[lg policy] Malaysia: Something sensible from UMNO youth

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Tue Jun 16 17:21:19 UTC 2009

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 extended.

             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

             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 accent.

 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
teachers.  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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