Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Good sense held hostage to politics

Jan 14, 2009

By Cheong Suk-Wai

SOME months ago, a Chinese Malaysian undergraduate asked me to comment on an English language project paper that her lecturer had asked her to rewrite.

The paper had been put together while she was on emergency leave by her two project mates, who happened to be Malay Malaysians. I was bemused to read what they had written - paragraph after paragraph with neither head nor tail. They had cut and pasted bits and pieces from various English-language newspapers without quite understanding what these bits and pieces meant.

I was reminded of this incident while reading about the latest uproar among the country's intelligentsia over the compulsory use of English, instead of Malay, to teach mathematics and science to primary and secondary school students. So politicised has the issue become that non-governmental organisations (NGOs), such as the influential Malay writers' group Gabongan Persatuan Penulis Nasional Malaysia (Gapena), have threatened to sue the government for violating Article 152 of the Malaysian Constitution, which calls for only Malay to be used in all official matters.

Nothing in Article 152 prohibits the teaching or learning of any other language - but never mind: The NGOs are planning mass protests on the issue over the next two months.

Gapena's president, Tan Sri Professor Emeritus Datuk Dr Ismail Hussein, told this newspaper: 'The problem with English being taught in this way is that we are being colonial again. This is the psychological problem.'

Prof Ismail stressed that the Malay intelligentsia's quarrel with the government is only against English being the only channel for the students to learn crucial core subjects, and not with the study of English itself. They are worried that Malay students studying maths and science in English would abandon Bahasa Malaysia by the time they enter university, thus killing the language.

The country's Education Ministry introduced this limited 'English only' policy in 2003 to improve the English skills of Malaysian students. Students can now choose to be examined entirely in English in both subjects or answer questions in both English and Malay.

The main medium of instruction in Malaysian public schools was English until 1970. It was changed to Bahasa Malaysia, as Malay is officially called, to foster national unity in the wake of racial riots in May 1969.

The chief problem of switching back to English is that 60 per cent of Malay students live in kampungs, where it is hard to find any English-language newspaper on sale. But young urban Malays are also not enamoured of English.

British-educated lawyer Emilda Shardin, for instance, laments that while her 10-year-old daughter writes well in English, she resolutely refuses to speak it. 'She tells me: 'Buat apa kita cakap bahasa orang lain?' (Why should we speak the language of others?).

Madam Emilda blames her daughter's all-Malay social circle for that attitude. They see English as a part of Western culture - or budaya kuning (yellow culture) - something that will lead them far astray from the path of Islam.

Malay parents resent especially the extra stress their children face from having to learn English. As one of them, corporate planner Hamzah Shafiee, put it: 'Malay students must pass these core subjects which are taught in a language they don't quite understand. They are being doubly pressured. Why can't their studies be selesa (comfortable)?'

What's worse, the country's maths and science standards have slid since the ministry rolled out the policy.

The December 2008 Trend In Mathematics And Science Studies' global-ranking report showed that Malaysian secondary school students scored an average of 474 points in maths and 471 in science in 2007, compared to their counterparts in Singapore, who scored 593 and 567 points, respectively. In 2003, Malaysian students scored an average of 508 in maths and 510 in science; and in 1999, they scored 519 and 492, respectively.

To be sure, it is not only the Malays who are opposed to learning maths and science in English. The Chinese, many of whom send their children to vernacular schools, also oppose the policy.

Singaporeans might well wonder why young Malaysians are so resistant to a lingua franca that will open global doors. The short answer is that they are just mirroring their teachers' attitude towards the language.

A survey last year by the Malaysian Education Ministry of randomly selected national schools found that 35 per cent of its teachers could hardly speak English. Last September, then-deputy education minister Razali Ismail admitted that most teachers were not enthusiastic about English and spent allowances meant for English- language learning aids on 'unrelated purposes'.

The truth is it is high time Malaysians saw the mastery of English as a productivity, not political, issue. More than 50,000 of the country's graduates are jobless today. Most of them are poor, female, Malay and cannot speak enough English to hold a two-minute conversation in the language.

How are they to impress employers, many of whom list English fluency and the ability to think critically as their chief job requirements?

The Education Ministry said last week that it would decide soon whether or not it will continue with this limited 'English only' policy beyond this year. It would be a pity to scrap it just as it is beginning to make headway.

Three weeks ago, the ministry released the 2008 Lower Secondary Assessment results, showing that 51 per cent of the 26,378 candidates answered all exam questions entirely in English, compared to 22 per cent in 2007. English was also the subject in which students showed the most improvement, with 75 per cent of students passing exams in it last year, compared with 71 per cent in the five preceding years.

One wonders how much more time will be squandered revisiting pointless linguistic arguments before Malaysia's Malay intelligentsia realises that the country cannot embrace globalisation unless the people at least partially embrace English.

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