Saturday, July 11, 2009

Taking one step forward & three steps back, the M'sian way

On July 9, the government decided to end the teaching of science and mathematics in English (PPSMI) in national schools, beginning 2012 onwards. Again, the Malaysian people is divided with this latest regression of an initiative set up in 2003 to ensure Malaysia remains competitive in the globalised world of information and technology. But in my opinion, the government has shamefully taken a step forward but three steps back.

1 step forward:
  1. Deputy Education Minister Dr Puad Zarkashi says that by ditching the PPSMI, the government saves RM40 million annually.
3 steps back:
  1. Students who are caught in between the transition between English and Malay will suffer the most.
  2. The government will allocate almost RM5 billion to strengthen the teaching and learning of English in schools.
  3. Malaysia's ability to compete globally in the future is being jeopardized.
If there is one thing that really caught my attention, it is the amount of money the government is willing to pump in to "strengthen the teaching of English" in schools; after deciding to scrap the PPSMI. If the government has RM5 billion in the first place, why isn't that sum of money been put to help improve the PPSMI?

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak argues that only 8% of science and mathematics teachers are proficient in the English language. But the depressing statistic could also improve if half of that RM5 billion of funding is to put better use to bolster the proficiency among the remaining 92%.

It will not be a surprise to see the 8% (those who are proficient) to continue to shrink when students of today end up as teachers in a decade's time. Students now have no reason to improve their standard of English - given that the language itself is still not a 'must pass' subject in the SPM examination and also important subjects are no longer taught in English beyond 2012.

The government is not taking a gamble but a miscalculated dive into the dark waters of arrested development. Various cultural/language groups and politicians have come to support the scrapping the PPSMI, saying the initiative to teach science and mathematics in English is unconstitutional to begin with. They say it is an act of defence for the dignity and position of the Malay language as the national tongue. And by reverting back to the old ways, they are also strengthening the status of Mandarin and Tamil in society.

I'd say their argument is flawed. "Strengthening" one's language does not come by teaching science and mathematics in that language. It is through quality teaching materials and literature that improvements are made to one's proficiency. Therefore, to say that by scrapping the PPSMI could memartabatkan or strengthen the Malay language (Mandarin and Tamil included) is highly unfounded.

But the argument of the PPSMI is not to champion the English language whilst disregarding the other languages. Neither it is made to only improve the proficiency of English among students. The PPSMI serves a higher purpose which is to ensure young Malaysians are well equipped to compete globally.

I urge the proponents of the PPSMI-ditching campaign to be realistic. Sure, patriotism is good but blind patriotism can kill. English, whether we like it or not, is the language of science, information and knowledge.

The effort to improve the standards of English as a subject and learning science and mathematics in English are two different matters. One cannot learn the sciences simply by being proficient in English. On the contrary, one has to be familiar with scientific and academic terminologies in order the master a field.

As former Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad has pointed out in his blog, just how many local academicians in this country do not take English textbooks for references? And if I may add on, just how many non-English speaking local academicians have gone to published world class writings or even being revered by the scientific community?

It is understood that rural schools children face difficulties in science and mathematics due to their poor command of English. But by scrapping the PPSMI in order is to simply run away from reality and is definitely not the solution. Therefore, the government should give more attention in developing and improving the proficiency of English among rural children and not taking their poor command of the language that as an excuse to scrap the PPSMI.

Malaysia was successful in the 1990's because the majority of our workforce and intellectuals were educated in the English medium. We have an edge over neighbouring countries like Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand when it came to attracting Western investors simply because we have better command of the English language.

So this is my plea to the government: Do not burn the whole forest over a sick tree. If the PPSMI has not achieved its intention, it does not mean that the whole idea is rubbish. The problem lies with its implementation and the lack of thorough study and evaluation. The English language subject in schools should be improved but at the same time, the government should also maintain and further develop the PPSMI initiative. School children are not guinea pigs for our experiments. Neither is the future of our nation a gamble.


  1. jonathan ong said...
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