Untangling PPSMI

By Hwa Yue-Yi, The Nut Graph

DURING the first weekend of November 2011, the PPSMI (the Teaching and Learning of Science and Mathematics in English) policy trended on Twitter. This evidence of PPSMI’s importance to large numbers of tech-savvy Malaysians came shortly after Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin’s back-to-back statements on the policy.

Muhyiddin first reiterated that PPSMI would be phased out according to the schedule proposed two years ago. The next day he backpedalled to announce a Cabinet decision that current Year 1 students may have the option of continuing under PPSMI until they complete Form 5.

The volume of discussion about PPSMI is a heartening sign of our growth towards becoming a democratic populace. Nevertheless, much of the conversation surrounding this controversial education policy remains mired in partisan and unsubstantiated debate. If we are to be a genuinely democratic and savvy nation, the polemics around PPSMI must not prevent us from looking at it in simultaneously inclusive and critical ways. Perhaps we can start by unpacking some of the debate’s crucial themes.

1. PPSMI is not the only possible cure for Malaysia’s educational deficiencies.

Arguably, the design of PPSMI was somewhat ad hoc. It was born out of then Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s longstanding emphases on English and technology, and shaped by the urgency of implementing the policy before his retirement. PPSMI was rolled out barely half a year after it was first proposed in 2002, straining curriculum planners, textbook publishers and teachers nationwide, many of whom did a commendable albeit flawed job under the circumstances.

Apart from the flawed implementation, questions remain about PPSMI’s premise: that teaching pupils science and mathematics in an academically dominant language is the most effective way of equipping them for technological research and linguistic versatility. Countries ranging from Vanuatu to South Africa similarly struggle with and, in some cases, construct nuanced solutions for language-medium policy in contexts that are ethnically diverse, post-colonial and globalised.

Thus, in the Malaysian context, the debate need not be locked into a PPSMI-or-not binary, but rather could find a consensus within the broader spectrum of possible policies.

2. PPSMI should not be an electoral issue.

In her 2008 PhD thesis on PPSMI, former Director-General of Education Datuk Dr Asiah Abu Samah wondered if “the policymakers in the Ministry and the public at large have the patience to wait 10-12 years to see clear results”. Unfortunately, Asiah’s caution was prescient: PPSMI’s gradual termination was announced in July 2009, a few days before the Manek Urai by-election. Recent publicly expressed comments about PPSMI have also entered the precarious territory of electoral ultimatums.

Deciding how to vote based on a single education policy is problematic because education interacts with many other policy processes. For example, even if a graduate has impeccable training in innovation and English, his or her career trajectory can be strongly impacted by government decisions about the structure of the economy.