Thursday, 11 September 2008

Don't Handicap Our Young Ones

For the past few days the debate on whether the policy on teaching Maths and Science in English should be continued or scrapped has continued to hog the pages in a local English daily. The astonishing thing is that the people who wrote in to the daily voicing their support for the continuation of the policy were Malay parents. One would expect vocal support to come from the English educated non-Malays. It wasn't so; and it is a positive indication that Malay attitude towards the English language may have undergone a paradigm shift. The main argument has been that they do not want their children to be handicapped by a poor command of English when they enter the private sector job market. They also exploded the myth that using the language would make them more an 'orang putih' and less a Malay.

A columnist also commented that the recent absurd advertorial must have dealt a terribly embarassing blow to Her Royal Highness. He described the blooper as "a howling shame". To add insult to injury, the institution is named after the third prime minister of the country, the father of the present Minister of Education. How's that for a double whammy? Undoubtedly, the advertorial was picked up by foreign readers and institutions on the net, and by those who are considering studying in our tertiary institutions. I shudder to think what must have crossed their minds when they read it.

"Wah, your Englis so powderful!"

Many have argued that improving the command of the language should be done by increasing the number of periods alloted to the teaching of English and not by learning it through Maths and Science. As it is, the teaching timetable is already heavily loaded, and increasing it for English would be at the expense of other subjects.

The long term objective of the policy however, is not only to expose students to the use of English for communication, but also English as a language of Maths and Science as the primary objective. But "Malay nationalists" as one parent wrote, have vehemently opposed the move as one that downgrades the importance of Bahasa Melayu as the primary language of instruction. Further, the present government under tremendous political pressure would most likely bend to the populist demand to revert to Bahasa Melayu just to appease both the Malay heartland and the vernacular educationists. As Pragmatic Revelations commented on my earlier post, when political expediency becomes the over riding concern, the educational system becomes a political football.

We do not need to go very far back to know how a switch in the medium of instruction could lead to either success or failure. The early 80's saw a switch in the medium of instruction from English to Bahasa Melayu. Teachers, who in the past received their education in the English medium were provided with only bilingual textbooks to teach and they did a remarkably successful job for the simple reason that they somehow had to be a role model to their charges and they worked hard to fulfil the role of a committed teacher, even though initially handicapped by a weak command of the language.

What has happened to that commitment, the drive to do a good job, to provide the best education for their charges? It is this commitment to do a good job that is sadly lacking in the teaching profession. Moreover, how many teachers are really proficient in English to explain mathematical and scientific concepts properly? Was the crash course they had undergone sufficient to equip them to teach effectively? It is not as though these teachers do not know English. They have studied the language for at least 11 years, so they are not exactly strangers to the language. I have seen how admirably quick the American Peace Corp Volunteers picked up Bahasa Melayu after one month of study and to this day, some if not several could still speak and write the language. Once my American friend, Nancy wrote to me in Bahasa Melayu and she acquitted herself remarkably after a lapse of so many years. I believe that behind their success is their spirit unfettered by prejudice, their desire to learn and their love for things unfamiliar and wonderful. And above all, their willingness to serve and contribute.

Below is what she has written to me:

Kepada sahabat2 yang jauh, Lee Chang Ngee dan Ng Yew Moi, dengan surat email ini saya hendak beritahu anda bahawa saya akan pergi ke Malaysia dalam Januari. Saya akan jumpa Sarah di Singapura, boleh jadi makan angin di sana semasa satu atau dua hari. Lepas itu pergi ke Malaysia ke Batu Pahat dan tempat2 lain. Mungkin saya hendak pergi ke Sarawak, hendak jalan-jalan ke Kuching, Miri, Brunei (?). Umor Sarah tahun 21 atau 22 dan dia bahru keluar universiti di Lyons, France. Saya belum dapat rancangan kapalterbang, tetapi akan gunakan United Airlines sebab ada "Mileage Plus" award yang sudah naik dan sekarang saya boleh pilih flight bebas antarabangsa. Berharap anda boleh faham bahasa Malaysia saya--lah!

Students are no fools; they can spot a phony a mile away. I contend that the failure of the policy lies squarely on the shoulders of teachers who accepted the change with lukewarm enthusiasm and taught with even less enthusiasm.


  1. Hi! Just dropping by. Yes, I agree with you that the policy of teaching English should continue.

    In time, our future generations shall reap the fruits of this policy. IMHO, switching again mid-stream will do more damage than good.

  2. Why are our teachers lacking enthusiasm? How many of us ask this question? How many of us are able to see to the bottom of the problem?

    The root cause of the problem is not only the salary structure but also the system which has produced sub-standard students and hence reabsorbed into the system again, forming a vicious life cycle.

    If there is one case of such which I commented in my blog, how many other similar cases can we uncover?

    Teaching is no longer a sacred job. It has become an alternative for a stable salary.