Give students English as a choice

By P. Gunasegaram (The Star)

If Malaysians can get cheap education at school level in Malay, Chinese and Tamil, why not include English in the list.

WHICHEVER way one looks at it, it is obvious that the decision to revert to Malay, Chinese and Tamil for the teaching of science and maths from 2012, has been politically motivated, with an eye on the next general election.

When the major government parties and those in opposition are united in their stance that maths and science should be taught in the mother tongues of students, what choice has the Government but give that back to them, irrespective of whether it may harm the students and the country in the long term.

Sometimes one wishes that all Cabinet members sent their children to national schools or were required to do so.

In that way, they would be forced to make the best decisions because they want the best for their own children, and therefore be less influenced by political considerations.

Then they would have considered other solutions to satisfy all groups in the country and which would have been perfectly workable. One such solution is simply to give choice to parents and pupils.

If parents wanted science and maths to be taught in English to their children, let them do so affordably by allowing these in national schools. That’s not as difficult or as impractical as it sounds, as we shall explain.

One of the major arguments for teaching science and maths in Malay and the vernacular languages is that these subjects are learned more easily if they are taught in the mother tongue.

The Education Ministry and advocates of rolling back the teaching of science and maths in English should have taken the trouble to establish what percentage of Malaysian households consider English as virtually their mother tongue and use it as the primary language of communication between household members. I suspect the numbers are large.

When then Prime Minister Datuk Seri (now Tun) Dr Mahathir Mohamad announced his intention to resign at an Umno meeting in 2002, then Trade and Industry Minister Datuk Seri (now Tan Sri) Rafidah Aziz rushed up to him and asked, in English, “Why?”

It was Mahathir, a year later, who made the decision to go back to English for science and maths after having overseen the switch to Malay first as Education Minister and then Prime Minister, virtually admitting his mistake of carrying the language policy too far.

Every business meeting I have attended for many years is in English, I speak in English much more than I speak in any other language to my friends – of all races. The language I use with my children is English and my children speak with all their cousins in English.

This is not to say that other languages are not important but only to say that English is important – to a whole lot of people from all races in the country.

And English is also important, as everybody admits, for the overall development of the country and to be clued into what happens around the world.

Right now, and for the last six years, science and maths have been taught in English. Despite everything that the Government says, it is inevitable that after six years, at least half of these teachers will have developed some capability to teach in English.

If they have not, these teachers must be purged from the education system and be replaced with others because six years is long enough.

Since there are two clear years and six months to the implementation of the new policy in 2012, there is actually plenty of time to iron out any difficulties and anticipate the problems that might arise.

Parents should be required to register their children for schools when the children reach the age of four or five. At that time, they can also be required to state their preferred choice of language for science and maths.

And then they can be allocated to schools according to the medium of instruction.

So two to three years before the students are enrolled in school, the education ministry will have a clear indication of how many students want to be educated in the various languages and simply make the appropriate provisions.

The numbers are not likely to vary substantially year-to-year since such long-term decisions are not typically changed at the drop of a hat.

Then, with all the teachers they already have in stock who can teach science and maths in English, and those they can train, it really should be a cinch to synchronise the manpower accordingly and satisfy all sectors of the population.

It is important to remember that only the very rich and influential can get their children educated in English at the moment.

Even private Malaysian schools are obliged to follow the Malay, Chinese or Tamil mediums of instruction, with no provision for English.

The only ones allowed an English medium are the international schools. Many Malaysians, who no doubt include politicians who support the recent reversal, have used their influence to send their children there, but that avenue is firmly shut to the very vast majority of Malaysians.

There is choice only if there is a viable alternative, and that is to give affordable English education, at least for science and maths, to those who want it in national schools or schools which are about as cheap as that.

Here is an extract from a profile of a prominent former politician and current businessman on his website: “Being a youth of the 40s, during a period when the British Colonial Policy encouraged Malays to attend Malay schools, when Malay parents worried about the possible influence of an English education on their children’s religious faith and cultural identity, Daim and his parents were able to transcend these limitations.

“In fact, his broad-minded parents enrolled all their children at English-medium schools as they did not want their children to become ‘better farmers and fishermen’.” That person in question is of course former finance minister Tun Daim Zainuddin, now by some accounts a billionaire businessman. You can read the full profile at

Should we not give that same opportunity to everyone in Malaysia if they wanted to have it, instead of just the elite and the rich?

Really, it is still not too late. The new policy comes into effect only in 2012, plenty of time to give choices to everyone. When the Government does not know what is best, or is unable to give it, choice is simply preferable.

Managing editor P. Gunasegaram believes courage and honesty is important to do the “right” thing.