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Malaysia: Globalization Dilemma – Educational Progress or Preserving Ethnic Identity?

When a contentiously protracted education decision is no longer strictly an education issue, it blows up to the center stage with strong public debate and protest.  The teaching of science and mathematics in English (PPSMI) implemented in 2003 replaced Malay and other ethnic languages as the medium of teaching instruction for science and mathematics subjects in primary (elementary) and secondary (high) school level. It is set for a final decision after long reassessment and repeated delay, with influential lobby groups at the center stage aimed to appeal to the Ministry of Education to revert to the previous policy of teaching science and mathematics subjects in Malay and other ethnic languages. Their main argument has been to preserve the relevance of ethnic languages especially the preeminence of Malay language as the national language in the age of rapid globalization.

Image Source: flickr by albanna83

Image Source: flickr by albanna83

We may rightly ask why is there still such great resistence 6 years after its implementation? Besides, Ministry of Education has clearly stipulated the objectives of PPSMI in raising future competitiveness of students and the nation overall. Does the intent not warrant collective effort to overcome challenges and obstacles that may be encountered during its progress? The mainstream media has been highlighting the dominant views of various lobby groups, what about the views of neglected key stakeholders – parents and students who will be strongly impacted by the decision?

A group of concerned Malay parents established a platform to lobby for the support of PPSMI:

kita tidak boleh nyatakan bahawa guru kurang kompeten dalam menyampaikan mata pelajaran Sain dan Matematik dalam Bahasa Inggeris sebagai satu alasan untuk memansuhkan dasar tersebut. […] Jadi biar pun susah untuk kita mendidik anak-anak kita Sains dan Matematik dalam Bahasa Inggeris, kita harus laksanakannya supaya mereka lebih berdaya saing di arena antarabangsa pada masa depan.

We cannot make the excuse to abolish PPSMI due to poor English competence among the teachers. […] So no matter how hard it may be to teach our children science and mathematics in English, we must execute it so that they will be more competitve internationally in the future.

Another parent, Nuraina A Samad said:

We all benefited from learning English. So many rural Malays benefited from having a good command of English.

Student Bobby Ong reflected on his personal experience in Chinese medium school:

It took the government such a hard time making English the medium of instruction for Science and Maths in schools and now you want to revert the policy? And your argument is to protect Chinese culture? […] Being in a Chinese environment with Chinese subjects is not good enough to learn Chinese eh? Not all Chinese kids are good in English too, ok? I see so many students from Chinese schools graduating with poor speaking and writing skills.

Noor Ainulfahim, an ethnic Malay student delivered a blunt critique that more time is needed to judge the progress of PPSMI and it should not be construed as neglecting the significance of Malay language:

Memperjuangkan BAHASA MELAYU? […] Are you denying the fact that most science books are in English? […] We are still teaching BAHASA MELAYU in SEJARAH, GEOGRAFI, PENDIDIKAN ISLAM […] dan ini belum termasuk semua subjek elektif […]

Fight for Malay language? […] Are you denying the fact that most science books are in English? […] We are still teaching Malay language in History, Geography, Islamic study […] and not to mention all the elective subjects […]

However, not all students are fully supportive of PPSMI. Mohamed Idris delivered a stinging attack on English and the illusion of competitiveness and internationalism:

The truth of the matter is that English does not make us international. It can help us know more about English-speaking countries like the US, UK and Australia. It could help us connect with some Davos people who do not have much to tell about their own culture.

John Lee proposed:

What seems likely right now is that the government will switch back to the old policy for primary schools, while maintaining English in secondary schools; I think this is maybe the best compromise we can hope for. […] Ideally, since students have six years of exposure to Malay and English in primary school, they would be able to use either language in secondary school.

And Poobalan, an online social activist supported the move for the Indian community but with a special condition:

Proponents of Tamil as the medium can argue that materials are available in Tamil, and the possibility of those subjects being taught by non-Tamil teachers (less jobs for Indians). However, I think a clause can be included that the teachers of Science and Math must be bilingual so that when necessary the teachers can provide explanation in either Tamil or English.

Parents and students of various ethnic backgrounds highlighted here are fairly supportive of PPSMI, but is it a bias that because they are proficient in English? What about those from rural community who are struggling with English and whose opinions are not represented at all in social media platform? As the core argument revealed from above, it incessantly centers on the debates of ethnic language and cultural preservation, future competitiveness for students and the nation, along with implementation obstacles and recommendations. So the title sums up the dilemma here, does globalization progress can only be attained at the expense of our unique ethnic identity in a multi-ethnic country? Let us anticipate how Malaysia tackles and balances the core of this issue.

4 comments

  • Jude Chia, I was not educated in a Chinese-medium school. I went to a Malay-medium school.

    My statement “Hello, being in a Chinese environment with Chinese subjects is not good enough to learn Chinese eh?” does not imply that I went through a Chinese-medium school for 6 years.

    It was meant as a hypothetical statement for students studying in Chinese-medium schools.

    • Hello Bobby

      Thank you for the clarification. What I originally intended to express is your opinions as an ethnic Chinese for Chinese medium school. My apology for the confusion caused by that statement.

  • cl

    One note, Mohamed Idris is not Malaysian. His blog is mainly in Arabic, you see.

  • […] Jude. “Malaysia: Globalization Dilemma – Educational Progress or Preserving Ethnic Identity?” Global Voices Online. May 31, […]

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