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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
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, May 17, 2009

Enhance, Not Review Language Policy

Enhance, Not Review Language Switch Policy
M. Bakri Musa
(Malaysiakini.com May 8, 2009)

Minister of Education Muhyuddin Yassin is doing our nation a great disservice in further delaying the critical decision on the of teaching science and mathematics in English (TSME, or its Malay acronym, PPSMI –Pengajaran dan Pembelajaran Sains dan Matematik Dalam Bahasa Inggeris) in our schools. His indecision merely compounds the uncertainty, especially among educators, parents and students.

What he should be doing instead is to explore ways of enhancing the implementation of the policy, not review it. He should be focusing on finding ways to get more competent teachers, explore innovative teaching techniques, and provide inexpensive textbooks. He should also be busy eliminating such expensive but ineffective teaching gimmicks as the “computerized teaching modules” with their laptops and LCDs that our teachers are unable to handle. Those machines are now either stolen or crashed because of viruses and dust.

The conditions of our students today have not changed from 2003 when the policy was first introduced. If any they are worse. Whatever the rationale was for adopting the policy back in 2003, it is still very much valid today.

Today’s many critics of the policy are latecomers. Where were they when the policy was first mooted six years ago? These critics have yet to answer the basic question on whether the policy itself is flawed or that the deficiencies are with its implementation. They are unable to answer this important question as they are entirely confused over the issue. Their opposition is based more on emotions rather than rational thinking.

Consider the joint statement of our five living National Laureates in Literature. First, the facts they cited were clearly erroneous. Stating that most Nobel Prize winners are from non-English-speaking countries is not only incorrect but missed the essential point that most of those luminaries are English literate. Similarly our National Laureates’ plea that we should emulate the Scandinavian countries missed the important point that their students and citizens are all fluently bilingual if not multilingual, with English being the most common second language. Indeed we should emulate the Scandinavian countries and ensure that our students are truly bilingual.

The Laureates’s concerns are grossly misguided. No one is questioning the status of the Malay language, or its importance in nation building. We all subscribe to that. It is unclear from their statement whether they are against our students learning a second language or against English as that second language.

They went on to make the totally irrelevant point that Mandarin would soon replace English as the most widely spoken language. Having made that observation, they failed to follow up on it. That is, even the Chinese government is now encouraging, no, forcing their students to learn English.

These laureates and other critics missed the essence of the current policy, which is to enhance our students’ ability to read and understand English. It is not the policy’s intention that we should learn English at the expense of Malay. In short, the policy aims to expand our students’ intellectual horizon, not curtail it.

The laureates’ muddled thinking only produces only muddled conclusions.

In truth, it is too early to pass any judgment on the wisdom of the policy. Any policy, especially one pertaining to education and social matters, takes time to discern its effects. To evaluate this policy credibly, one would need to let at least three to five cohorts of students finish the program. Meaning, a time period of about 15 years! Consider that we are only now recognizing the damaging effects of our educational reforms that were introduced back in the 1970s!

Yet we have “researchers” from the Universiti Perguruan Sultan Idris (UPSI) confidently declaring the policy “ineffective” barely four years after the policy was implemented. Earlier, just a few months after the policy’s adoption, a Ministry of Education’s “study” pronounced the remarkable “improvement” in test scores of our students taught under the new program. Who do these folks think they are kidding?

I could not get a copy of the Ministry’s paper, but I have the UPSI professors’. Suffice to say that it would never appear in the pages of refereed journals, except perhaps the Ulu Langat Bulletin of Education. Frankly if I had been an academic, I would be embarrassed to append my name to such a shoddy paper.

This policy would not have triggered its many belated critics had the leadership showed more resolve and greater commitment. They became vociferous and assertive only when former Minister of Education Hishamuddin misguidedly re-opened the issue. Why he did it is best left for him to answer, but I venture that the then looming UMNO leadership contest had plenty to do with it. Old Hishamuddin needed to display his nationalistic manhood once again, especially after the spectacular flop of his earlier unsheathing the keris.

Flawed Implementation

I have not seen any change in the Ministry of Education operations since or in response to the adoption of the policy. I would have thought that at least there would be a dozen English-medium teachers’ training colleges by now to provide for the necessary trained teachers. Likewise our universities should be expanding the number of classes in science and mathematics taught in English so there would be an ample supply of graduate teachers competent to implement the new policy.

Similarly, the ministry should have by now commissioned textbook writers and publishers. Failing that, I would have expected these officials to be contracting with established foreign publishers to buy their texts.

The fact that none of these measures have been undertaken reflects incompetence or lack of commitment to the new policy, or both. The fault then lies not with the policy but with those entrusted with the awesome responsibilities of carrying it out.

Those Malay language nationalists and other strident critics of TSME fail to recognize one glaring reality. That is, our current educational policy is failing our students and our nation. Those who can or have other options for their children have already abandoned our system. We see this especially among the non-Malays. Increasingly, more and more Malays are also following suit. This leaves those poor village folks who have no other choice; they are trapped in the current system. And they are almost all Malays. They are the ones left out, victimized by their own kind, the language nationalists on one side and the incompetent education bureaucrats on the other.

If not for the public sector and the various GLCs acting as employers of last resort, graduates of our current educational system would simply be without jobs. There is however, a limit to the government’s capacity as employer, and we are already way beyond that point.

For a society to advance, it must first come to terms with itself. A major part of that exercise involves recognizing our own weaknesses, for unless we acknowledge that we cannot even begin to overcome them. Malays must recognize that a major problem with our community is that we are not competitive, not even in our native land let alone the global arena. A major contributor to this sorry state of affairs is our defective education system that continues to produce graduates who have abysmal language and mathematical skills, as well as being science illiterate.

We have completely indoctrinated our young and ourselves with a “zero-sum mentality,” that learning another language could only come at the expense of our own. Worse, we have gone further and mentally programmed our young that fluency in another language is not an asset but an expression of hatred for one’s own. In so doing, we exposed our own collective limited intellectual capacity, and an inability to expand it. That is the sorry part.

We are only deluding our young by appealing to their base emotions. Exhortations of Ketuanan Melayu will never make them competitive or guarantee them a place under the sun, not even the sun in our Tanah Melayu. Unless we are competitive, we cannot survive, let alone be Tuan. On the other hand when we are competitive, we would be Tuan even in lands other than Tanah Melayu.

The other part of the exercise involves our willingness to learn from others, especially those more advanced. The ancient Arabs learned from the Greeks, the medieval Europeans from the Arabs, and the Japanese from the West. It saddens me that our luminaries by their actions and words are sending precisely the wrong message to our young. That is, we have nothing to learn from others.

Our political leaders are too preoccupied with their own short-term political survival and gamesmanship instead of leading the way forward. Unfortunately our children’s children will bear the burden of our current leaders’ stupidities.


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