by M. Bakri Musa
The government’s decision to revisit (and most likely do away with) the current teaching of science and mathematics in English is an instructive example of how an otherwise sensible policy could easily be discredited and then abandoned because of poor execution. Had there been better planning, many of the problems encountered could have been readily anticipated and thus avoided, or at least reduced. The policy would then more likely to succeed, and thus be accepted.
Ironically, only a year ago a Ministry of Education “study” pronounced the program to be moving along “smoothly,” with officials “satisfied” with its implementation. Now another “study” showed that there was no difference in the “performance” (whatever that term means or how they measure it) between those taught in Malay or English.
The policy was in response to the obvious deficiencies noted in students coming out of our national schools: their abysmal command of English, and their limited mathematical skills and science literacy. They carry these deficits when they enter university, and then onto the workplace.
The results are predictable. These graduates are practically unemployable. As the vast majority of them are Malays, this creates tremendous political pressure on the government to act as employer of last resort. Accommodating these graduates made our civil service bloated and inefficient, burdened by their deficient language and mathematical abilities.
This longstanding problem began in the late 1970s when Malay became the exclusive language of instruction in our public schools and universities. Overcoming this problem would be a monumental undertaking.
The greatest mistake was to underestimate the magnitude of the task, especially in overcoming the system’s inertia. Today’s teachers and policy makers are products of this all-Malay education system. Change would mean repudiating the very system that had produced them, a tough sell at the best of times.
In their naivety, ministry officials convinced themselves that such enormous obstacles as the teachers’ lack of English fluency could easily be overcome by enrolling them in short culup (superficial) courses that were in turn conducted by those equally inept in English. Or by simply providing these teachers with laptops programmed with instructional modules!
Even if we had had the best talents devoting themselves exclusively to implementing the policy, the task would still be huge. Unfortunately we have Hishammuddin Hussein as Minister of Education shepherding the change. An insightful innovator or an effective executive he is not. Being simultaneously an UMNO Youth Chief, he was also distracted in trying to pass himself off as the champion of Ketuanan Melayu.
These factors practically ensure the initiative’s failure. The tragic part is that the burden of the failure falls disproportionately on the rural poor, meaning Malays, a point missed by these self-professed nationalists. I would have thought that that alone would have motivated them to succeed.
A Better Way
Teaching science and mathematics in English would solve two problems simultaneously. One, considering the critical shortage of textbooks, journals, and other literature in Malay, teaching the two subjects in English would facilitate the acquisition of new knowledge by our students. With the exponential growth of new knowledge, it would be impossible to keep up solely through translations, even if we were to devote our entire intellectual resources towards that endeavor.
The other objective was to enhance the English fluency of our students. Of course if that were the only consideration, there are other more effective ways of achieving it, like devoting more instructional hours to the subject.
If, as the recent Ministry’s “study” indicates, there is no difference in performance between those taught in Malay or English, that in itself would favor continuing the program because of the twin benefits discussed earlier. Besides, changing course midstream would not only be disruptive but also counterproductive. Our educational system needs predictable stability and incremental improvements, not disruptive U-turns and faddish changes, especially in response to political pressures.
A more important point is this. Altering a politically pivotal and highly emotional public policy requires careful preparation and deliberate execution. If I were to implement the policy, this is what I would do. Lest readers think that this is hindsight wisdom on my part, rest assured that I had documented these ideas in my earlier book, long before the government even contemplated the policy.
Being prudent, as we are dealing with our children’s and nation’s future, I would begin with a small pilot project, analyze the problems, correct the deficiencies, and only then expand the program.
First, I would implement the policy initially only at primary and selected secondary schools, like our residential schools. The language requirements as well as the science and mathematical concepts at the primary level are quite elementary, and thus more readily acquired by the teachers. And at that level the pupils would not have to unlearn much as everything would still be new.
In schools where the background English literacy level of the pupils is low as in the villages, I would have the pupils take English immersion classes for a full term or even a year. We had earlier successful experiences with this with our Special Malay Classes and Remove classes. This strategy has also been tried successfully in America for children of non-English-speaking immigrants. Another idea I put forth in my earlier book is to bring back the old English schools in such areas. As the Malay literacy level in the community and at home is high, these pupils are unlikely to “forget” their own language.
At the secondary level, our residential schools get the best students and teachers. Consequently the program could be more easily implemented there as the learning curve would be steep, and mistakes more readily recognized and corrected. Once the kinks have been worked out, expand the program.
Second is the issue of teachers. Fortunately Malaysia has two large untapped reservoirs of talent: recently retired teachers trained under the old English-based system, and native English speakers who are either spouses of Malaysians or residents of this country. Given adequate compensation and minimal of hassles, they could be readily recruited.
I would add other incentives especially if they were to serve in rural areas where the need is most acute. Thus in addition to greater pay, I would give them first preference to teachers’ quarters.
A permanent solution would be to convert a number of existing teachers’ colleges into exclusively English-medium institutions to train future teachers of English, science, and mathematics. As the present teacher-trainees have limited English fluency, I would begin admitting them right away in January following their leaving school in December of the preceding year.
From that January till the regular opening of the academic year (sometime in July), these trainees would undergo intensive English immersion classes where their entire 24-hour day would be consumed with learning, speaking, thinking, and even dreaming in English. With the subsequent three years of additional instructions exclusively in English, these graduates would then be fully fluent in English.
With such quality programs, these graduates would be in great demand within and outside their profession. With their heightened English facility and mathematical competency, their educational opportunities would also expand as they could further their studies anywhere in the English-speaking world. With such bright prospects, these colleges would have no difficulty recruiting talented school leavers. Our teaching profession would also be enriched with the addition of such talents.
As for textbooks, there is no need to write new ones. The contents of these two subjects are universally applicable. Meaning, textbooks written for British students would be just as suitable for Malaysians, so we could select already available books. With its purchasing clout, the government could drive a hard bargain with existing publishers.
I hope Ministry of Education officials, including and especially Hishammuddin, would heed these factors when they review the current policy. They should continue the current policy, correct the evident errors, and strengthen the obvious weaknesses. The success of this policy would also mean success for our students, and our nation. That is a worthy pursuit for anyone with ambitions to one day lead the nation