The English Medium School – A Panacea?


It is because the schools both in terms of students and teachers have become mono-ethnic — and not because of the language medium — that they are no longer capable of promoting inter-ethnic interaction.

Dr. Chandra Muzaffar

While the desire to improve the standard of English in the school system is commendable, some of the arguments made on behalf of the language in the media recently are deeply flawed. I shall focus briefly on three of them.

Some of the champions of an English medium school system have given the impression that such a school system is a panacea for all our ills. It is because of its English medium school system — they opine — that Singapore has made such remarkable progress. It is true that within the prevailing global capitalist order, Singapore has done well in terms of its ability to ensure a degree of economic prosperity for a significant segment of its population. This is due largely to its competent, dedicated political leadership, its effective implementation of public policies, its determination to curb corruption and its willingness to recognize and reward ability and excellence. The English medium school would be a minor factor in this accomplishment.

To appreciate this, one has to look at another ASEAN state which uses English widely within and without its education system. For decades the Philippines has been burdened with abject poverty, huge social disparities, and widespread corruption. Even in our case, it is problems such as the increasing gap between the ‘have-a-lot’ and the ‘have-a-little’ and corruption that we should be focusing upon.

It has also been argued that English medium education is vital for the mastery of science and technology. If we look at the list of nations that has developed a strong scientific foundation since the Second World War, the majority have done so through languages other than English. This would include countries such as China, South Korea and Cuba. Substantive investments in Research and Development (R&D), active promotion of patents, sustained support for academic research and the production of academic papers and continuous emphasis upon the creation of doctoral graduates in mathematics, science and engineering explain their success. Malaysia lags behind in all these spheres of scientific activity.

There is a third fallacy associated with the English medium school. It is said that such schools promoted national unity in the past. As I pointed out in an article dated May 27 2013, since a number of urban and semi-urban schools in the sixties had students from different ethnic backgrounds, there was some interaction across ethnic boundaries. Unfortunately, these schools became less and less multi-ethnic from the seventies onwards as more and more Chinese parents chose to send their children to Chinese medium primary schools. A negative attitude towards education in Bahasa Malaysia, declining standards in national schools from the late eighties and the transformation of many of these schools into preponderantly Malay- Muslim entities that have emphasized Islamic rituals since the nineties, would be among the reasons why Chinese, and to a lesser extent, Indian Malaysians, have abandoned Bahasa schools. It is because the schools both in terms of students and teachers have become mono-ethnic — and not because of the language medium — that they are no longer capable of promoting inter-ethnic interaction.

In fact, Malay as a language has a superb record of facilitating inter-ethnic interaction and integration reflected in its role in bringing diverse ethnic and sub-ethnic groups together in the entire Nusantara region over centuries. This is why it has been hailed by linguists as an outstanding example of a language of inter-ethnic communication. It was through the Malay language that small Chinese communities — the Peranakan — in pre-colonial Malaysia integrated into Malay society and even helped to shape Malay culture.

This is why we should be cautious about drawing superficial conclusions about either Malay or English and national unity. Wouldn’t it be silly to suggest that English is a language of disunity simply because the principal actors in the three major inter-ethnic eruptions that occurred in the late fifties and sixties — the MCA-UMNO crisis in 1959; the separation of Singapore from Malaysia in 1965; and the May 13th Riot in 1969 — were all English educated men, products of English medium schools?  It goes without saying that the real reasons for these eruptions were embedded in the socio-political environment of the time.

It underscores the importance of examining the challenge of the declining standard of English from a much broader and deeper perspective. Our general level of performance and competence as a nation and how it impacts upon the school system and how shortcomings in the school system have influenced the teaching and learning of English need to be addressed with sincerity. The National Education Blueprint for Schools (2013 -2025) comes to grips with some of the issues. But more has to be done to produce a generation of Malaysians who can function effectively in both Malay and English.


Dr. Chandra Muzaffar is the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Yayasan 1Malaysia.