THE English language is now promoting interethnic unity in Malaysia, albeit unintentionally. Malay, Chinese and Tamil educationists who were once natural enemies have now joined forces to oppose the English for Teaching Mathematics and Science (ETeMS) policy.
Politically, leaders in the Barisan Nasional (BN) are divided on whether to continue the policy, while the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) is solidly behind the call to scrap it. However, it can’t be ruled out that a new consensus may emerge after the Umno party elections.
Some of the members of Gerakan Mansuhkan PPSMI, which was launched on 31 Jan 2009 and comprises
50 organisations opposing the teaching of maths and science in English
The standard of English has deteriorated in Malaysia, over the past decade, while the English language is enjoying increasing importance in a globalising world. Taking both these factors into consideration, isn’t the call to abolish ETeMS and reinstate the old status quo irrational and irresponsible? I don’t think so.
A flawed policy
While the policy’s opponents have not been able to offer superior alternatives to convince a divided public, ETeMS is essentially flawed and must go.
The main argument justifying ETeMS is that since the bulk of knowledge in science and mathematics is produced in English, learning these subjects in English would allow students to acquire knowledge directly without depending on translations.
Why is this argument flawed? Well, not every student intends to become a mathematician or scientist, so not everyone needs to comprehend mathematics and science publications in English.
The policy would be fine if it did not entail any costs, e.g. if switching the teaching of these subjects to English did not affect the ability of weaker or non-English-speaking students in mastering these subjects.
This, however, is clearly not true. It is self-evident that one’s ability to learn depends on one’s ability to understand what is being taught. This is the argument for mother-tongue education, in a nutshell.
But teaching science and mathematics in English to all students of varying abilities has inevitably entailed a sacrifice of the general standard of these two subjects. Does this benefit the country in the long run? Criticisms that the standard of these two subjects has been artificially lowered speak volumes of the magnitude of this problem. So, why don’t we have different policies catered for students of different aptitudes and endowments?
There is another argument, even more flawed, that justifies ETeMS: the more students are exposed to the English language, the more their mastery of the language will improve.
(Pic by skol22 / sxc.hu) Let’s take this argument to its logical conclusion. Let’s look at arts and commerce students — these kids do not need to study science and mathematics beyond a certain level. Science-stream students, however, are normally required to take some humanities subjects even at university level.
So, if students need to be “exposed” more to the English language, ETeMS should really be redirected to focus on history, geography and religious or moral education subjects. Why force the right medicine down the throat of the wrong patient?
A dishonest policy
An honest analysis will show that the policy prescription should never have been about teaching mathematics and science in English for all education streams. The arguments supporting ETeMS have not developed into logical, systematic implementation. In fact, the two arguments used to justify ETeMS are mutually contradictory.
For example, following the argument that science and mathematics literature is mostly in English, science-stream education should have logically been fully converted to English with the status quo retained for all other streams.
But following the argument that students should be more “exposed” to ideas in English, it is the medium of instruction of the humanities subjects that should have been switched to English.
These policy options are actually quite logical. But they have been taken out of the public debate because they are not politically viable. This in turn suggests the two arguments are actually spurious.
For example, if we had converted science-stream education to English in toto, we would eventually be creating a linguistically defined class division in society.
Not unlike colonial times, command of English would determine one’s opportunity to be a doctor, an engineer, an architect, a computer programmer, or an IT tycoon. Eventually, it would determine one’s acceptance into the economic and sociopolitical elite. Clearly, this position is political suicide for politicians, especially the Malay nationalists from Umno.
On the other hand, if we had instead switched the language of instruction of the humanities subjects to English, we would have had to face two difficult scenarios. Firstly, would improvement of students’ command of English have been achieved at the expense of a general deterioration of academic standards in the humanities? If yes, would the policy have been worth it?
Secondly, and more importantly, no matter how important English has become globally, would we need the entire nation to be conversant in English, even at the price of academic regression?
Students in school. What are the costs of having English as the main language of instruction?
(© Lexa_Lotus; source: Flickr)
Why this dishonesty?
The policy question before us is actually very simple. There are three factors to take into account.
Firstly, we need to improve the general standard of English for all students, and produce some students with an excellent command of English.
Secondly, any policy should not cause academic standards to decline, especially among students who are socioeconomically disadvantaged; for instance, those from poorer backgrounds and rural schools.
Thirdly, any policy should not marginalise the national language and other mother-tongue languages such that Malaysia loses its national character and multilingual advantage.
What’s the solution? Revive English-medium schools, alongside the existing Malay, Chinese and Tamil-language streams. Parents who want their children to learn all non-language subjects in English can then have a choice, instead of turning to the mushrooming private and international schools.
Why then has this simple and straightforward solution not been pursued?
First, it would mean that the decision to convert English-medium schools into Malay-medium schools beginning in 1975 was wrong. Incidentally, it was Tun Dr Mahathir Mohammad who was education minister when this language-switch policy sentenced English-medium education to death. Nearly three decades later, it was Mahathir again who wanted to switch back to English-language education for science and mathematics.
(© Stillfx / Dreamstime)Secondly, and more importantly, if English schools are revived, they would likely attract students from stronger socioeconomic backgrounds. Malay-, Tamil- and to a lesser extent, Chinese-medium schools might eventually be reduced to inferior education providers, inviting the wrath of ethno-nationalists from every community.
By sacrificing academic standards across the board, ETeMS avoids such political embarrassment and covers up the real need to beef up English-language education for the weaker students in all streams.
In a nutshell, this policy is political expediency at its worst.
The main casualties are now weaker students from poorer families and rural schools. Most of them will learn little in mathematics and sciences with minimal, if any, improvement in their command of English. These underperforming students are likely to fill up the lowest paid jobs in future, hence frustrating upward social mobility.
However, students from more advantaged backgrounds suffer, too. They learn less mathematics and science than they otherwise would because the current standard for the two subjects needs to be lowered to produce evidence of success. They also cannot learn other non-language subjects in English if they want to.
The win-win solution
The ETeMS debate, now framed as a “yes” or “no” dichotomy, is effectively a tug of war between the pro-English elites and other Malaysians.
The policy must go if we do not want continued injustice towards more students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Reverting to the old status quo is however not tenable. It would deny both the nation’s developmental needs and the preference of pro-English parents and students.
But we need not be caught between two false choices.
Reviving English schools will not only meet the need of improving the standard of English in a purely utilitarian sense. It also fits the argument for upholding mother-tongue education — English is, after all, increasingly the mother tongue of Malaysians of all ethnic backgrounds, whether Malay, Chinese, Indian, Dayak, Kadazandusun, or Eurasian.
What about national unity? This is a question that may be asked by supporters of ETeMS as a gradualist method to eliminate multi-stream education.
The answer is again straightforward. Firstly, a single-stream education system could not possibly maximise the use of the English language for every single student anyway. One must thus choose between better, albeit varying, standards of English for everyone or the homogenisation of the education system.
Secondly, blaming communal division mainly on the education system is intellectually lazy and unreflective. Intercommunal solidarity is built not through homogenisation, but through cleavages that cut across communal lines. How the ill-thought promotion of English has unintentionally unified the Malay, Chinese and Tamil educationists is a case in point.
A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat uses the Federal Constitution as his “bible” to fend off the increasingly intolerable evil called “state”.