[lg policy] Malaysia: Chaining The Children of the Poor
hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Mon Jul 13 14:45:19 UTC 2009
Chaining The Children of the Poor
by M. Bakri Musa
The ancient Chinese bound the feet of their baby daughters so they
would grow up with deformed tiny feet, thus limiting their mobility
and participation in life outside the little world of their homes.
These women would then be totally dependent on their men.
In rescinding the policy of teaching science and mathematics in
English, the government is likewise binding the intellectual
development of our children. They and future generations of Malaysians
would grow up with warped intellect. They would then be totally
dependent on the government, just as ancient Chinese women with tiny
feet were on their men.
My friend and fellow commentator Azly Rahman has a more apt and
colorful local metaphor; we are condemning future generations to the
Pekan Rabu economy, capable only of selling pirated versions of
Michael Jackson albums. That would be the extent of their
entrepreneurial prowess and creative flair. They are only subsistence
entrepreneurs and ‘copy cat’ creators. Make no mistake about it. The
government’s professed concerns for the poor and those from rural
areas notwithstanding, reversing the current policy would adversely
and disproportionately impact them. The rich and those in the cities
have a ready escape; the rich through private English classes, urban
children from the already high levels of English in their community.
The most disadvantaged will be the poor kampong kids. That means Malay
children. Thus we have the supreme irony if not perversity of the
champions of Ketuanan Melayu actively pursuing a policy that would
ensure Malay children be perpetually trapped economically and
intellectually. I thank Allah that I grew up at a time when the likes
of Muhyyuddin were not in charge of our education system. Otherwise I
would have been trapped in my kampong.
The idiocy of the new move is best illustrated by this one startling
example. In 2012 when the new plan will be implemented, students in
Form IV will be taught science and mathematics in Malay, after
learning the two subjects in English for the past nine years. Then two
years later when they will be entering Sixth Form or the Matriculation
stream, they will again have to revert to English. Pupils in the
vernacular schools would have it worse. They would learn the two
subjects in their mother tongue during their primary school years,
then switch to Malay for the next five while in secondary school, and
then switch again, this time to English, in Sixth Form and university!
Had these policymakers done their homework and diligent downstream
analysis, such idiocies would not crop up. Then again this is what we
would expect from our civil servants. They have been brought up with
their minds bound up; they cannot think. They have depended on others
to do the thinking for them. Najib Razak’s flip-flopping on this major
national issue eerily reminds me of similar indecisiveness and lack of
resolve of his immediate predecessor, Abdullah Badawi. No wonder he
supports Najib in this policy shift. Najib should not take comfort in
that, unless he expects a similar fate as Abdullah’s. Abdullah was
kicked out by his party; with Najib, it would be the voters who would
be kicking him out. Public sentiments are definitely against this
Failure of Policy Versus Failure of Implementation
The cabinet reversed course because it deemed the policy did not
produce the desired results. However, in arriving at this pivotal
decision the cabinet failed to address the fundamental question on
whether the original policy was flawed or its implementation
ineffective. It just assumed the policy to be flawed. Muhyyuddin and
his senior officers relied heavily on the 2005 UNESCO Report which
suggests that “‘mother tongue first’ bilingual education” may (my
emphasis) be the solution to the dilemma of members of minority
linguistic groups in acquiring knowledge.
Muhyyuddin and his advisers seriously misread the Report. It was
concerned primarily with the dilemma at the societal level of members
of a linguistic minority having to learn the language of the majority
(“national language”) versus the need to maintain linguistic diversity
generally and minority languages specifically. UNESCO was rightly
concerned with the rapid disappearance of languages spoken by small
minority groups. The report was not addressing specifically the
learning of science and mathematics.
Malay language is not at risk of disappearing; it is the native tongue
of literally hundreds of millions. To extrapolate the UNESCO
recommendations for Malay language is a gross oversimplification and
misreading of the report.
The UNESCO Report does not address the issue of when and how best to
introduce children to bilingual education. Later studies that focused
specifically on the pedagogical and psychological aspects instead of
the sociological and political have shown that children are quite
capable of learning multiple languages at the same time. Even more
remarkable is that the earlier they are exposed to a second language
the more facile they would be with that language. They would also
learn that second language much faster; hence second language even at
The acquisition of bilingual ability at an early age confers other
significant cognitive advantages. These have been documented by
clinical studies with functional MRIs (imaging studies of the brain).
Malaysia should learn from these more modern studies and the
experiences of more advanced societies, not from the UNESCO studies of
backward tribes of Asia.
The other basis for the cabinet’s decision was ‘research’ by local
half-baked and politically-oriented pseudo academics. They should be
embarrassed to append their names to such a sophomoric paper. The
quality is such that it will never appear in reputable journals. As
for the Ministry’s own internal ‘researchers,’ remember that they came
out within months of the policy’s introduction in 2003 documenting the
‘impressive’ improvements in students’ achievements!
The one major entity that would be severely impacted by the cabinet’s
decision is our universities. Yet our Vice-Chancellors have remained
quiet and detached in this important national debate. They have not
advised the cabinet nor lead the public discussions. Again that
reflects the caliber of leadership of our major institutions.
Had the cabinet decided that the policy was essentially sound but that
the flaws were with its implementations, then measures other than
rescinding it would be the appropriate response. This would include
recruiting and training more English-speaking teachers and devoting
more hours to the subject.
What surprised me is that when Mahathir introduced the policy in 2003,
he was supported by his cabinet that included Najib, Muhyyuddin,
Hishamuddin, and over a dozen of current ministers who now
collectively voted to reverse the policy. Likewise, the policy was
fully endorsed too by UMNO’s Supreme Council then. Like the cabinet,
many of those earlier members are still in that body today. Yet today
the Council also voted to disband the policy. Muhyyuddin, Hishamuddin
and the others have yet to share with us why they changed their minds.
The conditions that prompted the introduction of the policy back then
are still present today. This reversal will do not change that.
Najib, Muhyyuddin and Hishamuddin are “lallang leaders,” they bend
with the slightest wind change. Unlike Margaret Thatcher’s famed
resolve of “This lady is not for turning,” with Najib, Muhyyuddin, et
al., all you have to do to make them undertake a U turn would be to
blow slightly in their faces. Blow a bit harder and they would scoot
off with their tails between their legs. These leaders will never lead
This reversal will not solve the widening achievement gap between
urban and rural students. The cabinet has yet to put forth new ideas
on ameliorating that problem. So, just as ancient Chinese women were
physically handicapped because of their bound feet, rural or more
specifically Malay children will continue to be intellectually
handicapped by their warped and small minds, the consequence of this
policy shift. Perhaps that is the real objective of this policy
reversal, the shackling of the intellectual development of our young
so they will forever be dependent on their ‘leaders.’
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