the elitist Malays did
not have the confidence that Bahasa Malaysia could be a language of
the sciences for its lack of terminologies.

These pessimists have been proven wrong as UKM and later Universiti
Malaya (UM) and others began to produce engineers and doctors who've
been recognised by professional bodies in Britain.

In fact, graduates of our public universities never encountered any
problems continuing their post-graduate studies anywhere despite
having studied in Bahasa Malaysia.

Similarly, the government has been sending students abroad right after
SPM to study in the West. Most of them succeed in their respective
fields, even to the extent of gaining admission to Harvard, the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial

No issue

So there is no issue with our system. In fact, in this era of
globalisation, where there are international and local pressures, the
nation has to strengthen its national consciousness and preserve its
culture and identity. Of course, globalisation also means diversity
and thus, the need to articulate in the language of the world, which
is English.

I think the decline in the standard of English worried our leaders in
the previous administration as their opinions were based on the
performance of civil servants, some of whom have international
dealings, while others have to negotiate trade and bilateral
agreements in English.

We cannot blame the poor performance of these government officers on
their lack of understanding or proficiency of the language, or on the
education system.

In fact, if we had a good visionary policy, such officers could've
been sent to study in the West.

But the government did not. In fact, we do not have great thinkers and
planners for running the civil service machinery.

Medieval philosophers

Muslims and Malays too need to acquire a sound proficiency of English
just as renowned philosophers like al-Ghazali and Ibn Sina who were
Persians, mastered Arabic to the point of writing their works in that
language because it was the lingua franca of the sciences during the
medieval era.

Hence, I would like to suggest that the Education Ministry revert to
teaching Science and Mathematics following the previous system.

In fact the group that decided on the ETeMS policy did not represent
the majority or the masses and we can gauge whom they represented by
just reading the National Brain Trust Document July 2002.

It is a shame as no representatives from organisations like Persatuan
Linguistic Malaysia, Perihatin or Dong Jiao Zong (United Chinese
School Committees Association of Malaysia) were consulted.

Since the policy has great implication for reducing the
democratisation of higher education and later creating a social
divide, let us create the opportunity to use English by using it in
non-exam subjects such as Physical Education and Health, Art and Craft
or in ICT or other conversational subjects.

It will take the stress off students and there will be more fun as
they converse in English.

This should be introduced in Year Two of primary school and teachers
should be trained for it. The practice should then continue in
secondary school where subjects that require expression and play of
ideas, such as history or geography are included.

Finally, ensure that during Form Six or matriculation, every student
takes one subject of his elective or specialisation in English to
prepare for academic purposes later.

As for the universities, maybe it is now apt to introduce English for
entrance examination as the motivating factor rather than the
Malaysian University English Test (MUET).

Perhaps we can also learn from the Japanese by making it necessary for
undergraduates and Master students in science and technology to read
English journals and present their work to the class in Bahasa

But this should be introduced gradually, just like the way Tun Abdul
Razak, our former premier, laid the policy for the language shift. It
began in 1970 and was only completed in 1983.

Let us also improve the teaching of English and motivate students to
learn the language. Many of our students from the lower socio-economic
level are not motivated and do not see its use.

They have no role models, be it at home or in the community.

As for teaching, we need to motivate the students by having
inter-class and other competitions. Our teaching of languages should
be based on moulding about a community with an inquiring mind where
there are discussions on concepts and meanings.

Finally, there will be parents from the middle and upper classes who
will wonder what will happen to their children who have learned
science and mathematics in English, should the government decide to

This will not be a problem as it will be like the reversion in the
1970s, except that more children of all ethnicities are now
well-versed in Bahasa Malaysia compared to their parents' generation.

As for the terminologies, things will more or less remain. A polygon
will be poligon in Bahasa Malaysia, and the same goes for molecule

PROF DR ROSNANI HASHIM Associate Director for the Centre of
Philosophical Inquiry in Education Institute of Education,
International Islamic University Gombak, Selangor

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