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Malaysia: No to English in Science & Mathematics

No more English in science and mathematics by 2012. That is the long overdue decision from the Ministry of Education on the policy of teaching science and mathematics in English (PPSMI). The Education Minister stressed it is purely an objective decision and cited the rationale of the decision is based on poor English competence among teachers, widening performance gap between rural schools and urban schools. In a press conference, he again refuted the claim of political influence in the decision-making process.

This emphatic decision apparently will stay despite an online poll result (updated by 1650 GMT+8; Jul 13 2009) that shows 86% of 81,370 votes goes against the decision. This poll is initiated by none other than one of the strongest supporters of PPSMI, former PM Dr. Mahathir who disappointedly said:

Seems to me like the Government is not listening to the voices of the people. Perhaps a blog poll might enlighten the Government as to the opinions of the people.

This issue has undoubtedly taken a great emotional toll on all key stakeholders: influential lobby groups that momentarily declared victory, confused students, tired parents and teachers, and citizens who are generally concerned about education progress in the country. So is it a decision that reflects on objectivity or political pressure?

Wong Chun Wai, group chief editor of The Star newspaper commented in his personal blog that it is a rare political consensus that unites lobby groups, opposing parties to revert to Malay, Chinese and Tamil in teaching science and mathematics.

So, it's pretty clear that these political and education groups must know what they are talking about, politically, that is.

Twitter is not left out with the ongoing discussion on the decision. @Asohan wryly put it as a political shocker, an unusually rare occasion where an opposition chief will support PM Najib on a divisive issue.

Despite the stress on objectivity by the Education Minister, it will be hard to ignore political sentiments and interests that feature prominently in this issue. As Ibnu Hasyim commented:

Semuanya adalah angkara BN, maka kerajaan BN perlu dihukum kerana sudah membazirkan wang negara, masa dan anak-anak rakyat miskin yang menjadi korban. Hukumlah dengan menolak BN dalam PRU 13 akan datang bermula dengan pilihan raya kecih Manek Urai yang akan diadakan beberapa hari lagi.

This is all self-serving interest of BN (Barisan Nasional), so BN government must be punished for wasting national fund, time and for sacrificing children from poor families. Punish them by rejecting BN in general election 13th, do so by starting with the by-election at Manek Urai in a few more days.

National Association of Malaysian Islamic Students (PKPIM) said:

Keputusan itu merupakan satu tafsiran komitmen kerajaan untuk mempertahan dan mendaulatkan bahasa Melayu sebagai bahasa kebangsaan.

That decision is an interpretation of government commitment to defend and strengthen Malay as the national language.

There continues to be a challenge to justify the objectivity of the decision. There is a consensus that the government decision is too shorted-sighted and not well-developed to consider the future of students and nation overall.

As the prominent social activist, Marina Mahathir put it:

Sad, because the leadership that we have do not have the spine to stand up to minority interests. Sad, because our children are sacrificed because the BN wants to win one by-election.

When rural schools are not as well equipped as urban ones, is that not to be expected? If you look at performance overall, doesn't that hold true anyway? Why should English be made the excuse for unequal distribution of resources between rural and urban schools? Surely when you see poor results from rural schools, what needs to be done is to improve the teaching in those schools. Not reverse an entire policy and bring urban kids down along with everyone else.

Some commentators on Twitter lamented on the rationality of the decision:

@jay_baharin after 6 yrs +RM4 billion of expenditure they abandon PPSMI easily…my sympathy toward all young students who will be more confused than ever….

@waski69 PPSMI – One small political step for UMNO/BN, one giant leap backward for the future of Malaysia-kind…

There will be a lot of interpretation on whether this is a political decision or an objective decision and only the decision makers will truly know. But what cannot be denied is the fact that Malaysia will need a few more years of experimentation to improve the command of English among students and the methodology in teaching science and mathematics. Sadly, the waiting time adds more uncertainty to the unanswered question of what is really the best practical solution to serve the nation and students. As one confused student aptly put in:

Two words: I'm shocked.

All the Science and Math terms in English, I've learnt and applied them for six years. And now I'll have to go back to square one in Form Four (10th grade)?

Now one question remains: What now?

8 comments

  • Dr Khadaroo

    In a nutshell, Malaysians cannot afford to live in a shell. Wake up and compete internationally. Think global, not local.

  • Bob

    Sad to see a country, once of so much promise, not content with the present generation dissapating it’s patrimony via intercinine political wrangles and corruption now dooming future generations to more of the same, Condemned to a role as bit players on an increasingly integrated world stage. Singapore should declare a public holiday at the opposition kicking another ‘own goal!’

  • Nurul

    It seems that the government can’t do no right here. Choose PPSMI, they riot on the street. Choose to abolish it, people say that its a political game. I say, make the wisest decision and stick to it. The majority may not always be right, as Tun M himself would know. The idea of having a national car back in the 80’s received tremendous opposition, but he went through with it nonetheless.

    Instead of opposing everything the government does, give them a break. Let’s give it time and see how this works out.

    As for strengthening the command of English, there are talks of making it a compulsory subject to pass for SPM. I think that could be a more effective way to go.

  • Bob, competitiveness is certainly one of the core issues. But it’s much more complex than that in a multi-ethnic country with Malay as the official language and various interests to balance. So as it seems the eventual outcome of handling conflicting priorities hardly pleases everybody.

    Nurul, citizens don’t just oppose without a valid reason. Unfortunately, it’s hard to give government another long break in this contentious issue. Decisiveness and continuity will be the key and I don’t think the country could afford to wait for a few more years to change the whole plan.

    Thank you for all the comments.

  • Why does this have to be a top-down national issue? Can’t individual schools or school districts choose to teach science and math in the language that best serves the students in their community and in which their teachers are best able to teach?

    • Hello Lee Sean

      A number of critics actually advocated for the same approach. Unfortunately policy makers didn’t offer any explanation why it can’t be done. In my opinions, the final decision is shockingly short-sighted and lacked of broader assessment. The explanation given by policy makers is no different from what the citizens knew 6 years ago.

  • I would agree that it does seem short-sighted, and a result of politics rather than any real educational foresight.

    So what should parents and teachers do, moving forward? As the 86% in the poll already oppose the decision, it doesn’t seem like expressing discontent is going to lead to any action. Some have even declared that they have no choice but to turn to homeschooling children!

    • Hi Mark

      The decision is final. Even though the poll reflects more on the consensus of urban English-speaking Internet users, it really shows that the decision should have been more refined and forward-looking for all.

      Yes, home schools and private schools are limited options. But for the general public at large, there will be more experimentation ahead.

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