Flip-Flopping in Malaysia: Should We Revert to Teaching Science and Mathematics in Malay?

Posted on August 10, 2009

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In July this year, the Malaysian Education Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced a decision to reverse the 6-year experiment of teaching Science and Mathematics to school students in English, citing research findings which showed low levels of proficiency among both teachers and students, particularly those from rural or disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds. Teachers’ inability to communicate effectively scientific and mathematical concepts in English compounded the students’ difficulty in understanding said concepts, leading to low levels of participation and enthusiasm in Science and Math.

The policy of Teaching and Learning Science and Mathematics in English, known by its Malay initials as PPSMI, was initiated by then premier Mahathir Mohamad to arrest the declining proficiency of Malaysian students, partly caused by the earlier policy of designating Malay as the medium of instruction in national schools in newly independent Malaysia. Prior to Independence fought from the British, the primary language of instruction was English, thereby creating a preceding generation more fluent in the language than the current crop of Malaysians.

The most strident opponents of the policy of teaching Math and Science in English are the giants of the Malay literary scene, most notably National Laureate A. Samad Said and Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, the Malay equivalent to France’s L’Académie française. Their grievance is understandable, for it is true that teaching and learning Science and Math in English would decimate any prospect of Malay as a significant scientific language. But common sense must prevail, and it is imperative for us to acknowledge that the Malay language never had a chance as a medium of the sciences. Even at its peak during the Malacca sultanate when Malay was the lingua franca of the Malay archipelago, its function was to facilitate trading between peoples, not to exchange scientific knowhow. That is not something to be ashamed of; we were and remain to this day a trading nation and our Malay language is a living testament to that proud heritage. But we cannot keep deluding ourselves into thinking that Malay can and will be a medium of the sciences when we are merely translating and borrowing hundreds of terms from English and creating none of our own.

Meanwhile, a small but vocal section of the Malay community, in a defiant display of misplaced arrogance and uncensored infantilism, continue to chastise those in favour of the English language policy by labelling them ‘celup’ (dipped, as in brown Malay skin ‘dipped’ in white Anglo-Saxon cast) and traitors of their people. It sounds preposterous because it is; a Western European doesn’t transform into an Indian simply by eating curry; likewise Malaysians don’t become less Malaysian just by conversing in English. This sort of narrow-minded logic is usually thrown aside as stupidity, but this stupidity is unfortunately extremely prevalent in Malaysian society and continues to shape public policy designed by politicians more interested in keeping the votes.

A more valid reason to oppose the PPSMI are rural parents’ and students’ real concern that their low proficiency in English will seriously impede their academic achievements in Science and Math, and in a worst case scenario, possibly hinder otherwise interested rural students from taking up tertiary studies in scientific and technical fields such as engineering and medicine. They further argue that the government is taking a hasty and haphazard approach in arresting the decline of English proficiency; rather than teach Math and Science in English, the best way to improve the standard of English is by increasing the time spent teaching English as a subject on its own. It is easy, this group asserts, for urban, middle-class Malaysians such as me to support the use of English in Math and Science since we would not be faced with the difficulties of having to learn not just a subject (Math or Science) but also a language at the same time.

I agree with their assertion to a degree and I sympathise with their predicament. But as a Malaysian and a Malay, I support the use of English in Math and Science not because it would be easy for people like me, but because not doing so would make it harder in the long run for everyone, in particular those from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Most of the world’s scientific references today are expressed in English, and the dominance of the Internet over printed publications means that it would be virtually impossible for Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka to translate even a fraction of the scientific knowledge that is out there. By refusing to learn in English, we are effectively limiting our ability to absorb and transmit scientific knowhow. By delaying the teaching and learning of English from school to tertiary level (because eventually Science and Math will be taught in English at universities), we are only making it harder for ourselves.

Postponing the challenge of acquiring a language only makes it more difficult later on. In any case, the previous generations of Malaysians had even lower levels of exposure to English to start with, yet they survived, even thrived, in the English-dominated education system brought on by the British. We Malaysians, particularly Malays, seem to make ourselves appear stupid by propagating this idea that we are perpetually unable to learn in English, but let’s face it, we’re not that stupid. We will become more fluent eventually. The government can make the transition easier by assigning additional tutorial assistance to rural students who have difficulty with English, and intensify the immersion of the language through various media – the Internet, video, television and print.

We are a small nation in an increasingly intertwined world. In order to succeed we need to be able to understand and communicate effectively with the world around us. Science and Mathematics are the fields which will ensure the continued prosperity of Malaysians, and if we continue to shelter ourselves from the tide of English for the sake of convenience, we risk drowning in the sea of globalization, with the world oblivious to our torment.