On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Importance of being earnest

We all know that many of our university lecturers are in the same boat too, as well as some of our politicians and senior government servants. For them, it is a struggle to speak in English.

A letter, presumably written by an examiner or a parent, that appeared in this newspaper’s education section last Sunday startled me. The writer made a comparison between our 2011 Penilaian Menengah Rendah (PMR) English paper and the 2011 International Competitions and Assessments for Schools (ICAS) English Reading Paper.

The latter is used to test students’ English proficiency in private and international schools, which have increasingly become the choice of urban Malaysian parents who can afford to send their children there.

Giving detailed comparisons, the writer claimed that the PMR English paper taken by our 15-year-olds is much easier than those taken by Year Four Malaysian students in private and international schools and Year Three Singaporean pupils in similar schools.

“How can we expect our local students to compete with students from other countries if the standard of English in our PMR exam is even lower than the standard of English required for Year Four pupils in private and international schools?” he asked.

In short, the PMR English paper is too easy. We have long cast doubts on the quality of our students who earn a string of distinctions. We hear grumbles that in some papers such as Physics, the grading is so ridiculously low you just need to answer a few questions to get the A, but that’s another story.

Older Malaysians – those who sat for Senior Cambridge (Form 5), Lower Certificate of Education (LCE) for Form Three, Malaysian Certificate of Education (MCE) for Fifth Formers and the Higher School Certificate (HSC) for Form Six – will vouch that the standard of English was much higher then.

The Prime Minister and his deputy Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin are products of the early education system which has enabled them to speak and write well in English. It is such a joy, for example, to listen to Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak delivering a speech in crisp English.

We know that much of the Cabinet deliberations are conducted in English. So are the Cabinet committee meetings, where most ministers find it more comfortable to express themselves in English.

When they attend international conferences, one or two ministers whose command of English is described as atrocious still have to use the language, but they would just read from a prepared text.

In a tweet last week, prominent human rights lawyer Malik Imtiaz lamented the poor English in the written judgment of a Judicial Commissioner. The legal reasoning was equally bad. This is sad because the Malaysian legal system is primarily based on English common law and most students have to use English textbooks.

I have just returned from India where I attended an international conference on the advertising industry. It was a joy to listen to people there – from the emcee, former Miss World Diana Hayden, to Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan to leaders of the industry – speak in English with confidence, eloquence and wit and without referring to a prepared text.

These people are able to speak so well because India has not allowed its nationalists to tear down the legacy of the British education system in the name of nationalism and race. Yes, there are millions in India who can only speak Hindi or other dialects but English remains in a dominant position.

In Singapore, the medium of instruction in schools is English and to ensure that the young get the best education, teachers are among the best paid in the island republic’s civil service.

Certainly, those given the responsibility to nurture, teach and inspire young minds deserve the best, but let the best join the profession and keep out the mediocre.

The DPM has said it would not be possible to use English in teaching Science and Mathematics (PPSMI), citing possible chaotic situations if parents were given the option to decide if they wished to use English or Bahasa Malaysia.

He said some teachers were not efficient in teaching English and that it would also be hard for the Education Ministry to plan.

I think these are sound and valid reasons but we must also look for other options. It is not a zero sum game. We should not see the controversy from a “them and us” situation. Neither do we want politicians and groups to cloud the issue further by using race to silence proponents of the PPSMI.

We can introduce English Literature in schools and also increase the teaching hours in English as the next step. Even Physical Education, Art and Moral Studies classes can be taught in English.

We will go nowhere if we continue to cite lack of English teachers as the reason why we cannot move forward. The situation we are in is a reflection of the failure of our education system as far as English is concerned. It is a statement of our lack of commitment.

Let’s hire teachers and trainers from India and other Commonwealth countries, compile a data bank of retired teachers who still want to contribute, and even graduates who are keen to teach English in schools.

For urban parents, the option should not be the private and international schools. Haven’t our children been divided by the different schools they go to already? The last thing we want to do is to create a class system where the better-off go to private schools while the less privileged have to settle for national schools.