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Sometime in the 80s, former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Muhammed, then-Minister of Education made a decision to switch the medium of instruction in Malaysian schools from English to Malay. This was one of the few policies he changed – among others include introducing a new examination system, board and so forth.
Fast forward to the new millennium. In 2003, the Ministry of Education announced that Math and Science would be taught in English to ensure that Malaysians would not be “left behind” in a world that was becoming borderless.
Now, the latest story is that the Government wants to switch back to Malay for a number of reasons that I wouldn’t even comment on lest I risk sounding…”insulting”. State assemblyman Dr Khalil Idham Lim Abdullah yesterday had this to say about why we should make the switch AGAIN.
“The teachers themselves have a poor command of English. How do we expect them to teach their students?” he asked in his speech after a briefing on the subject at the state PAS headquarters in Jalan Air Kuning on Tuesday.
Some teachers, he said, “have simply gone crazy” because of this, likening the matter to the blind leading the blind. He claimed the minimum passing mark for both subjects were lowered to ensure that only a rosy picture was painted of the move.
His remark drew the attention of a reader who had much to say about it but at least the man was more polite than I was.
I doubt this will see print but I’m still happy I got it out of my system…
In reference to the issue of the possible switch from Malay to English for Maths & Science as well as this article “Teachers going mad teaching subjects in English, claims rep” published today, I would like to share my thoughts on this matter. I must first apologise for a long letter but I feel too passionate to just say a few words.
For me, the problem is not so much what language these subjects should be taught in but that the Ministry sticks to their decision once it is made. Changing every so often is not advisable and in fact, does more harm than good to our children and future generation. We have seen what these changes have done to the teaching staff who started off learning the subject in Malay only to end up teaching it in English. Remember the 80s when we switched from English to Malay? Well, we are reaping the results now.
This is a generation that grew up learning everything entirely in Malay, like myself and sadly, a generation that has gone through an education system that places emphasis in a local, regional language rather than an internationally used language. Please allow me to share an interesting story that I was privy to when discussing this decision with my husband’s uncle who works with the French Education Ministry.
Being a former colony of France, Algeria started off their education system entirely in French which is normal after 130 years of colonization. There are widely available materials in French and so the students did just fine. Then one day, the government decided to switched to Arabic and immediately, there was a decrease in the scores, especially in the field of maths and science. One of the reasons was because there were limited materials in Arabic for science and maths and the available materials were outdated in some aspects. Also the teachers were not all that proficient in Arabic compared to French. Does their situation sound familiar?
A remark my uncle-in-law made in reference to all this switching to and fro was this – “a country that keeps changing the language of its education’s medium of instruction is one that will never move forward”.
Each decision we made as a society and nation has an impact on our young people and ultimately our future as a nation. We don’t need studies and surveys to tell us that young Malaysians are no longer proficient in English as compared to our neighbour, Singapore. When Lee Kuen Yew made the decision to stick to a former colony’s language (English) as a medium of instruction, it was because he had the foresight to see that he needed a pool of labour that could communicate efficiently and effectively with foreign investors. Hence why he made sure that English for the medium of instruction AND stuck to it. As a result, people overseas automatically assume that if you can speak English and you’re from South East Asia, you must be Singaporean. Everywhere I go be it Asia or Europe or Australiasia, people especially Europeans and Americans are surprised that I speak English well, especially more so when they discover that I am a Malaysian.
To be frank, Malay is a language that is little known outside of the country, let alone the region, and only spoken by 26 plus million people. There is minimal worldwide exposure and precious little reference materials. You cannot compare this with another Asian language like Mandarin when the language is spoken by 1.3 billion people, and enjoys worldwide exposure because of migration, media exposure and cultural movements. Even then, you find many Chinese nationals going for English language classes. Why? Because the Chinese government sees the importance of being multilingual and not just being able to speak but being fluent in an international language like English.
Look at it this way – if a foreigner were to come to Malaysia, they can get away with speaking just English when buying things or ordering food. However if you go to overseas countries, can you get away with speaking just Malay? I doubt it.
I am saying all this NOT because I am unpatriotic. On the contrary, I am saying this because I love this country too much to put up with such fickle-mindedness being displayed by our policy makers!!! This is the reality of the world that we live in. We either move with the times or we get left behind. Also, patriotism cannot be measured in what language you learn in or speak in. It is an emotional state which only you can know. Other people have little right to say that you are unpatriotic just because you speak a non-national language fluently.
Take the French. Many people say that the French are proud people because they only speak French BUT lets ruminate a little about this – while it’s true that in France, everything is in French, French children HAVE to learn at least two languages in school (Spanish, German, Italian or English). At work, French companies look for people who are bilingual or multilingual. When it comes to interacting with non-French people, French people don’t mind speaking in another language – if the need arises. I know of so many French (hubby’s friends, relatives, their friends and relatives) who speak beautiful English (if not sometimes broken) to me without me even asking. It is not because they are unpatriotic but because it is practical. Even the French themselves struggle with French grammar and vocabulary because it’s hard (trust me, I know what I’m saying) so you can’t say that it’s because they speak in other languages or learn other languages. The language itself IS hard and takes a lifetime of learning to perfect.
BUT at least their medium of instruction is consistent – French in schools throughout their schooling years and so forth. None of this “I don’t like French so lets teach everything in English” one day and the opposite another day. Really, what is the use of learning just ONE language so well when you can’t even use it outside of Malaysia or Indonesia? Also, if “old” countries like France, China, Japan, Britain and so forth have been sticking to one language of medium of instruction for centuries, don’t you think that there must be something right about what they are doing?
So please, don’t be fickle-minded. It’s not just policy that you’re playing with. It’s the future and the lives of our children that you risk.
UPDATE: With regards to the situation in Algeria, the current update is that Algerian schools are now introducing French into the school curriculum around the time children start learning Arabic. Also, please refer to these reports for an insight into the relationship between the language of instruction and quality of education.