[lg policy] Malaysia: Something Sensible From UMNO Youth

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Sun Jun 14 18:43:07 UTC 2009

Something Sensible From UMNO Youth

M. Bakri Musa

I am heartened that UMNO Youth supports the proposal that a pass in
English be mandatory in securing the SPM certificate. I commend the
organization in going further then merely supporting the proposition.
Among others, UMNO Youth suggests increasing the number of English
teachers in rural schools and hiring foreign native-speaking English
teachers as well as those retired teachers trained under the old
system and thus fluent in English. I wish that UMNO Youth would be
more daring and follow the example of its sister wing, UMNO Puteri,
and support the continuation of the teaching of science and
mathematics in English. I would also prefer that they would support
the proposal making a pass in MUET be mandatory for university
entrance. That notwithstanding, the stand taken by these two junior
UMNO organizations is in stark contrast to that taken by Pakatan
Rakyat partners.

Supporting or adopting a policy is one thing; effectively implementing
it is entirely another. This is where our leaders and institutions
have failed us miserably. And when they fail in executing a policy
effectively, the blame would go not on these ineffective and
incompetent officials but on the policy itself. This makes the later
resurrection of an otherwise sound policy that much more difficult.
The policy of teaching of science and mathematics in English is a
prime example of this. When Prime Minister Mahathir introduced it in
2003, I suggested that it be implemented in stages, beginning first
with our residential schools. There the students are generally
brighter, teachers more well trained, and facilities much superior. It
would be much easier to work out the inevitable kinks like the
availability of teachers and textbooks in such a controlled
environment. When those issues are resolved, the program could then be

As for textbooks, I suggested that instead of wasting time and effort
at re-inventing the wheel, meaning retranslating existing texts in
Malay into English, we should buy already available modern textbooks
in English from established global publishers. With the ministry’s
purchasing clout (we were looking at literally hundreds of thousands
of copies) it should be able to secure substantial discounts.

Additionally we should convert some existing teachers’ training
colleges into exclusively English-medium institutions. Recognizing
that the language skills of new teacher trainees were highly
deficient, I suggested that they be given a year of English-immersion
classes combined with improving their science and mathematics before
they enter teacher training.

As an added enticement, prepare the more talented students to take the
American SAT examination and send the high scorers to top universities
in America. With their now enhanced language skills as well superior
proficiency in science and mathematics, they would be more than
well-prepared for the SAT.

We all recognize that the teaching of science and mathematics is not
the best way to enhance the English proficiency of our students. It
would however ease their acquisition of new scientific knowledge; we
cannot depend on translations because of the inevitable time lag.

Consequently, in addition to teaching science and mathematics in
English I suggested also teaching one or two other subjects in
English. My prime candidate would be Islamic Studies because of its
high language content as well as the increasing number of literature
now written in English. Next to Arabic, English is now the most
important language in Islam. As an added bonus, it would also broaden
our students’ understanding of our faith. It would also attract others
whose mother tongue is not Malay to learn about Islam.

Similarly in making MUET mandatory for university admission, I would
introduce the policy incrementally. To begin with, those currently
qualified to enter sans a pass in MUET be given a year or two to make
up their deficiency. Meaning they would have to defer their admission
until they pass their MUET. They would be more likely to make up their
deficiency if they were to concentrate only on improving their

Incidentally, taking a year or two off between high school and
university is now fast becoming very popular with American students.
They use that hiatus to travel, acquire specific skills, or just to
earn some money for college.

Had our leaders and officials done these (and many others) our
students today – particularly Malays – would have enhanced English
language skills as well as superior proficiency in science and
mathematics. That in turn would enhance their value in the market
place, quite apart from making them more educated in the broadest
sense of the word.

Most importantly, we would not again be distracted by yet another
unneeded major controversy in our education policy.

All Is Not Lost

All is not lost, however; we could still recover from our initial
fumble by being better prepared this time. Consider the proposal to
hire retired and foreign teachers.

If we hire any Australian or British teacher without carefully
scrutinizing their abilities then we would not advance the policy.
Apart from having the necessary academic qualifications, these
teachers must also demonstrate an ability to be free from what is
euphemistically termed thick “mother tongue influence” (accent). This
is a major problem with teachers and lecturers we recruited from India
and Pakistan. Similarly, a teacher with a thick Cockney or outback
accent would be equally incomprehensible in our classrooms.

I suggest that we recruit teachers from English Canada or Midwestern
United States because they speak as close as possible to what is
termed standard or international English. Another equally good and
much cheaper source would be Eastern Europe. Learning another language
is tough; there is no need to burden our young in trying to decipher a
thick Cockney, Australian, or for that matter, a heavy Southern

Having Polish teachers serves another advantage; I am amazed how well
Polish students could speak English even though that is not their
mother tongue. They do not even have an accent. Their success and
experience could help our students overcome their own problems of
learning a second language.

Recruiting retired teachers too presents its own sets of problems. As
they speak English well, their presence would only expose the glaring
inadequacies of current teachers. This would not sit well with them,
especially the headmasters. When talking to these retired teachers,
the greatest obstacle they face (apart from the bureaucratic hoops the
have to undergo) is the unwelcome attitude of their current
colleagues. To overcome this we need to give financial incentives for
headmasters to recruit these retired teachers or find ways to overcome
the resistance of the current teaching personnel.

Regardless, when we do recruit these retired and foreign teachers, we
must ensure that they are not assigned alone to a particular school.
We must have at least five or six of them at any one school. In that
way they could find mutual support for each other and because of their
“critical mass,” they could influence the students and the rest of the

Attention to these details is important to a policy’s success. If our
officials ignore them or are not diligent when implementing the
policy, it would surely fail. Then we would end up again with
never-ending controversies and divisiveness.

The current controversy over the teaching of science and mathematics
in English is not due to the inherent defect of the policy (on the
contrary it is a sound policy) rather its implementation had been
botched by our incompetent officials. Let us ensure that we do a
better job in trying to enhance the English skills of our students.


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