Malaysia: Enhance, Not Review the Teaching of Science and Mathematics in English

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Mon May 18 17:11:24 UTC 2009

Enhance, Not Review the Teaching of Science and Mathematics in English

Monday, 18 May 2009 10:39

Those Malay language nationalists and other strident critics of TSME
fail to recognize one glaring reality.  That is, our current
educational policy is failing our students and our nation.  Those who
can or have other options for their children have already abandoned
our system.

M. Bakri Musa

Minister of Education Muhyuddin Yassin is doing our nation a great
disservice in further delaying the critical decision on the of
teaching science and mathematics in English (TSME, or its Malay
acronym, PPSMI –Pengajaran dan Pembelajaran Sains dan Matematik Dalam
Bahasa Inggeris) in our schools.  His indecision merely compounds the
uncertainty, especially among educators, parents and students.

What he should be doing instead is to explore ways of enhancing the
implementation of the policy, not review it.  He should be focusing on
finding ways to get more competent teachers, explore innovative
teaching techniques, and provide inexpensive textbooks.  He should
also be busy eliminating such expensive but ineffective teaching
gimmicks as the “computerized teaching modules” with their laptops and
LCDs that our teachers are unable to handle.  Those machines are now
either stolen or crashed because of viruses and dust.

The conditions of our students today have not changed from 2003 when
the policy was first introduced.  If any they are worse.  Whatever the
rationale was for adopting the policy back in 2003, it is still very
much valid today.

Today’s many critics of the policy are latecomers.  Where were they
when the policy was first mooted six years ago?  These critics have
yet to answer the basic question on whether the policy itself is
flawed or that the deficiencies are with its implementation.  They are
unable to answer this important question as they are entirely confused
over the issue.  Their opposition is based more on emotions rather
than rational thinking.

Consider the joint statement of our five living National Laureates in
Literature.  First, the facts they cited were clearly erroneous.
Stating that most Nobel Prize winners are from non-English-speaking
countries is not only incorrect but missed the essential point that
most of those luminaries are English literate.  Similarly our National
Laureates’ plea that we should emulate the Scandinavian countries
missed the important point that their students and citizens are all
fluently bilingual if not multilingual, with English being the most
common second language.  Indeed we should emulate the Scandinavian
countries and ensure that our students are truly bilingual.

The Laureates’s concerns are grossly misguided.  No one is questioning
the status of the Malay language, or its importance in nation
building.  We all subscribe to that.  It is unclear from their
statement whether they are against our students learning a second
language or against English as that second language.

They went on to make the totally irrelevant point that Mandarin would
soon replace English as the most widely spoken language.  Having made
that observation, they failed to follow up on it.  That is, even the
Chinese government is now encouraging, no, forcing their students to
learn English.

These laureates and other critics missed the essence of the current
policy, which is to enhance our students’ ability to read and
understand English.  It is not the policy’s intention that we should
learn English at the expense of Malay.  In short, the policy aims to
expand our students’ intellectual horizon, not curtail it.

The laureates’ muddled thinking only produces only muddled conclusions.

In truth, it is too early to pass any judgment on the wisdom of the
policy.  Any policy, especially one pertaining to education and social
matters, takes time to discern its effects.  To evaluate this policy
credibly, one would need to let at least three to five cohorts of
students finish the program.  Meaning, a time period of about 15
years!  Consider that we are only now recognizing the damaging effects
of our educational reforms that were introduced back in the 1970s.

Yet we have “researchers” from the Universiti Perguruan Sultan Idris
(UPSI) confidently declaring the policy “ineffective” barely four
years after the policy was implemented.  Earlier, just a few months
after the policy’s adoption, a Ministry of Education’s “study”
pronounced the remarkable “improvement” in test scores of our students
taught under the new program.  Who do these folks think they are

I could not get a copy of the Ministry’s paper, but I have the UPSI
professors’.  Suffice to say that it would never appear in the pages
of refereed journals, except perhaps the Ulu Langat Bulletin of
Education.  Frankly if I had been an academic, I would be embarrassed
to append my name to such a shoddy paper.

This policy would not have triggered its many belated critics had the
leadership showed more resolve and greater commitment.  They became
vociferous and assertive only when former Minister of Education
Hishamuddin misguidedly re-opened the issue.  Why he did it is best
left for him to answer, but I venture that the then looming UMNO
leadership contest had plenty to do with it.  Old Hishamuddin needed
to display his nationalistic manhood once again, especially after the
spectacular flop of his earlier unsheathing the keris.

Flawed Implementation

I have not seen any change in the Ministry of Education operations
since or in response to the adoption of the policy.  I would have
thought that at least there would be a dozen English-medium teachers’
training colleges by now to provide for the necessary trained
teachers.  Likewise our universities should be expanding the number of
classes in science and mathematics taught in English so there would be
an ample supply of graduate teachers competent to implement the new

Similarly, the ministry should have by now commissioned textbook
writers and publishers.  Failing that, I would have expected these
officials to be contracting with established foreign publishers to buy
their texts

The fact that none of these measures have been undertaken reflects
incompetence or lack of commitment to the new policy, or both. The
fault then lies not with the policy but with those entrusted with the
awesome responsibilities of carrying it out.
Those Malay language nationalists and other strident critics of TSME
fail to recognize one glaring reality.  That is, our current
educational policy is failing our students and our nation.  Those who
can or have other options for their children have already abandoned
our system.  We see this especially among the non-Malays.
Increasingly, more and more Malays are also following suit.  This
leaves those poor village folks who have no other choice; they are
trapped in the current system.  And they are almost all Malays.  They
are the ones left out, victimized by their own kind, the language
nationalists on one side and the incompetent education bureaucrats on
the other.

If not for the public sector and the various GLCs acting as employers
of last resort, graduates of our current educational system would
simply be without jobs.  There is however, a limit to the government’s
capacity as employer, and we are already way beyond that point.

For a society to advance, it must first come to terms with itself.  A
major part of that exercise involves recognizing our own weaknesses,
for unless we acknowledge that we cannot even begin to overcome them.
Malays must recognize that a major problem with our community is that
we are not competitive, not even in our native land let alone the
global arena.  A major contributor to this sorry state of affairs is
our defective education system that continues to produce graduates who
have abysmal language and mathematical skills, as well as being
science illiterate.

We have completely indoctrinated our young and ourselves with a
“zero-sum mentality,” that learning another language could only come
at the expense of our own.  Worse, we have gone further and mentally
programmed our young that fluency in another language is not an asset
but an expression of hatred for one’s own.  In so doing, we exposed
our own collective limited intellectual capacity, and an inability to
expand it.  That is the sorry part.

We are only deluding our young by appealing to their base emotions.
Exhortations of Ketuanan Melayu will never make them competitive or
guarantee them a place under the sun, not even the sun in our Tanah
Melayu.  Unless we are competitive, we cannot survive, let alone be
Tuan.  On the other hand when we are competitive, we would be Tuan
even in lands other than Tanah Melayu.

The other part of the exercise involves our willingness to learn from
others, especially those more advanced.  The ancient Arabs learned
from the Greeks, the medieval Europeans from the Arabs, and the
Japanese from the West.  It saddens me that our luminaries by their
actions and words are sending precisely the wrong message to our
young.  That is, we have nothing to learn from others.

Our political leaders are too preoccupied with their own short-term
political survival and gamesmanship instead of leading the way
forward.  Unfortunately our children’s children will bear the burden
of our current leaders’ stupidities.

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