English for all – not for select few

By Feizrul Nor Nurbi

Dear Parents,
There has been an audible cry made by the supporters of PPSMI for the policy to be reinstated as an option in the national education system. An option here means schools are able to choose whether to continue teaching Mathematics and Science in English or revert back to pre-PPSMI medium of instruction, being Bahasa Melayu in national schools or Tamil/Mandarin in vernacular schools.
While on the surface it seems fair to consider this demand from the groups, digging a bit deeper exposes the dire ramification if this choice is given.
Firstly, succumbing to this demand will open the proverbial floodgates of never-ending demands from irrational parents acting on the pretense that their demands are just for the good of their children.
Perhaps once the floodgates are open, we will see demands for subjects taught in dialects instead of the 3 languages implemented now. The parents in Kelantan might want their children to learn in Kelantanese, Kedahan wanting to learn in ‘loghat utara’, and those from Penang wanting to learn in Hokkien. Even the current system of having 3 different school streams creates a set of complicated problems, but I shall leave that topic for another day.
If that is not ridiculous enough then perhaps we are going to see parents clamoring for advance subjects being made available in schools – there will be Advance Math for the ‘Math genius’ and Basic Math for the ‘normal’ students. Or Advance Physics for those inspiring to be astrophysicists and Basic Physics for the not-so-gifted amongst them.
Most ridiculous of all when parents make the demand for the ‘gifted’ sons or daughters be given extra attention by means of better teachers and better facilities at the expenses of the weaker learners. But wait – this is already happening. We call this ‘class streaming’ where the idea of segregating the talented from the academically-challenged often results in the best teacher being allocated to the best minds, while those unfortunate to sit in ‘kelas corot’ will be left to rot without extra effort to bring them at par with the gifted ones.
It is rather clear that the notion of a national education system being the great equalizer is lost on these parents. A national education system should serve the role of academic-democratizer – where quality education is made available to all students regardless of background, where access to quality is made available to all at no extra cost and the opportunity to excel are given as a right and not only for the select few.
Sadly, when talking about ‘democratization of education’, it has been misconstrued as the right to pick and choose whatever suit their irrational whims and wants.
The reality is, in Malaysia, education has degenerated into a class war – the battle between the haves and the have-nots.
The haves are those with the resources to pay for that good preschool, that Grolier encyclopedia set sitting in the home library, that crisp pearly white school uniforms, that Kumon classes, that subscription to Astro’s Playhouse Disney, that private tutor 5 times a week, that piano class and violin lessons, the weekend ballet class and perhaps the most basic of all – a proper meal for your loved ones.
On the opposite spectrum we have the ‘have-nots’ – those parents struggling to provide for their family, where an adequate preschool is already priced beyond their reach, where there are no money put aside for their child’s education when the main concern is where their next meal going to come from, where the student themselves worry about working and earning a living to assist their family instead of focusing on the lessons in class.
These are the ones depending wholly on the national education system to pull them out of their dire life struggles. This is the reality at hand, which perhaps most parents comfortably leading their air-conditioned lives are oblivious of.
Oblivious enough even to demand that it is their right to be given privilege over the have-nots, arguing that their sons and daughters should not be held back just to accommodate those less fortunate.
To those parents making these demands – I have two words for you – ‘Private’ and ‘School’.
What have we as a society degenerated into? We often make fun of southern neighbor for their Kiasu behaviour, but rather disconcertingly we are heading down the same way as they are now.
For those making these demands, please understand that the Rule of Scarcity applies. Providing for one group will mean taking away from another. Asking for the option for PPSMI means funds and effort must be allocated to train teachers, for books and references, for a syllabus catering for the demands – valuable funds and effort that could have been used more productively to increase the quality of the education system across the board where it will benefit a bigger pool of people.
Perhaps funds that will be the difference between a life ‘kais pagi makan pagi’ and a life where the next meal is guaranteed. And to some people, it can be even be difference between life and death.
PPSMI, or even the English-medium schools, will get my vote if and when the whole policy is based on a level playing field. Here is where the early exposure to English is crucial via early-childhood education, preschools, kindergartens, and a conducive environment where children as early as 4 years old are exposed and encouraged to explore English. The only way to do this is to make early childhood education compulsory for all; by ensuring it is accessible and affordable, with the view that by the age of 7 all students will have sufficient proficiency in English for them to start learning other subjects – Mathematics and Science and others – in English.
Can we achieve this? Is it at all doable? Or is it just a mountain too high to climb?
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. With a ‘bigger picture’ scenario that is really none too appealing, it is crucial that we channel what limited resource we have to tackle the real source of the problem.
Its time we fight for the main course instead of bickering over crumbs and leftovers.
On a personal note….
It has been an emotionally draining experience writing these articles, for it is an issue close to my heart, an issue that I am passionate about. I trust the fellows at PAGE are of the same stock, with the drive and perseverance galvanizing like minded parents to support their cause. For that they have my respect.
Just it is a lament of mine that the cause chosen by PAGE does not directly address the ailment plaguing our country’s education system. Certainly what the rakyat needs at this current juncture is a pressure group that acts as a watchdog over the national education system, persistently demanding quality across the board from the government for the benefit of the people. And I believe PAGE fits this role perfectly, only if it decides to be.
It might be a harder target to achieve; perhaps without a change in government it will be impossible. But rest assured, when our education system is at par with the best in the world, the nectar of success will be the sweetest of all, and above all, enjoyed by all Malaysians, regardless of background, race and faith.