[lg policy] In Malaysia, English Ban Raises Fears for Future

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Thu Jul 9 20:05:07 UTC 2009

July 10, 2009
In Malaysia, English Ban Raises Fears for Future

KUALA LUMPUR — P.S. Han, a teacher in Kuala Lumpur, has been using
English to teach math and physics to 17-year-olds for the past six
years.  From 2012, he will be forced to return to using the national
language, Bahasa Malaysia, after the government decided to abandon
English for the two subjects in a decision some consider to be
motivated by politics rather than education.
“English has been used as the language of science for 300 years,” said
Mr. Han, a teacher at St. John’s Institution. “You cannot really
convey the scientific concepts to the students in Bahasa Malaysia at a
very high level.” “We have to face the fact that science knowledge is
in English.”

The announcement on Wednesday, which came after months of lobbying by
Malay nationalists, has raised concerns about whether English
standards in the former British colony will slide and whether
Malaysia’s competitiveness as a destination for multinational
companies may suffer. English has been the language of instruction for
math and science in Malaysia since 2003, when former Prime Minister
Mahathir Mohamad introduced the policy amid concerns that poor English
skills were hindering students’ job opportunities.

Mr. Mahathir expressed sadness over the decision to revert to Bahasa
Malaysia, saying that the decision would adversely affect children and
make it difficult for them to keep abreast of scientific developments,
the national news agency Bernama quoted him as saying. The government
cited a decline in students’ math and science grades, particularly in
rural areas, as one of the reasons behind the switch. However, Khoo
Kay Kim, emeritus professor of Malaysian history at the University of
Malaysia, said that teachers had not been adequately trained before
the policy was introduced.

He described Malaysia’s English standards as “pathetic.” “Fewer and
fewer of our professors can now write in English,” he said. “We used
to lead Asia in terms of English, and now we have allowed ourselves to
slip below other Asian countries.” Mr. Khoo said it was a “national
shame” that the country’s oldest university, the University of
Malaysia, had fallen behind other Asian universities in international
rankings, a trend he attributed to declining English standards. He
also raised concerns that poor English standards may affect Malaysia’s
international competitiveness, saying that multinational companies may
struggle to find graduates with good English.

“If less and less Malaysians know English, how are multinational
companies going to come into this country?” he said. “If we don’t have
the workforce who can fit into multinational companies, how are they
going to come here?” Malaysia’s business community has long been
concerned about the reported decline in English standards in schools.
“The business community feels that English is imperative for
Malaysia’s international competitiveness,” said Michael Yeoh, chief
executive the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute, an independent
research organization.

Mr. Yeoh said that more needed to be done to improve English
standards, but questions remained over whether teaching science and
math in English was the best method. “We don’t really know exactly how
this could impede on the study of English,” he said.
The Malaysian International Chamber of Commerce and Industry welcomed
the government’s decision to increase the number of English teachers
and teaching hours. Its executive director, Stewart Forbes, said that
the need to emphasize English must continue to be part of the
government’s policy.

“Private sector companies in Malaysia continue to complain about
graduates’ communication skills in general, and English skills in
particular, and the government’s efforts to raise the level of English
expertise are very worthwhile,” he said. Some educators from
Malaysia’s two largest minority groups, the Chinese and Indian
communities, welcomed the decision to revert to using Chinese and
Tamil for science and math in vernacular schools, local media
reported. However, many parents and the National Union of the Teaching
Profession have expressed concern over the decision to scrap English.
Shazlin Aidani, a mother of three, said she wanted her children to
learn math and science in English. “When they graduate and go to work
everything will be in English, not Bahasa,” she said.

NYT, 7/10/09


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com


>>From the NY Times, 7/10/09

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