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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, March 25, 2012

Reforming Education: Fixing Kampong Schools

Reforming Education: Part One – Fixing Kampong Schools
M. Bakri Musa

(First of Six Parts)

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Education Muhyiddin Yassin promised to release his “thorough review” of our schools by yearend. I hope that he, his officials, and the slew of expensive consultants he hired will pay attention to the unique challenges facing three particular groups of students: those in our kampong schools, residential schools, and those university-bound with their post-Form Five dilemma.

I will cover these three issues in the order presented. I had earlier critiqued and put forth my recommendations on improving the whole system in my book, An Education System Worthy of Malaysia (2003).

There is no shortage of reviews, thorough and otherwise, of our education system. Unfortunately, just as the recommendations of one new policy were being implemented, there would follow, just as surely as a burp after a roti canai breakfast, a stunning reversal soon thereafter. Unlike a burp where only stale gas would be expelled, with a policy reversal the whole earlier content would be vomited out. It is enough to keep the heads of our pupils and teachers spinning, further distracting and confusing them. A prime example would be the language of instruction for science and mathematics.

In addition to the confusions and distractions from these frequent policy reversals, kampong pupils in particular are further burdened by a triad of formidable obstacles that have remained unresolved for decades despite the multitude of reforms. Incidentally as these pupils are Malays, they should be of particular concern to UMNO, Perkasa, and other champions of Ketuanan Melayu types. On a more general level, Malaysia cannot become developed if a major segment of its population – its rural youths – are deprived of quality education. That is quite apart from the racial implications.

It is pathetic if not reprehensible that after nearly three years as Minister of Education it is only now that Muhyiddin is aware of the glaring achievement gaps between rural and urban schools. He discovered this from perusing the results of the recently-released Sijil Persekutuan Malaysia (Form Five) examination. Muhyiddin’s ignorance is even more incomprehensible considering that he is the product of a rural school. That could only indicate sheer bumbling incompetence or gross dereliction of duty.

As usual, his answer to the crisis was simply a promise to develop a “ten-year master plan” to “transform” (that favorite word again!) rural schools. By the time that committee is formed he would be busy campaigning or scheming to take over Prime Minister Najib’s job, and our rural students would be back to where they are today – ignored.

The challenges confronting kampong students are many and obvious. One is their persistent low English proficiency; two, their less-than-conducive intellectual environment at home and in the community due largely to poverty; and three, inadequate schools and less-than-superior teachers.

The government cannot easily ameliorate their poverty and lack of intellectual stimulation at home and in the community. The authorities can however, compensate for those deficiencies by improving the other two factors. That is, enhance their English fluency specifically and give them superior education through better schools, enriched curriculum, and competent teachers. That will be the pupils’ sure ticket out of poverty. From there they could then change for the better their families’ and communities’ intellectual and socio-cultural environment. This has been proven in different societies and at different times.

Those who continually harp on changing culture as the effective route towards improving educational achievement or ameliorating poverty have it backward. This does not mean that familial and social factors are unimportant in a child’s education; they are. However it is considerably much easier to improve the child’s education first; the results and impact would also be more readily apparent and measured.

Enhancing English Proficiency

There are two immediate and practical reasons for improving the English proficiency of our kampong students. One is to enhance their employability. In today’s world, the least advantaged (or most disadvantaged) are those who can speak only one language, and that language is other than English. This is true whether that language is Malay, Mandarin, or Swahili. The most advantaged are those who are bilingual, with one of the languages being English.

For kampong youths, there is another equally relevant reason for enhancing their English fluency, and that is to increase their self confidence. A major handicap for kampong youths is their lack of self confidence. Increase their proficiency in English and watch their confidence grow. This is more effective than repeatedly reveling in our imagined glorious past during Hang Tuah’s time, or proudly proclaiming our special status under the constitution, as the Perkasa folks are wont to do.

This special aura of the English language is attributable only in a small part to our colonial legacy. English is now effectively the global language of commerce and science. We ignore this reality at our peril. Even China is recognizing this, even though Mandarin is being spoken by more people in the world.

Enhancing English fluency cannot be achieved through endlessly exhorting the young to “study harder” or haranguing them on the importance of that language, but by increasing the hours of instruction in that language and providing these pupils with competent teachers.

That was one reason for the earlier policy (now reversed) of teaching science and mathematics in English. We could just as easily simply increased the number of hours devoted to English, or teach other subjects with high language content such as history or Moral Studies in English. Elsewhere I suggested teaching Islamic Studies in English, or even establishing English-language Islamic schools. English-language Islamic schools would break a major psychological barrier for Malays to learning English: its negative association with Christianity, again a legacy of colonialism.

In Japan, English is taught throughout the entire school years right from pre-school, yet its students remain hopelessly crippled in that language, as with our kampong students. The reason is clear. Both the Japanese and our kampong students have little opportunity to exercise their English skills at home and in the community.

Native English-speaking pupils in Western Canada learning French, the country’s second official language, face the same challenge as that language is not widely used in the community. One of their solutions is French immersion classes, during summer holidays or the first few years of school.

We could adopt a similar approach in the kampongs by having kindergarten and the first few years of primary school totally in English. As the usage of Malay is high at home and in the community, and as these students are also Malays, it is unlikely for them to forget their native tongue. This was how Tun Razak learned English prior to his enrollment at Malay College. This was also the basis for the Special Malay Classes during colonial times and the Remove Classes of Tun Razak’s policy. They were all highly effective.

This was also how Malays of my generation learned English. We were, in a manner of speaking, in total immersion classes throughout our school years. In my book An Education System Worthy of Malaysia I specifically call for establishing these English-medium schools in rural areas.

Malays like me certainly did not lose our native language skills as a consequence of attending English schools. Indeed many of the seminal contributions to Malay literature have been from Malays educated entirely in English. Pendita Za’aba and National Literary Laureates Shahnon Ahmad and Muhammad Haji Salleh are shining examples.

Next: Part Two: The Challenge of Providing Teachers


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