On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Children caught in the middle

On The Beat

IT is a touchy subject and one that probably crops up only in Malaysia. Where else could the teaching of Maths and Science in schools possibly develop into an issue with political and racial implications?

Malay and Chinese educationist groups are unhappy with the use of English to teach these subjects, saying it has not helped improve English among our students.

Malay nationalists and politicians argue that rural Malay students are suffering because they cannot understand the language.

Chinese educationists, particularly the Dong Jiao Zong (DJZ), have threatened to stage a nationwide protest against the continued use of English.

The DJZ, which comprises the Dong Zong (United Chinese School Committees Association) and the Jiao Zong (United Chinese School Teachers Association) from our 1,200 Chinese primary schools, has stood firm that the Government should revert to using mother tongue languages in teaching Maths and Science.

The protest was originally made by Jiao Zong president Ong Chiaw Chuan but the group’s officials have since reportedly distanced themselves from the threat.

Caught in the middle is Education Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein, who will be holding a fifth round of meetings with the DJZ.

He has the Umno party elections ahead of him, and he has to balance the interest of the Chinese-based parties in Barisan Nasional and the future of our Malaysian students.

No one can deny that the teaching of Maths and Science, especially in Chinese, has been effective. These schools have produced the best students in these subjects because of the teaching method which relies on the language.

But Hishammuddin cannot adopt different rules for different schools or he will be accused of practising double-standards.

The decision to use English to teach these two subjects – the brainchild of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad in his last years in office – has been decisive, and much emotion has been generated by it.

Emeritus Prof Tan Sri Dr Khoo Kay Kim found himself on the firing line following his statement that non-Malays needed to compromise and give up Chinese or Tamil education in favour of a single-school education system.

MCA information and communications chief Lee Wei Keat said the MCA was offended, saying Khoo’s stand revealed his gross misconception of history and the foundation of vernacular schools in the country.

Dr Khoo is entitled to his views but he certainly has little inclination of the Chinese community’s pulse. In fact, most times he is out of touch. Prof, read the Federal Constitution, please.

Asking the non-Malays to give up their schools is unconstitutional and would be unacceptable.

But what is missing from the whole debate is this – the standard of English among our students has gone to the dogs. So, too, has that of our school teachers and university lecturers.

While Chinese and Malay groups fight over the issue, the reality is that our children continue to suffer on a massive scale.

It has affected children of all races but the rural Malays would suffer the most from the Government’s decision to abandon the use of English as a medium of instruction.

Go to any shopping complexes now and you will find young Chinese salespersons who cannot speak anything else except Cantonese or Mandarin.

We have a situation where schools have become mono-ethnic by design or simply by circumstances. National schools are predominantly Malay because non-Malays think they are too religious while in Chinese primary schools, it’s almost entirely Chinese because the perception is that the teaching standards and discipline are much better.

So, we have the young Malays and Chinese going back to their respective homes speaking their mother tongue, watching Malay or Chinese channels on TV and having only friends of their own races.

We dream of the days when there were English medium schools where real friends, not functional friends, of all races were made.

The standard of English was high and all you needed were five As in the MCE, not 16 or 17As in the SPM, to prove your capability.

Chinese schools then paled when compared to English schools. The Han Chiang High School in the 1970s had to depend on Thai and Indonesian students to survive and was almost on the verge of shutting down because of falling attendance.

Parents, especially Chinese, sent their children to English schools because they had good teachers and, of course, it helped that England was a powerhouse then. It had nothing to do with history or heritage.

But now, many English-educated Chinese parents are sending their children to Chinese primary schools because they want their children to acquire the ability to speak and write Chinese. They do this because of the emergence of China as the economic superpower.

You can be a lawyer, banker, businessman or journalist but if you cannot speak Mandarin, you would experience more difficulties in China.

But having said that, don’t forget that Chinese nationals are learning English the American way, not our flat intonation ala Malaysian or Singaporean English, which the former think is bad English.

Malaysians who are better off are sending their children to private and international schools where English is used. At college level, they go to private universities, locally or overseas.

So what about our graduates in local universities who are deprived of these opportunities? We can argue until the cows come home about nationalism, culture, race and heritage but the reality is that without English language skills, they are not marketable.

They will pay the price for the fallacies of our selfish and narrow-minded politicians, nationalists and educationists who, for all their bravado, may even be sending their children to private and international schools.