On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

A poor legacy for our kids


OUR education system is in a mess, isn’t it? We now have a situation where our children will study almost all subjects in Bahasa Malaysia, Chinese or Tamil in primary schools.

Then, they study mostly in BM at secondary level including Maths and Science, if the nationalists have their way, and at tertiary level, the lectures are in BM but almost all the reference books are in English.

We are told the Government has abandoned the teaching of Maths and Science in English because our teachers and children cannot cope.

The logic is that it’s bad enough that our students are failing in English, despite the low grades for passing, but they are now falling behind in Maths and Science because of the medium of instruction.

So the panic button has been pressed. The Malay nationalists and Chinese educationists who have never seen anything eye to eye suddenly have a joint stand.

So have the Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat leaders. Despite the anger directed against the Government by many urbanites who advocate the use of English, the fact is that most oppositionists also share the same sentiments.

From Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim to former Perak Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Nizar Jamaluddin, who proposed a motion to halt the use of English at the recent PAS general assembly, they have pushed the same line.

PKR MP Zulkifli Nordin, who is a member of the PR’s Higher Education Committee – its version of the shadow cabinet – has expressed his jubilation at the decision. In fact, the Kulim Bandar Baharu lawmaker has questioned the relevance of English, pointing out that the mostly English-speaking Filipinos have become domestic maids and the Japanese did not need English to achieve what they did. Both sides have had their say, with the nationalists even taking to the streets, where they were joined by PAS and PKR leaders, to make their stand known.

The reality is this – the advocates of English, mainly in urban areas, have lost their case. Thus, the great deal of unhappiness and even anger over the past few days.

There has been talk of punishing the Government in the polls, forgetting that the Opposition has taken the same position.

From the traditional kampung to the new villages, the findings have shown that our students are struggling.

Many do not have the opportunity to be exposed to English or to have tuition to help them. It does not help that they are not in an English-speaking home environment .

It is this group of people who will lag behind eventually, not the middle class and elites in the cities, who would have other alternatives. It’s a Catch 22 situation – either they fail in Maths and Science, together with English, or they pass in at least two of these crucial subjects, if BM or Chinese or Tamil is used.

Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who speaks English mostly, understands this better than anyone else. So does Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, who studied in the United Kingdom.

The Government and Opposition have both denied that this is a political decision but education in Malaysia has always been politicised, which is most unfortunate.

In Hong Kong, despite being under the rule of mainland China, the educationists have reverted to the use of English to teach Maths and Science. But they are practical people with a clear understanding of the economic value of English and Mandarin.

But here, narrow nationalism seems to be the overriding concern. We bypassed the need for competitive edge without giving much thought to the future of our children.

It’s rubbish when politicians and nationalists equate the promotion of English to the legacy of the British colonial masters. English is the language of the sciences, economics and the Internet.

It is the wish of the majority, no doubt, to abandon English but we have essentially postponed the problem.

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has spoken passionately against the decision, but he only found the political courage to use English for these two subjects at the tail end of his 22-year administration. He continued the same national language policy which has killed the standard of English among young Malaysians.

The majority of respondents who rallied to his blog supported English but such a survey in Malay, Tamil or Chinese newspapers would have the same majority supporting mother tongue. This has been a politically, if not emotionally, disturbing issue. There would be a heavier price to pay for this in the long term.

The level of English has already gone down the drain with the majority of teachers almost incompetent to use the language, let alone teach it. It has been revealed by Muhyiddin that only 19.2% of secondary school teachers and 9.96% of primary teachers are sufficiently proficient in English.

Grades have been compromised in our school exams to the point that a student with a distinction in English is treated suspiciously by employers in the private sector and international universities.

It would come as no surprise if more stringent rules on English proficiency are imposed on our students in future by foreign universities. The high number of unmarketable local graduates who cannot speak or write English efficiently will increase as the public sector would be unable to absorb them.

This could be a potential political flash point and there are already signs of it as many cannot get an interview once their application letters and e-mail have been read.

It is reassuring that the Prime Minister has said that the focus on English would continue with only the methods changed.

There has to be more teaching hours in English and asking retired teachers to come back can only be a short-term measure as its practicality is questionable.

A decision has been made but for our children’s sake, please keep English for Maths and Science, at least at the secondary school level.