What is culture? Look at these web definitions of culture for a moment :
- a particular society at a particular time and place; “early Mayan civilization”
- the tastes in art and manners that are favored by a social group
- acculturation: all the knowledge and values shared by a society
- the attitudes and behavior that are characteristic of a particular social group or organization; “the developing drug culture”; “the reason that the agency is doomed to inaction has something to do with the FBI culture
To feel that one’s “culture” and “traditions” or budaya is being threatened, to feel one’s lineage, thus identity, is being threatened is reflected in a tenacious desire to preserve that particular status quo in its time and place, to preserve a set of thinking that is favoured by those whose voices we hear, to preserve ‘the knowledge and values’ shared by those whose voices are most vocal and a reflection of a particular social group, in our case, the ketuanan Melayu and the DJZ.
If we are to preserve and fossilize culture as it is, we might as well never validate education. Despite the fact that millions of people have been disillussioned by a system failure of schools, nevertheless, education and schooling are not synomymous. Schooling is about the mass production, the acculturation of a nation’s people as a supply resource to industry, a resource that is as tangible and consumable as the machines used and materials produced and consumed. Education, on the other hand, is about the flowering of the individual, about the sharing and proliferation of the insights, wisdoms and skills obtained by those who have found the path towards a higher, more existential existence.
In discussing the merits for or against MT learning for Science and Maths I think we must first start bottom up. What I think has been happening is a scenario where people are shooting paintballs while hiding in camouflage. The field is a big mess with the general public walking around like forensic amateurs with neither the tools nor expertise to ascertain what happened – and drawing misinformed conclusions or opinions about the whole scenario.
Thus I’ve decided to start with the premise of ‘mati bahasa, mati bangsa’ by asking everyone to consider examining what this ‘budaya’ really is? Is it a productive, helpful budaya? A budaya pining about the loss of face and pride, a budaya tied to past glories or ketuanan?
Upon clear examination, we will all come to realize that all that talk by Malay nationalists and the DJZ party is about their own political agenda in the end. I don’t know of that many Malays, including lawyers and national laureates and academics, medical doctors, engineers, aerospace tourist, bankers, etc who have not benefited from and who would not want their children to benefit from a strong command of the International language. (I will substitute the term “English” for “International” because the number of non-native speakers has surpassed those of native users a decade ago and is projected to outnumber native speakers 80-20 in the next decade).
If you have ever wondered the way I did, what the variables are between those in ICS (represented by the umbrella body DJZ), Chinese government schools and ‘the other schools’ that gave Chi-Ed people such a disadvantage over other peers despite their incomparable diligence and tenacious ambition, you would infiltrate the schools and observe it with a reporter’s eye and arrive at what I have : that these ‘nationalists’ are concerned about appearing concerned for the Chinese community but they really aren’t. (No, I’m not a journalist, I engage in role-playing as a fantasy).
If you can only witness how much access they have to professional educators, private language consultants, tons of sample textbooks and research on ESL and the resources (money!) they claim they don’t have but are pretty much throwing around, you can see there is no actual sincerity or will to do anything for their own ‘Chinese’ people. I have done more for their students after resigning than they could have done for their own despite having teachers like me amongst them for years. Yes, I am bitter. But I am bitter for the right reasons. I was not ambitious and was willing to be paid next to nothing, take days or weeks away from family to take part in any activity that aimed to collate the productivity and skills of their English teachers to affect change in the right direction. I was willing, like so many other idealistic teachers, to live paycheck to paycheck as long as I could render my services to stop this rot and get things rolling the other way, to not waste one more day of our children’s future.
Many times I considered electronically recording my experience inside the DJZ. There is so much racial-politicking and anti-government sentiments that you could cut the tension in the air with a knife. I am a person sensitive to collective energy and ‘vibes’ of a place or person and for the most part of my life, I am 99% accurate about people and situations, which earns me sometimes, a creepy reputation of being clairvoyant. But since I was not contracted as an undercover journalist by a reputable agency, I would never be able to validate what I’ve recorded. It can always be thrown out as ‘doctored’ or I prompted and recorded only certain responses. I could not even have gone in undercover for the govt with experts and the DA planning some elaborate years-long investigation. I could not even suggest to any university to sponsor this sort of ‘research’. There was no legal and foolproof way I could’ve recorded and related the things I saw happening amidst them. It’s just me and God as my witness. But I can finally blast these communist with a clear conscience. I’ve always suspected they were doing things like this and I could not be more thankful that I was given an opportunity to validate my suspicions.
If you could’ve experience vicariously through me, you will see that they (the Chinese nationalists) are no better nor any more sincere than what they accused the MoE of not to be. I would bet my chips on the MoE any given time even if two-thirds of their policies masuk angin. I do not doubt MoE’s sincerity because I know there’s always a price to pay when you are part of a bureaucracy. Which explains perfectly why I am not cut-out for that sort of place even if that is where the heart of education revolution will start from.
Going back to the DJZ, there is simply no political will on the side of these so-called ‘Chinese’ nationalists. Despite being labelled, ‘ang moh sai’ (white man’s trash) by people like them, I can say with a clear conscience that I have done more for Chinese students than these Chinese natioanlists. A lot of my resentment towards them can evaporate if only I tell myself in a Zen-like philosophy that ‘they know not what they are doing’. But then again, I think, you should not excuse people who wear the labels of ‘Teacher’ and ‘Authority’ or ‘Leader’ if they are misleading you through an assertion and protection of their total ignorance and the exacted conformity of everyone else beneath them. Along with the reverence and money a community of people surrender to you comes the condition that you do not simply exist for your salaries and distorted ideologies. You exist to serve their needs, to use your intellect and elected offices (as teachers or education leaders) to find ways that directly and immediately increase their learning and value to the economy, improving their state of mind and self-esteem. It does nobody any favours spreading the propaganda of fear and the notion of being under-seige from the non-Chinese.
Any and every effort they have ever attempted and called a press conference for (or prepared a press kit for) is mere window-dressing. It would be completely unethical of me to say any of this if I was the same anti Chi-Ed I was a decade ago but I grew up, old enough to pass off as a teacher and infiltrate their network, read their publications, attend their conferences and workshops and trainings and a thing or two I cannot reveal because I had signed confidentiality agreements.
In the turmoil of discussion for or against the use of English for Science and Maths in primary school, the issue of cultural or racial identity got picked up. It misdirects the intellectual energy to inform and resolve this question. Learning and education should have nothing to do with culture and race at all. For isn’t that the entire point of education – to remove barriers and examine the unexamined thoughts and behaviours, to bring people higher in their awareness and consciousness. A perceived dilution of cultural or racial identity should not even have been an issue. I could be Chinese today, or Malaysian-Chinese if you like, but 5,000 years ago and 5,000 years from now, I doubt I would have been so rigidly classified. So whether or not language makes cultures more permeable in a multicultural society as ours is not even a worthy point of debate. If the great Mayans and Incans could vanish, what is so great about the rest of us that demands permanent validation and attachment to a label of our ‘kind’? I hope no one ever wastes anyone else’s airtime and pollute their thinking field anymore by spouting unexamined ideas about the mothertongue-culture-identity trinity.
What is valid though is that in Second Language learning, it is noted that information can transfer faster if the learner already has a substantial amount of knowledge and information in their own L1. Teaching new concepts in Maths and Science has more to do with teaching content than language. Because most of these very young learners may not even had had exposure or content knowledge of the concepts in Math and Science in their first language, it makes it completely incomprehensible to do it in a foreign language. Teaching brand-new concepts in a foreign language is definitely a bad idea. If I had a choice between taking up a Linguistics or Philosophy or Sociology or Law or Engineering or a Forensics course in English or Mandarin, I’d rather do it in English, since that is the language in which I have more access to references in my mental lexicon to make sense of new content that is being taught. Soon, we would be teaching Maths and Science in Arabic to improve the Malays’ command of reading and interpreting the Quran?
There are parents who believe that learning in English makes more sense as you don’t have to re-learn everything again in another language later on. Urban families or educated families who read, write and speak English could never imagine the world of difference between them and non-English speakers. Families who aspire to be fluent in English may falsely believe that simply knowing a few hundred words in English through recognition and being able to do simple guesswork in English tests and regurgitate sample answers for written ones is enough to be ‘goodt’ in English. As earnest as those intentions are, it is gravely misleading. Proficiency in English in order to compete academically in the language is a much larger picture than the few pieces of puzzle they have in hand. Eventhough it sounds more efficient to learn it in one language from the start, it becomes a bigger waste if you realize 9 years later, the rate of mastery is a longshot from what is required for tertiary education in the Science and Maths. Poor English language skills is only one of other factors causing us to lag behind in these fields.
After removing race-politics from the mix, there is real reason why content should first be taught in L1. Knowledge from L1 can be transferred to the target language. The focus should be on how an Other Language is acquired. Would it make sense if I said that language is acquired through input that is comprehensible. (For more on this, read works by Stephen Krashen). Have you ever experienced watching a foreign dialect or movie or singing a foreign song you liked and then figuring out what means what after some time being exposed to content and plot while reading the substitles in your L1? With the visual simulating context in an artifical ‘environment’, you acquired the meaning of words over time.
Language learning is thus separate from the learning of other subjects that can be mastered through instruction and drills alone. It is the job of linguists and their relatives in psychology and pedagogy to explain the rest. What I’m trying to introduce is the proven notion that there is a whole range of things that goes into the mixing bowl when it comes to helping learners effectively acquire a language, any language.
According to Krashen’s works and everyone else’ common sense, we develop more and more complexed language abilities through a continous series of being exposed to comprehensible input plus 1. We experience this everytime we are trying to learn foreign phrases. We pick up the most common ones first that is universally understood (cuss words, saying “I Love You”) and we build on our understanding, spurred by our interest and without being impeded by our own sense of failure. How else can I explain the way I learned Cantonese and Mandarin and Malay? I first had a huge bank of references, cultural and vocabulary, which I transferred to the other languages. And then, without being instructed, my brain figured out the sounds and developed a frame of how the syntax and context works. I can say for certain that none of the languages I learned, I learned from pure instruction. Of course, like I said earlier (disclaimer!) there are other things that goes into the mixing bowl for the Full Monty……
If we are sincere about helping young people gain the advantages of acquiring English as a strong 2nd language (I think I’ve succeeded, and I’ve also succeeded in examining my own success in learning the language) it’s time to look at the theories and practices of 2nd language learning and the mountains of research that has been done in this area. Hishamuddin should just sack everyone on his staff and hire me to implement a plan that covers curriculum design, instruction and implementation, methods and approaches and the logistics in customizing a few sets of design to achieve optimum results that transcends race, geography and social ladders. Then, as his advisor on Education, I would hire the most talented and passionate and committed educators to help me recalibrate the whole system and attack gangreneous system weaknesses with the blindess of a scalpel. Then we would run a 5-year pilot project that would make all of us on board fully accountable for – something like what N9 did. When the results are out and we see mass-scale success, Hishamuddin would have all the support he needs across all barriers to become Prime Minister. Then, he can rule with his own agenda while seceding education away from the government – whatever government comes next.
I think that’s a good plan…..don’t you think?