In support of Bahasa Malaysia, not English

I wrote a response essay to the article which appeared in The Edge some months ago but apparently, it did not interest anyone….but here I go again on a different tone and a different perspective. 

Is the policy of teaching Science and Mathematics in English a failure, as a recent study by Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris (UPSI) concluded? The survey, highlighted in the New Sunday Times yesterday, found that the majority of some 5,800 schoolchildren who were put through Maths, Science and English tests fared poorly, scoring on average 7.89 out of 20, 4.08 out of 14 and 11.87 out of 31 for the three subjects, respectively.

Yes. In general it is. It did not achieve its objective of improving the proficiency of primary school students and did not significantly increase the command of English as required by Science and Math courses in local and overseas universities. However, if we adjusted the goals of the policy as in to identify the depth of the problem and the factors that are contributing to the steady nosedive, then the policy is a success.

Among the reasons highlighted was that many pupils in the sample, which was drawn from urban, rural and vernacular schools, could not understand the lessons. They could not understand because they have a poor command of English. – The study’s lead researcher, Prof Emeritus Datuk Isahak Haron, is convinced that the policy should be scrapped, and the teaching of Science and Maths should be switched back to Bahasa Malaysia.

Switched back to BM or whatever one’s L1 is. For the record, my support of Bahasa Malaysia extends also to other languages as a medium of instruction. There is ample research and evidence to suggest that the transferring of content knowledge is more efficient in L1. What actually needs to be addressed is the way English is not being taught the way it should, the way ESL teachers are not being trained the way they should, the way all the qualified people are being repelled from congregating to form a rewarding, cohesive, fulfilling cohort of ESL teachers.

That would, however, bring us back to square one. – It should be remembered that it was the erosion of the standard of English among school leavers, that had prompted the decision in 2002 to revert to the use of English in school, at least in the two subjects. The aim, obviously, was to undo the effects of changing the medium of instruction to Bahasa Malaysia starting from the early 1970s, notably on the country’s diminishing attractiveness as a destination for foreign investment.

Yes, we are reminded daily in real-life incidents about this so-called erosion. However, I am completely not convinced that this was completely to do with the medium of instruction being in Bahasa Malaysia.  I was schooled completely from Day 1 in the KBSM system and while the common exceptions which apply to people who master English (middle-class upbringing, English speaking homes, educated parents, functioning family, etc) could explain their exception to the rule, it did not explain mine.  I also have friends who were schooled in Chinese as an MT and I find that we can articulate ourselves in reading and writing as well as any of those from the ‘good old days’.

We seem to completely ignore the fact that it was only during the 70s that education became free and mandatory for all. Prior to that, schooling could only be afforded by those families who had better economic standing or were more visionary. It comes hand in hand too. Those who are more future-oriented tend to delay gratification or engage in more helpful behaviours which made them more enterprising and productive and ultimately, gain better socio-economic standing. Whether or not war and dislocation temporarily took away their assets and opportunities, these families would regain back their former position within the next one or two generations relative to the general economic conditions of the time. What happens when you feed anak nelayan, petani, anak buruh into the mix called free and mandatory public schooling? As much as we would like to romanticise what wondeful futures schooling can build a child, that fantasy is far removed once we do a reality-check. While the rest of the working class can now afford school and a dozen tuition and piano/ballet classes, the middle class or elite have also evolved and can afford to send their children overseas or to international schools and French lessons and buy Apple Macs while the rest are scouting for offers at PC fairs. Whether or not one becomes financially successful and achieves a rewarding life (nowadays, financial affluence doesn’t necessarily bring honour, prestige and happiness) has a lot more to do with upbringing and spiritual awareness rather than schooling.

I cannot blame the author for his point of view. Many of the older generation who hold something against the change of the medium of instruction to BM feel somewhat vindicated that current events prove beyond doubt the implications of this switch. Losing out on an economic and academic advantage compounds the belief.

I am a product of KBSM. I went through the whole system and I bear witness that BM in no way impeded my acquisition of English – nor diluted my Hokkien (Penang Hokkien is already a hybrid) nor the future acquisition of Cantonese, Mandarin and other languages to a lesser extent. I am in fact, grateful for the learning of another language. But more about me later. 

My brother born one year ahead, on the other hand, was not given away and was raised in a more affluent, Damansara Utama-type upbringing complete with an overseas education in a Western country. He complains about the standard of English of the candidates he interviews and my daughter complains about his standard of English in the same manner. My daughter had her schooling first in a Chinese school, acquired Bahasa and Hokkien before schoolgoing age and those did not impede her learning of English in the same way it did not impede mine. 

I think it is too broad to pin the blame on BM or any other MT as the cause of the erosion. When we transitioned from using English as the lingua-franca to a Second-language, everyone just didn’t pay attention to the full scope of what was needed to prepare those schooling in the 80s and 90s for the onslaught of the Information and Knowledge revolution. Until today, so many English teachers are completely comfortable with being an authority in class, passing generous amounts of judgment on students’ errors, marking errors instead of developing language and focussing on grammar as the standard and be-all of good language acquisition. Until today, so many self-appointed or obligated English-language teachers do not know the various methods to build or customize curriculum to teach a cohesive syllabus that develops separate skills for separate purposes. I almost dropped dead in shock when attending a teacher-training language workshop, teachers opted to use ‘speech’,where a student comes in front of the classroom to regurgitate 3-minutes’ worth of words in a foreign language, as a ‘speaking exercise’. 

I am not the only exception when it comes to cases of anak kampung or anak orang sederhana who mastered English without the services of paid tuition or higher education. What marks people like me apart is that we are born with a psychological makeup which drove us to innately develop and internalize skills and knowledge that will continually keep us on a tangent that leads us to fulfill whatever our aptitudes are best suited for. One of those skills was the internalisation of English as a language for thinking in. 

The article in The Edge goes on to illustrate how ’embarassing’ we Malaysians are in the eyes of these self-appointed creme-de-la-creme of English-speaking Malaysians. “Atrocious” English is only an atrocity for people who are sensitized to a higher art form or being. Hitler didn’t think mass murder was atrocious, simply because he wasn’t sensitized to life and diversity. We tend to label those who do not speak ‘fantabulous’ English as inferior learners without asking who are the ones responsible for their lack of mastery? They have never been exposed to this higher art form of English that the author has had. I suppose we need to consider the context of how the advertorial-worder has improperly acquired language and how he/she was falsely recognized in his/her ability in English to be entrusted copywriting duties. 

It is no exaggeration to say that fundamental harm has also been done to the country’s image and advantage in the international sphere by the loss of our ability to speak and write good English. The implications for our economic future are not to be treated lightly.

Fluent English-speakers tend to have an inflated view of themselves due to a perceived superiority of their fluency (or proficiency) in English. I suppose this implies that a proficiency in English has more to do with image and face than about the needs of our learners to possess skills that would help them help themselves surf in the new waves of the Information Revolution. We talk so far into the implications of this and that and pay so little attention and energy into what we can draw from research and our own miscalculations. 

We believe that reverting to English as the medium of instruction as part of an overall reform to enhance the quality of national schools, will restore the racial balance in national schools and children of all races will learn to grow united through a natural process of intermingling. 
– Sadly, the indications from the UPSI study and the suggestion that we revert to totally having Bahsa Malaysia as the medium of instruction are that the mistakes of the past will be repeated. What we will end up with is neither a good mix of students of various races in our national schools nor students (our precious human capital) who can speak or write well in the international language of commerce.

We cannot assume that there is a direct correlation between English as the medium of instruction and quality of schools. If that were true, America, Australia and the UK would not also be having crises with their public school systems. The fastest way to ‘restore’ racial balance is to not racialize anything at all. Simply stop doing headcounts by checking different columns for different races. End of problem. What people don’t see and think about (race) doesn’t exist. If we keep tallying up on the roster or teacher’s attendance book according to race, and print the same on forms and etc it reinforces the belief that race matters.

Once, when attending a Bahasa tuition class, the teacher made me fill in my race in an application form. I asked the Cikgu, “Apa kena bangsa saya samada mau cuba perbaiki peluang saya pass SPM ke tak?” and I left it blank. I suppose I am rather militant about things that want to label me by religion or creed. Unless it is a studies in genetics or psychology, I’d never condone to this implicit racial profiling.

Let English be the medium of instruction once again, except for the teaching of languages. Simultaneously, schools that teach in Malay, Chinese, Tamil or other languages should be allowed to co-exist, and parents left to make the choice of where to send their children. The one-size-fits-all policy has failed us miserably. – We appeal to politicians and our national leaders to set aside politics and misplaced nationalistic jingoism and be bold and do the sensible thing. After all, many of them send their children overseas to be schooled in the English medium. Why should they deny thousands of Malaysians who can’t afford an overseas education to be schooled in English at home?

I agree that we should liberalize education – read Should we abolish vernacular schools here. But I am strongly against the use of English as the medium of instruction. There is a case for immersion but we have passed that point of no return.

We do not have enough people who are proficient and trained in ESL to be absorbed en masse into the public school system to create an effective environment for the immersion method. The way we should be looking at is to study cases like me and my friends who were not schooled with English as the medium of instruction but yet have mastered the language in an economically advantageous way. (I teach English freelance for a living and qualified myself after years of hard work, readings and starting at hourly-paid teaching jobs.)


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One response to “In support of Bahasa Malaysia, not English

  1. Pingback: Abolishing vernacular schools and focussing on the actual problems of teaching Science and Math in English | Unschool Me Today!

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