Malaysia: Scaling the language barrier

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Wed Mar 4 19:24:38 UTC 2009

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Scaling the language barrier
4 Mar 09 : 11.00AM
By Wong Chin Huat
editor at

THE English language is now promoting interethnic unity in Malaysia,
albeit unintentionally. Malay, Chinese and Tamil educationists who
were once natural enemies have now joined forces to oppose the English
for Teaching Mathematics and Science (ETeMS) policy.

Politically, leaders in the Barisan Nasional (BN) are divided on
whether to continue the policy, while the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) is
solidly behind the call to scrap it. However, it can't be ruled out
that a new consensus may emerge after the Umno party elections.

The standard of English has deteriorated in Malaysia, over the past
decade, while the English language is enjoying increasing importance
in a globalising world. Taking both these factors into consideration,
isn't the call to abolish ETeMS and reinstate the old status quo
irrational and irresponsible? I don't think so.

A flawed policy

While the policy's opponents have not been able to offer superior
alternatives to convince a divided public, ETeMS is essentially flawed
and must go.

The main argument justifying ETeMS is that since the bulk of knowledge
in science and mathematics is produced in English, learning these
subjects in English would allow students to acquire knowledge directly
without depending on translations.

Why is this argument flawed? Well, not every student intends to become
a mathematician or scientist, so not everyone needs to comprehend
mathematics and science publications in English.

The policy would be fine if it did not entail any costs, e.g. if
switching the teaching of these subjects to English did not affect the
ability of weaker or non-English-speaking students in mastering these

This, however, is clearly not true. It is self-evident that one's
ability to learn depends on one's ability to understand what is being
taught. This is the argument for mother-tongue education, in a

But teaching science and mathematics in English to all students of
varying abilities has inevitably entailed a sacrifice of the general
standard of these two subjects. Does this benefit the country in the
long run? Criticisms that the standard of these two subjects has been
artificially lowered speak volumes of the magnitude of this problem.
So, why don't we have different policies catered for students of
different aptitudes and endowments?

There is another argument, even more flawed, that justifies ETeMS: the
more students are exposed to the English language, the more their
mastery of the language will improve.

Let's take this argument to its logical conclusion. Let's look at arts
and commerce students — these kids do not need to study science and
mathematics beyond a certain level. Science-stream students, however,
are normally required to take some humanities subjects even at
university level.

So, if students need to be "exposed" more to the English language,
ETeMS should really be redirected to focus on history, geography and
religious or moral education subjects. Why force the right medicine
down the throat of the wrong patient?

A dishonest policy

An honest analysis will show that the policy prescription should never
have been about teaching mathematics and science in English for all
education streams. The arguments supporting ETeMS have not developed
into logical, systematic implementation. In fact, the two arguments
used to justify ETeMS are mutually contradictory.

For example, following the argument that science and mathematics
literature is mostly in English, science-stream education should have
logically been fully converted to English with the status quo retained
for all other streams.

But following the argument that students should be more "exposed" to
ideas in English, it is the medium of instruction of the humanities
subjects that should have been switched to English.

These policy options are actually quite logical. But they have been
taken out of the public debate because they are not politically
viable. This in turn suggests the two arguments are actually spurious.

For example, if we had converted science-stream education to English
in toto, we would eventually be creating a linguistically defined
class division in society.

Not unlike colonial times, command of English would determine one's
opportunity to be a doctor, an engineer, an architect, a computer
programmer, or an IT tycoon. Eventually, it would determine one's
acceptance into the economic and sociopolitical elite. Clearly, this
position is political suicide for politicians, especially the Malay
nationalists from Umno.

On the other hand, if we had instead switched the language of
instruction of the humanities subjects to English, we would have had
to face two difficult scenarios. Firstly, would improvement of
students' command of English have been achieved at the expense of a
general deterioration of academic standards in the humanities? If yes,
would the policy have been worth it?

Secondly, and more importantly, no matter how important English has
become globally, would we need the entire nation to be conversant in
English, even at the price of academic regression?

Why this dishonesty?

The policy question before us is actually very simple. There are three
factors to take into account.

Firstly, we need to improve the general standard of English for all
students, and produce some students with an excellent command of

Secondly, any policy should not cause academic standards to decline,
especially among students who are socioeconomically disadvantaged; for
instance, those from poorer backgrounds and rural schools.

Thirdly, any policy should not marginalise the national language and
other mother-tongue languages such that Malaysia loses its national
character and multilingual advantage.

What's the solution? Revive English-medium schools, alongside the
existing Malay, Chinese and Tamil-language streams. Parents who want
their children to learn all non-language subjects in English can then
have a choice, instead of turning to the mushrooming private and
international schools.

Why then has this simple and straightforward solution not been pursued?

First, it would mean that the decision to convert English-medium
schools into Malay-medium schools beginning in 1975 was wrong.
Incidentally, it was Tun Dr Mahathir Mohammad who was education
minister when this language-switch policy sentenced English-medium
education to death. Nearly three decades later, it was Mahathir again
who wanted to switch back to English-language education for science
and mathematics.

Secondly, and more importantly, if English schools are revived, they
would likely attract students from stronger socioeconomic backgrounds.
Malay-, Tamil- and to a lesser extent, Chinese-medium schools might
eventually be reduced to inferior education providers, inviting the
wrath of ethno-nationalists from every community.

By sacrificing academic standards across the board, ETeMS avoids such
political embarrassment and covers up the real need to beef up
English-language education for the weaker students in all streams.

In a nutshell, this policy is political expediency at its worst.

The main casualties are now weaker students from poorer families and
rural schools. Most of them will learn little in mathematics and
sciences with minimal, if any, improvement in their command of
English. These underperforming students are likely to fill up the
lowest paid jobs in future, hence frustrating upward social mobility.

However, students from more advantaged backgrounds suffer, too. They
learn less mathematics and science than they otherwise would because
the current standard for the two subjects needs to be lowered to
produce evidence of success. They also cannot learn other non-language
subjects in English if they want to.

The win-win solution

The ETeMS debate, now framed as a "yes" or "no" dichotomy, is
effectively a tug of war between the pro-English elites and other

The policy must go if we do not want continued injustice towards more
students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Reverting to the old status quo is however not tenable. It would deny
both the nation's developmental needs and the preference of
pro-English parents and students.

But we need not be caught between two false choices.

Reviving English schools will not only meet the need of improving the
standard of English in a purely utilitarian sense. It also fits the
argument for upholding mother-tongue education — English is, after
all, increasingly the mother tongue of Malaysians of all ethnic
backgrounds, whether Malay, Chinese, Indian, Dayak, Kadazandusun, or

What about national unity? This is a question that may be asked by
supporters of ETeMS as a gradualist method to eliminate multi-stream

The answer is again straightforward. Firstly, a single-stream
education system could not possibly maximise the use of the English
language for every single student anyway. One must thus choose between
better, albeit varying, standards of English for everyone or the
homogenisation of the education system.

Secondly, blaming communal division mainly on the education system is
intellectually lazy and unreflective. Intercommunal solidarity is
built not through homogenisation, but through cleavages that cut
across communal lines. How the ill-thought promotion of English has
unintentionally unified the Malay, Chinese and Tamil educationists is
a case in point.


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