Police, media and the majority Malay Malaysian crowd during the GMP gathering on 7 March 2009
PERHAPS the easiest observation one could make about the Gerakan Mansuhkan PPSMI (GMP) gathering on 7 March 2009 is that it was mono-cultural.
While there were representatives from Chinese-language education proponents in the thousands-strong crowd, these numbered in the mere double-digits. Tamil educationists were absent altogether. The crowd was overwhelmingly ethnic Malay Malaysian, sporting banners saying: “Bangsa Melayu, Bahasa Malaysia”.
Many were young men, sporting kopiahs. As often as not, their chants were Islamic refrains. And when the riot police started firing tear gas at the marchers, the expletive of choice was “laknat!” — a curse with religious connotations.
The way discourse within the anti-ETeMS (English for Teaching Mathematics and Science policy) movement is being perverted is best symbolised by the words of the poet and columnist Che Shamsuddin Othman, better known as Dinsman. On 24 Feb 2009, in a speech at a forum on the issue, Dinsman said if the policy to teach maths and science in English continued, the Malays would lose their language and religion.
Isahak Harun (Source: dbp.gov.my) The GMP has legitimate worries, backed by scholarly data. The memorandum the group submitted to Parliament on 17 Feb 2009 cites three studies by academics — including one by Emeritus Prof Datuk Isahak Haron of Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris (Upsi).
Conducted in January 2008, the study observed Standard Five students in 28 schools, and polled 1,692 teachers, in an effort to divine the efficacy of the ETeMS policy. Its conclusion? The policy wasn’t working. It was even detrimental to students, especially ethnic Malay Malaysians and Orang Asli children from rural schools.
According to the study, one of the reasons why ETeMS was not working was because “many teachers themselves are too weak” in their grasp of English to “clearly and comfortably explain” scientific or mathematical concepts. A summary of the study, presented during one of the roundtable discussions on the issue in 2008, recommended a two-fold solution:
Revert to the Malay language as the medium of instruction for the two subjects, as the majority of Malaysian teachers and students are already proficient with the language.
Allocate more time for the teaching of the English language, and look for ways to improve its instruction.
The GMP, in its memorandum, echoed those recommendations, and advocated for a more holistic teaching of English, including an emphasis on English literature as part of the curriculum. The group has been careful to stress that it is not “anti-English language” or “Malay language-crazy”.
Upsi director Prof Abdullah Hassan, part of the GMP organising committee, couched the issue in pedagogical terms, stating that the transfer of knowledge is best done in one’s mother tongue.
Although Abdullah thought that Malay should be given preference, as it is the national language, he considered it a separate issue. As an educationist, he supported the cause of mother-tongue education. “If some of us want to learn in Mandarin, we have no problem,” Abdullah maintained.
“The issue is that we are teaching knowledge in a language 90% of our students don’t know,” said GMP chairperson Datuk Dr Hassan Ahmad at the launch of the movement.
Hassan Ahmad Hassan also brought class into the argument, saying that those most disadvantaged by ETeMS are students from the rural poor, who lack the privilege of growing up in homes where they are exposed to English, as opposed to those in urban areas.
Unfortunately, these nuances and statistics-backed reasoning against ETeMS are being superseded by reactionary rhetoric. The issue is rapidly becoming a rallying cry for Malay-Muslim supremacists, as evidenced by Dinsman’s leaps of logic.
Additionally, the participation of political parties such as PAS is not helping to steer the issue back to shore.
At a GMP-organised forum in the lead-up to 7 March, figures like PAS president Datuk Seri Hadi Awang received applause when he said that “the cause of the disappearance of the Malay language are Malay leaders themselves … their actions are damned!”
Teras president Mohd Azmi Abdul Hamid, who also spoke, called for the abolition of “that faction” — meaning Umno — and said the planned gathering would be a way to show up “leaders who were race traitors”.
Conversely, when Parti Keadilan Rakyat deputy president Dr Syed Husin Ali noted that support of the Chinese and Indian Malaysian communities would be vital in making the movement a success, he received the least applause. Rational voices like Syed Husin were rare during the forum.
Is it any wonder, then, that when the march to the palace on 7 March began in earnest, few non-Malay Malaysian faces were spotted in the crowd? According to the prevailing rhetoric, it was no longer a pan-communal fight for mother-tongue education, but a Malay-Muslim wrestle for racial pride.
Perhaps many are also subconsciously connecting their discomfort about ETeMS with suggestions to abolish vernacular schools. For instance, the controversial proposal by Umno’s Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir to abolish vernacular schools in toto, which was shot down by the MCA, Gerakan, and eventually by Umno president-elect Datuk Seri Najib Razak.
Divisions on the other side
But those who support ETeMS are also divided along similar ethno-nationalist lines.
On one hand, there are the Malay nationalists who appear to be aligned with Umno. Hence, organisations such as Pewaris Permuafakatan Islam and the Muslim Consumers Association strongly back the ETeMS policy, precisely on the grounds of Malay nationalism.
Defence of ETeMS for them goes hand in hand with defence of the special position of Malay Malaysians and Islam as the state religion.
The justifications that this faction of Malay nationalists uses are no different from that used by other proponents of ETeMS. Firstly, they talk about improving students’ access to the latest advances in mathematics and science; and secondly, improving students’ command of the English language. Of course, ETeMS critics have demolished these two arguments.
Mukhriz actually opened wider a Pandora’s box that has not really been closed yet. In fact, by suggesting what he did, he also invited the likes of renowned Chinese Malaysian educationist Datuk Khoo Kay Kim to peer into the box. And Khoo’s response has provoked even more discomfort among Chinese-language educationists — the subtext of the criticisms against Khoo being that he is a self-hating Chinese.
Khoo (Pic by Hafiz Noor Shams) But Khoo’s argument for defining “mother-tongue” education deserves deeper discussion. He does not dismiss the individual’s basic right to or need for “mother-tongue” preservation.
But, he says, “Tamil is not the mother tongue of every Indian [Malaysian]. The Bengalis, Punjabis, Malayalees and Telegus have their own mother tongues. In Sarawak and Sabah, the indigenous people have numerous mother tongues.”
Hence, Khoo is asking a deeper question about whose interests are actually being served in this debate on language in education. For example, when Chinese educationists define “mother-tongue” education as Chinese students of various dialect groups being taught solely in Mandarin, what are they actually promoting?
Digging deeper into this Pandora’s box, we come to the heart and soul of the ETeMS debate: how then can we build a nation of capable, intelligent Malaysians? It is clear from the heightened discourse on ETeMS that language is a major polarising factor.
Chinese-language educationist Dr Kua Kia Soong has stressed that language itself is not polarising. It is only when it becomes a lightning rod for racial politics that language becomes divisive.
Kua The basis of Kua’s thinking, therefore, is that it is not what language we choose to teach Malaysian students in, but the content we teach in that language. In other words, one can teach racism in either Malay, Chinese, Tamil, or English. But it is just as possible to impart values that embrace diversity and national unity in any of these languages.
By extension, it is also possible to teach science and mathematics in any student’s mother tongue and teach them well, while ensuring that proficiency in English is not compromised.
But is the reverse true? That all Malaysian students can effectively be taught mathematics and science in English, without compromising either their cognitive development or their command of their mother-tongue languages?
These questions can only be answered five to 10 years from now by the very students who have been affected by this policy. But until then, the ETeMS discussion points towards one unalterable fact: 46 years after the birth of Malaysia, we are still trying to figure out how to make Malaysians.
See also: Teaching in English: Do or don’t