To have GCE O'Level English, or not to have? What is the Question?

The last week, a letter on the Borneo Bulletin, the nation's sole English newspaper published a letter in its Opinion page which calls upon the Bruneian Government to scrap off the currently existing GCE O' Level English Language to be replaced with a "locally designed" exam paper instead. The writer, under the pseudonym Liguist, had argued that every year a lot of students fail to pass the GCE O' Level English exams, which is a requirement to get to UBD and most Governmental posts because of the following:

"The O Level English exam seems to have been designed for academic, native speakers of English, not for Brunei students, who start learning English in primary school and whose use of the language outside the classroom is limited."

Liguist had termed the GCE O'Level English exams as "a relic of colonial times" and should be replaced with something "with an attainable goal which our students will enjoy reaching for".

The issue of the low passing rates of English O' Levels in Brunei is an extremely much debated about issue within the Ministry of Education. Pehin Dato Haji Awang Abdul Rahman, the Minister of Education has voiced out his concerns in a speech he delivered at the National English Language Teaching Conference saying that so called improvements in English language competence in the country are "not reflected in GCE `O' level results" (Borneo Bulletin: August 2005).

LSM, responded to Liguist in his blog OurLocalStyle by saying that, "accusing teachers of designing examinations solely to encourage students into an academic career is a claim that needs to be taken seriously". He agreed that the O'Level examination is indeed "a holdover from colonial times" and pointed out the fact that Britain, the originator of the exam has "moved to the GCSE". However, he spews his concerns that by "locally designing" the O'Level exam, might "set the bar lower" for Brunei students.

"An easier O-Level English paper is not going to do students any favours."

Turquoise and Roses had also responded by saying that the O'Levels is an "old-fashioned way to test language competence" and "its replacement to something more suitable and logical is long overdue" and asserted that it is designed to "encourage an academic career". She echoes Liguist's sentiments that it is a paper for first language speakers of English and Bruneians are by right speakers of English as a second language who "start being formally introduced to a limited amount of English at Primary Four and who do not have any absolute reason or obligation to speak the language outside of the school environment.

LSM's reply was that,

"If there is a need to re-tool the current O’Level exams then by all means. But if re-tooling means making it easier then I hope it is because the current standard of English assessed by the O’Levels is too high."

He again voices out his scepticism that it might "dumb down" the examination yet he is not against the idea of reformatting the exam.

Justin on the other hand does not believe in scraping of the O' Levels. He argues that "the whole point of the English-medium system of education in Brunei to require students to be able to speak, read and write both Malay and English as a well as a first language speaker of both those languages". He had said:

"Surely to dumb down – and don’t doubt this, a locally designed English language paper would be dumbed down – is to defeat this purpose."

He draws examples from Singapore, a country also using the GCE O' Levels,  to illustrate his point. His views are agreed with in another comment by nottoshabby.

However, it must be remembered that Singapore and Brunei have vastly different educational system where English is technically a first language in Singapore, in Brunei it is very much a second and inferior language to the very dominant Malay and drawing comparisons on the two countries will prove to be unfair and one sided.

What will eventually happen to the GCE O' Levels? Should this examination, introduced in 1951, still be utilised in this day and age?

"Policies are made by politicians. Not academicians."


  • […] My latest article at Global Voices Online is up and running at this link. […]

  • […] Some insightful thoughts about this letter from local bloggers Miss Maurina and LSM, as well as by their commentors. Also, a post on Global Voices Online sort of summarising and linking everything together. Really good points made on these posts, so do go have a look. […]

  • Khairuddien R

    As much as I would like to sympathise with those who fail to pass the O level English exams I do not see how a dumbing down of passing grades or the difficulty of English exam papers can be seen as a solution to a problem that is deeply rooted, in my experience at least, in the attitudes of the population towards the language itself.

    In my humble opinion, the nation’s excruciatingly low pass rates in the English O Level exams have nothing to do with the fact that the exams are “a relic of colonial times”. The attitudes with which students approach the study of the English language is one of the contributing factors to these low pass rates. Growing up I was often taunted for being able to speak English well. Many times I was even taunted for just speaking in English. Does the phrase, “Eh, speaking ya”, spoken by your friends in a derogatory tone followed by them walking away from you or looking at you as though you were weird ring a bell in anyone’s head? This kind of discriminatory behaviour seems to me, if not anyone else, an attitude that immediately hinders one’s ability to improve one’s communication skills in the English language. I do not, however, accuse all those who fail to achieve a credit in the English O level exams of having acted as such. In other instances there are students who are completely indifferent to the study of the English language. It is not unheard of that some students do not fully participate in programs designed to help improve their proficiency of the language (and I have witnessed this for myself). Where and when can the pass rates for the exams improve if these attitudes are widespread amongst a significant portion of students?

    I do not, however, deny the detrimental effect of a dauntingly difficult exam on the mentality of the student population. Continuously achieving only poor or failing grades throughout the two years of study at O levels must be bad for morale leading to the indifference I mentioned earlier. Yet, one must question whether it is truly the fault of the exam paper or rather the fault of the students’ themselves. I have seen some of my friends boost their O level English grades from D7s to B4/B3s and even on some occasions A2s. And how, you ask, did they achieve this? They did so by, firstly, not labelling the exam paper as being too hard. Secondly, they did not say to themselves that they had done everything they could to study for the exam. Rather they took it upon themselves to seek help and admit that they must be weaker in the subject than they thought and that they could do more to improve their performance in the exams. Sceptics at this point may say that these students are those who grew up speaking English at home who have the opportunity to improve their exam performance. I cannot deny the advantage of growing up in English speaking homes but these friends of mine are amongst others Chinese whose parents speak in Chinese with them, Malays whose parents speak in Malay with them and so forth. They are people who have found tuition and extra classes beneficial contrary to Liguist’s dismissive attitude towards them. The paper hardly seems too difficult to pass if there are students from non-English speaking homes who have achieved high credits and distinctions.

    It seems, to me at least, that Liguist’s claims of devoted, hardworking students who still fail the exams may be exaggerated. If they had worked hard then some of them would have produced the passing grades required of them for life after high school. Otherwise, they have fallen victim to their own discriminatory, indifferent or defeatist attitudes.
    I say that only some(!) of those who work hard will pass because I admit that there are really hardworking students who just fail to make the grade no matter what they do. How do we account for those hardworking students who fail to make the grade? In my humble opinion, this may be a result of structural deficiencies that these students may not be able to overcome until much later in their lives when experience teaches them the very thing they could not understand at the age of sixteen/seventeen when in Form Five. Very late exposure to the English language and by this I mean the switch to English language based subjects in Primary Four, probably accounts for a very significant portion of less than satisfying grades at the O level English exams. Maurina H’s comment that “in Brunei [the Enlgish language] is very much a second and inferior language to the very dominant Malay” may have something to do with this. However, Maurina also points out that passing the O Level English exam “is a requirement to get to…most Governmental posts”. Considering that most people work in either the Government sector or with Shell in the oil industry, there being a lack of industry and other job opportunities, then it only seems logical that a significant part of the workforce will be sufficiently literate to speak English at home with their children who then make up a significant portion of the student population. What then can we make of the claim that the English language is inferior to Malay? The issue of whether the English language is a first or second language in Brunei is highly contentious and one more likely to be decided so as to fall under the former class considering the widespread access to televisions, radios and the internet that expose us to an infinite amount of English language influences. However, having no empirical evidence before me, I can only say that a claim of the English language’s inferiority must be regarded with caution and should not be used blindly to support a reformatting of the English language exams in Brunei.

    Using the alleged difficulty of the exam paper and the claimed structural deficiencies of the Nation as reasons to scrap/reform the examination system will inevitably set the bar lower for students as argued by LSM. If anything, any reforms should seek to change the defeatist (exemplified by Liguist’s claim that “no amount of extra classes and tuition can get them through this exam”), discriminatory and indifferent attitudes, which are more plausible explanations of the low pass rates in the O Level English exams, in order to boost slowly over a period of time the level of English language proficiency. The aim should not be to achieve high pass rates at sub-standard levels now. The aim should be to achieve high pass rates at an examination, be it O level or otherwise, at a standard comparable to those in countries such as Singapore. Why must it be comparable instead of adequate for the Nation? This must be so because we can’t afford to be one step behind such countries especially if we want to compete internationally for resources and customers.

  • Khairuddien R, although I have asserted this in my blog posts at Turquoise and Roses, I will say it again. I am also, as much as you, against the “dumbing down” of the paper. I, however, believe that there is a better and more meritocratic way to test language competence and that it is not the GCE O’Level, again another issue that I have brought up in my blog.

    Of course, I also do not believe that the really low passing rates are caused solely by the paper and only the paper. I also agree that other factors come into play. However, it needs to be discussed one at a time do you not think so?

    I understand your concern of my claim that “English is an inferior language in Brunei”, however, I believe you have illustrated the point yourself. Did you not experience discriminatory behaviour when you illustrate your good English speaking skills? However, I do agree that this point alone does not justify a sudden change in the examination system and I see the error of my hasty ways with the help from other bloggers’s posts. Still, do you not agree that something needs to be done? Most of us has agreed that the entire system needs to be revised from grass roots- from kindergarten/primary.

    My hope is that our voices online will one day be heard by the Ministry so as to pressure change. Generate as much noise.

  • […] The first is with regards to Brunei blogs that are willing to discuss important Brunei-related issues: where are the Malay blogs? Putting aside the entire debate regarding a locally designed English O’ Level exam, I get the impression that people feel blogging is an English-only affair. Nothing could be farther from the truth. If you’ve got the guts and the ideas but not the English proficiency then by all means blog in Malay! I probably won’t be able to contribute to the discussion but taken word by word I’m sure I’ll at least be able to follow your train of thought. If you want to go one step further, WordPress supports language files. While the official documentation only lists Bahasa Indonesia, a little Googling turned up the WordPress Bahasa Malaysia Portable Object Template. […]

  • In 1996 i passed my GCE exams i left the country and as a result i could collect the certificate and i don`t even have the hpone no of the GCE board. I need it for my studies here but i cann`t come back home just to collect it. Why cann`t the board send it for me?

  • Khairuddien R

    If not for my friends doing a google search on my name I would not have discovered the comment that I made regarding this issue =). Anyone know of developments in this field of late?

  • Well, there is noise on plans to “phase out” the O’level exam, and replacing it with the better constructed IGCSEs. It will be slow and eventual. However, there is definitely some decisions made for the abolishment of the PMB exam starting in the next few years.

    Brunei is, as of now, slowly, thank god, drifting away from an exam oriented culture to one that focuses more on portfolios and continuous assessment. :)

  • abid

    how can i study the O level

  • Faham Asghar

    it doesnt matter where you are, english is a worwide acceptable and used language so if you are taking it then you can surely improve it by reading more and more!

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