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