Monday, June 29, 2009

My Thoughts on PPSMI

The debate on the teaching of Science and Mathematics in English
(PPSMI) has raged on for years now, and it appears that the Government
finally going to take a clear stance either way. Latched on to by
political parties, fervent NGOs and the general public at large, this
issue has seen many Malaysians holding a firm opinion – splitting us
right in the middle – making this issue what abortion is to America.

With such politicisation, rationality sometimes takes a backseat.
Problems that have cropped up are exclusively due to
implementation shortcomings, and for that PPSMI may have to be
‘postponed’ but it should never be written off completely.

Allow me to explain my position. First in our minds when thinking of
the future is the fact that we cannot isolate Malaysia or Malays –
whom many wrongly single out as the biggest losers of PPSMI – from the
world. Be it the agendum of obtaining wholesome education or
increasing economic competitiveness, mastery of English is essential.
As it is, we are already being overly-dependent on foreign workers.
They may be at present populating low-paying jobs, but indications
show that if we are nonchalant about our own worker productivity,
locals will rapidly lose value in the eyes of employers. For example,
in the service sector – one that offers hardly ‘odd-jobs’ and will
increasingly dominate our GDP-share – is already seeing an influx of
foreign labour for little other reason that that they can converse in
English better than locals (read: Malays). This is part of a
long-established trend where transnational corporations are simply not
employing graduates and workers who are not proficient in English.
Problem is, whilst before we could insulate our economic activity at
relatively great lengths, today we rely on the international economy
in ways previously unimaginable, doubling the importance of speaking
the international language.

In other words we must understand that in a globalised and borderless
economic system, the unspoken principle of Social Darwinism is taking
a foothold. Thus, with English being so central to long-term success and
competitiveness, we are left with little choice but to ramp up the
quality of English amongst the general populace. There is nothing more
important than staying connected with the rest of the world, as only
by making sure we are linked with the different agents in the system
that is the international community can we hope to make progress and
avoid missing the boat.

Considering the urgency of the task at hand, Malaysians being what
they are, need to be subjected the ‘shock doctrine’.
But as foreshadowed earlier, the structure and institutional setup to
make PPSMI work, have not been what they needed to be. For PPSMI to
really work, there needs to be a serious relook at the courses for
Bachelor of Education and Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL)
and a revamp of the Postgraduate Teaching Course (KPLI). Evidently,
local universities have failed to produce teachers adequately able to
educate schoolchildren from different backgrounds who have differing
levels of proficiency in English to begin with. As for existing
teachers who have done much to educate our young, the Government
should also set up and institute for them to increase their own
proficiency in English.

I am not ignorant of the fact that these measures take time to yield
effect, and this has been the Achilles heel of PPSMI. But in the
meantime, the curriculum should be tweaked to introduce a softer
approach to the issue by teaching ‘lighter’ subjects like Music, PE
and Art in English in primary school, which will hopefully result in
us having a generation of educators battle ready for PPSMI as they
would have much better control over the language and confidence.
Recruiting retired English teachers is also a step to make our
education system English-friendly – their presence would also help
more junior teachers learn the ropes.

As for the linguistic nationalists out there, Bahasa Malaysia will
always be the national language and will still be very prominent as a
medium of instruction and as a subject if only we could be
enthusiastic enough to introduce a more holistic content. Bahasa
Malaysia is a rich language that is arguably glossed over by not
giving sufficient attention to Malay literature (sastera) and its contemporary
usage. A simple measure such as merging Malay literature and BM into
one subject taught from primary to secondary would be a step in the
right direction. Here, the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage must
play a role too to ensure that Bahasa Malaysia in its capacity as a
major Malay cultural capital does not dissipate or find appreciation
in it diluted. Furthermore, subjects such as History, Trade,
Economics, Geography, and of course Agama Islam, as well as vocational
subjects will remain taught in BM. Fundamentally, there should not be
any doubt that a system of dual language in education can work just
fine - countries like Singapore and the Netherlands have proven that
it is no barrier to economic progress.

It is high time we quit lying to our own people about what is good for
them. For certain subjects, English is essential and teaching them in
any other language would mean not teaching them properly at all.
Regardless of whether we view education as being for education’s sake
or for national economic returns, English must be more prominent in
the education system – PPSMI, even if discontinued this year, must
return sometime in the near future once our institutions are ready for

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

PAS Elections: A struggle for the party’s conscience

I distinctly remember, in the leadup to the Umno Elections, an analyst
in a mainstream newspaper writing that the contests were one for the
conscience of the party, as much as for positions. Whilst I do not
deny that the Assembly in March staged hallmark elections for a party
facing the largest challenge ever to its political dominance, one can
scarcely find any indication that the contests were reflections of an
ideological divide. The only prospective similarity between the two
events is the allegations of money politics.

In Umno, when the candidates stood against each other, they
were voted for based on the perceived relative abilities, and not
because they symbolised distinct, mutually exclusive ideologies –
parties within a party, if you like.

The same cannot be said of the upcoming PAS Elections. As the junior
partner in the makeshift Pakatan Rakyat coalition, PAS as a party
appears to be much less comfortable with the changes to the political
scene compared to its PR comrades. It is almost as though that now it
finds itself, as some say, on the cusp of power, the party is confused
and riddled with internal disagreements about how exactly to go about

Nowhere is this more apparent than the three-way contest for the post
of Deputy President, between incumbent Nasharuddin Mat Isa, Husam
Musa, and Mat Sabu. The important subscript to this contest is that it
is viewed as an internal referendum on two factions: those aligned to
the pro-muqabalah and those inclined to the pro-Pakatan Rakyat Erdogan
group. Crucially, this proxy battle is really not about a battle
between individuals or personalities; it is instead a genuine battle
of ideas. Thus, there is no mistaking the ideological rift within PAS,
a problem on a scale non-existent within Umno since its founding
father Dato’ Onn Jaafar wanted to open Umno up to non-Malays.

Notwithstanding the internal rift, Should Nasharuddin win as expected,
it would signal a PAS still significantly resistant to the unholy
trinity with DAP and PKR. The Anwar-chum Husam, on the other hand, is
fighting for his political survival in PAS, with an unlikely victory
certainly spelling a more coherent Pakatan Rakyat under the de facto
leadership of Anwar, much to Umno’s annoyance. But if the result of
the Youth Head post is anything to go by, conservatives within the
party appear adamant to remain in it comfort zone – one synonymous
with ulama, Islamist and Malay. The new head Nasaruddin Tantawi is as
conservative as they come – best described as the PAS version of a
Khir Toyo had the latter won the post of Umno Youth Chief. The depth
of the aforementioned ideological split is reflected by the recent
cynical remark by Nasaruddin who told Husam to run for the Presidency
to ‘correct’ the party – the implication being that Husam is viewed by
the muqabalah faction as a radical element dangerous to the purity of
the party’s conscience. In the sphere of reapolitik, the fact that
Husam is out of favour with PAS Youth would also mean that should he
lose in the contest, Anwar will likely have no qualms about leaving
him for dead - the latter will not support an individual who cannot
promise the voting bloc amongst the PAS-inclined younger generation.

There is thus no overstating the gravity of the choice facing the PAS
delegates during the Muktamar. For them, it is not about who can do
the job better. It is about who symbolises what, and this in and of
itself suggests PAS is a party ill at ease with itself.