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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Something Sensible From UMNO YOuth

Something Sensible From UMNO Youth

M. Bakri Musa


I am heartened that UMNO Youth supports the proposal that a pass in English be mandatory in securing the SPM certificate. I commend the organization in going further then merely supporting the proposition. Among others, UMNO Youth suggests increasing the number of English teachers in rural schools and hiring foreign native-speaking English teachers as well as those retired teachers trained under the old system and thus fluent in English.

I wish that UMNO Youth would be more daring and follow the example of its sister wing, UMNO Puteri, and support the continuation of the teaching of science and mathematics in English. I would also prefer that they would support the proposal making a pass in MUET be mandatory for university entrance. That notwithstanding, the stand taken by these two junior UMNO organizations is in stark contrast to that taken by Pakatan Rakyat partners.

Supporting or adopting a policy is one thing; effectively implementing it is entirely another. This is where our leaders and institutions have failed us miserably. And when they fail in executing a policy effectively, the blame would go not on these ineffective and incompetent officials but on the policy itself. This makes the later resurrection of an otherwise sound policy that much more difficult.

The policy of teaching of science and mathematics in English is a prime example of this. When Prime Minister Mahathir introduced it in 2003, I suggested that it be implemented in stages, beginning first with our residential schools. There the students are generally brighter, teachers more well trained, and facilities much superior. It would be much easier to work out the inevitable kinks like the availability of teachers and textbooks in such a controlled environment. When those issues are resolved, the program could then be extended.

As for textbooks, I suggested that instead of wasting time and effort at re-inventing the wheel, meaning retranslating existing texts in Malay into English, we should buy already available modern textbooks in English from established global publishers. With the ministry’s purchasing clout (we were looking at literally hundreds of thousands of copies) it should be able to secure substantial discounts.

Additionally we should convert some existing teachers’ training colleges into exclusively English-medium institutions. Recognizing that the language skills of new teacher trainees were highly deficient, I suggested that they be given a year of English-immersion classes combined with improving their science and mathematics before they enter teacher training.

As an added enticement, prepare the more talented students to take the American SAT examination and send the high scorers to top universities in America. With their now enhanced language skills as well superior proficiency in science and mathematics, they would be more than well-prepared for the SAT.

We all recognize that the teaching of science and mathematics is not the best way to enhance the English proficiency of our students. It would however ease their acquisition of new scientific knowledge; we cannot depend on translations because of the inevitable time lag.

Consequently, in addition to teaching science and mathematics in English I suggested also teaching one or two other subjects in English. My prime candidate would be Islamic Studies because of its high language content as well as the increasing number of literature now written in English. Next to Arabic, English is now the most important language in Islam. As an added bonus, it would also broaden our students’ understanding of our faith. It would also attract others whose mother tongue is not Malay to learn about Islam.

Similarly in making MUET mandatory for university admission, I would introduce the policy incrementally. To begin with, those currently qualified to enter sans a pass in MUET be given a year or two to make up their deficiency. Meaning they would have to defer their admission until they pass their MUET. They would be more likely to make up their deficiency if they were to concentrate only on improving their English.

Incidentally, taking a year or two off between high school and university is now fast becoming very popular with American students. They use that hiatus to travel, acquire specific skills, or just to earn some money for college.
Had our leaders and officials done these (and many others) our students today – particularly Malays – would have enhanced English language skills as well as superior proficiency in science and mathematics. That in turn would enhance their value in the market place, quite apart from making them more educated in the broadest sense of the word.

Most importantly, we would not again be distracted by yet another unneeded major controversy in our education policy.


All Is Not Lost

All is not lost, however; we could still recover from our initial fumble by being better prepared this time. Consider the proposal to hire retired and foreign teachers.

If we hire any Australian or British teacher without carefully scrutinizing their abilities then we would not advance the policy. Apart from having the necessary academic qualifications, these teachers must also demonstrate an ability to be free from what is euphemistically termed thick “mother tongue influence” (accent). This is a major problem with teachers and lecturers we recruited from India and Pakistan. Similarly, a teacher with a thick Cockney or outback accent would be equally incomprehensible in our classrooms.

I suggest that we recruit teachers from English Canada or Midwestern United States because they speak as close as possible to what is termed standard or international English. Another equally good and much cheaper source would be Eastern Europe. Learning another language is tough; there is no need to burden our young in trying to decipher a thick Cockney, Australian, or for that matter, a heavy Southern accent.

Having Polish teachers serves another advantage; I am amazed how well Polish students could speak English even though that is not their mother tongue. They do not even have an accent. Their success and experience could help our students overcome their own problems of learning a second language.

Recruiting retired teachers too presents its own sets of problems. As they speak English well, their presence would only expose the glaring inadequacies of current teachers. This would not sit well with them, especially the headmasters. When talking to these retired teachers, the greatest obstacle they face (apart from the bureaucratic hoops the have to undergo) is the unwelcome attitude of their current colleagues. To overcome this we need to give financial incentives for headmasters to recruit these retired teachers or find ways to overcome the resistance of the current teaching personnel.

Regardless, when we do recruit these retired and foreign teachers, we must ensure that they are not assigned alone to a particular school. We must have at least five or six of them at any one school. In that way they could find mutual support for each other and because of their “critical mass,” they could influence the students and the rest of the teachers.

Attention to these details is important to a policy’s success. If our officials ignore them or are not diligent when implementing the policy, it would surely fail. Then we would end up again with never-ending controversies and divisiveness.

The current controversy over the teaching of science and mathematics in English is not due to the inherent defect of the policy (on the contrary it is a sound policy) rather its implementation had been botched by our incompetent officials. Let us ensure that we do a better job in trying to enhance the English skills of our students.

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