What we have here is a situation where everyone sees the problem and agrees that something has to be done fast or the country would be in trouble, but no one dares to make the first move.
Instead, we continue to hear lame excuses, such as Malaysia needs to train enough English teachers first, we need to study the problems first, or we need to assess the situation. In the end, we will just continue talking.
There is already a whole generation of Malaysians who are not proficient in English today. The product of the switch from English to Bahasa Malaysia as the medium of teaching in schools, many of them are already in their 40s. From conversing with them, you know their teachers did not teach them grammar. Many cannot write a proper sentence in English and seem to have no idea even of present or past tenses.
The situation can only become worse as most Malay parents send their children to national schools, which seem to be evolving into Malay-Islamic entities, while the Chinese, believing that a strong foundation in Mandarin is important, prefer their vernacular schools, at least for primary education.
While it is not wrong to assume that students in rural areas have less exposure to English in comparison to their urban counterparts, the reality is that a poor command of English has hit all students regardless of their race and geographical location. In other words, it is not a Malay, Chinese or Indian problem any more but a Malaysian problem.
We should be pressing the panic button now but, unfortunately, there is no political will. Government and opposition leaders are equally guilty in their inability to commit themselves to any long-term solution.
Are these politicians so afraid of upsetting the self-appointed guardians of Bahasa Malaysia, Chinese and Tamil languages to the point that we are prepared to sacrifice the larger interests of Malaysians?
While we debate, often very emotionally, about having a single school system to forge unity, advocates of vernacular schools are pointing out their rights under the Federal Constitution to the medium of their choice. Clearly, we are heading in different directions.
There could be a middle ground or, more precisely, a neutral ground in English medium schools, especially missionary schools, where many of us had the privilege of studying and growing up.
It is that system – some would say that era – that many older Malaysians today speak proudly and fondly of. They speak of making friends with students of all races and English was spoken and written well without compromising the standard of the national language.
But that era is gone and no politician today would dare to even push for this system, which is very unfortunate, as they prefer to preserve the status quo. Yet they moan about the poor command of English while hoping that no fresh contentious issue would pop up to add another worry to their long list of headaches.
Meanwhile, we are seeing a growing number of private, international and boarding schools that emphasise English, and parents who have the means send their children to these schools. Knowing the importance of this international language, they realise that they have to make the financial sacrifice.
How many of our leaders send their children overseas, or at least to these elite schools, for secondary education? Do our policy makers even believe in our own policies?
There is no level playing field here, as the poor are unable to send their children to such schools and only have the national or vernacular schools to pick.
Previously, if you went to an English medium school, it did not matter if your father was rich or poor. You had a shot at life because everyone was in the same system and type of education.
Why can’t Malaysians be given the right to English medium schools, at least at primary level, if there are vernacular and private/international schools?
But we know that’s a long shot because even at a simpler level, no one wants to decide whether we should teach Maths and Science in English. In this case, at least let the parents decide.
If there is a demand to use Bahasa Malaysia or Chinese or Tamil, then let it be. Let these schools use the language of their choice.
But if there are those that prefer to use English, then let them use English. Why should it be an issue? It’s not a racial or religious or even an economic problem, as a survey by Jaringan Melayu Malaysia has shown.
In a four-month survey that involved 15,000 respondents, Jaringan Melayu Malaysia found that 54.08% of parents in rural areas prefer English in the teaching of Maths and Science.
The Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia (PAGE) is also strongly advocating the move with support from former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
We are not even talking about a compulsory pass for the SPM here because most of us know that if a real benchmark is set for this, there could be a high failure rate. And if the standards are lowered, which seems to be the case now, we will continue to bluff ourselves. As it is, parents and their children with their string of PMR and SPM distinctions already have a false sense of achievement. There are overseas institutions who insist that our children sit for their entrance examinations because they are not sure whether our A is really an A or merely a D at international level.
So are we surprised that graduates cannot converse or write in English proficiently?
We can talk about a high income and minimum wage society but Malaysian workers need to be productive and of high quality if we want investors from the financial, technical or service sectors to come here.
Malaysians can no longer offer themselves as low-end assembly operators because other countries have taken over that role with their lower wages.
But how do we stand as a workforce against our neighbours in the region? One of our advantages has always been our language abilities but being able to converse isn’t good enough. We need to be good at what we are doing as well.
The reality is that our students have to read books in English at university level and search for material online in English. When they enter the job market, the language used is English – unless they want to join the public sector, which is already bloated.
Our politicians know how serious the situation is. It’s time we see them lead and not be led. Time has run out; the future of Malaysians is your hands.