Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Reply to Ian Beh

Ian Beh, a form 5 student from a school in PJ, recently wrote this provocative and insightful open letter to myself and Tony in regards to the issue of SPM Chinese. It's an issue which I've given some thought to on and off in the past and I'll take this opportunity to respond to Ian's letter in detail.

Ian's main concern with Chinese at the SPM level is that it has become so hard that (i) nobody would take it if they were not forced to (ii) that it is so difficult to score an A in the subject that it affects the ability of some students to obtain a JPA scholarship.

Ian is not the first person who has told me that they have no interest in taking Chinese after primary school, much less for PMR and SPM. I have my own take to explain this which many of our readers might not agree with.

Basically, any subject that is taught at a higher and higher level will have fewer and fewer students who are interested or even capable of taking this subject. For example, most people can indulge in a little bit of algebra, do a little bit of differentiation and integration, but once we get more a sophisticated level of Math, it becomes accessible to far fewer people. Not everyone is expected to take Additional Math at the SPM level and they shouldn't be expected to take Math at that level if they don't have an aptitude for it.

We can apply a similar logic to the study of languages. I'm studying Chinese right now, to improve my reading and writing, and I'll be very happy once I can get to the level where I can easily read Chinese newspapers and websites and listen to Chinese news on the TV and the internet (I'm getting there). I have less desire to obtain a standard where I can enjoy Chinese classical literature or poetry (I'm not sure that I can reach that level). Similarly, there are many students in Malaysia which might do well just to reach a level of English proficiency where they can write using proper grammar and sentence structures but not necessarily be able to write a literary criticism of Toni Morrison or Michael Ondaatje.

Language is of course a little different from Physics or Math or History. Most teachers or educational planners want students to be continually exposed to language lessons because it needs to be kept fresh in one's mind and incremental improvements can be made in regards to a student's command of a language. In addition, there might be symbolic or socio-political reasons why a language should or must be taught and learned throughout one's pre-tertiary school life.

But there is also another important distinction between the teaching of languages and of other more 'objective' subjects like Math and Physics which is that the level of a language that is taught is very much contextual. One might find that teaching Shakespeare to a 13 year old in England is very much the norm but would find that to be a stretch even to 17 year olds in Malaysia. Most English schoolchildren would have been exposed to some Shakespeare either on TV or in school by the time that they reach secondary school. But that's not the case in Malaysia. Hence, SPM English is very different from let's say O level English in the UK. The latter is much more difficult. This is one of the main reasons why English is so much easier than BM at the same grade. Peribahasa is much more familiar to most Malaysian students compared to English proverbs. More Malaysians will understand 'katak di bawah tempurung' compared to 'a friend in need is a friend indeed'.

There is a second factor (in addition to context) which explains the different levels of English, BM and Chinese exams in Malaysia. This factor is the number and category of students who are taking these exams. The more students taking a particular subject, the easier the exams for these subjects. If English was not compulsory, I think that you'd find that the standard of the English exams at the SPM level would quickly increase. BM exams, another compulsory subject at the SPM level, are harder than English because of the first factor (context) but it is easier than Chinese because of the 2nd factor, the number of people taking this exam. If the BM exams was set too hard, then the Ministry would find that a lot more people would fail the BM exam and fewer people would be scoring A's in BM.

Because Chinese at the SPM level is taken by relatively fewer students (a few select national schools and the Chinese independent schools) and presumably, Chinese is the native tongue of most of the students taking Chinese, those who set the Chinese papers can afford to make it tougher (context and numbers) which explains why Chinese is harder than BM. It also explains why more Chinese student's in Ian's school (which I presume is Catholic High in PJ) score A's in BM compared to Chinese.

One also has to remember that those setting the Chinese exams do so with the Chinese independent school students in mind, which, to my knowledge, form the majority of students taking the Chinese exam at the SPM level. There is undoubtedly pressure on those setting the Chinese exam to ensure that it fulfills the high standards of Chinese proficiency set in the Chinese independent schools.

It would be interesting to compare the Chinese SPM exam with that of the Tamil SPM exam. My sense is that the Tamil SPM exam should be much easier that the Chinese SPM exam (at least measured in the % obtaining As). The reason is that there are no independent Tamil secondary schools which means there is less of a context factor operating at the secondary school level for those taking Tamil. Following this, there will be less pressure for those setting the Tamil SPM exam to make it hard, even though almost all the students who are taking this will be Indian students from Tamil speaking households. But it should be harder than the English SPM exam.

Lastly, I need to include the factor of political pressure. No doubt, there is political pressure in the Ministry of Education to ensure that the BM exam is harder than the English exam (or to make the English exam relatively easy). At the same time, there is probably less pressure on the part of the Ministry to make the Chinese SPM exam so hard. I suspect that the MOE leaves this issue solely in the hands of the Chinese bureaucrats within the MOE who are in charge of setting these exams. If these bureaucrats are making the Chinese SPM exam harder, it does not hurt the majority in Malaysia so there is little pressure on the part of the MOE to intervene. Furthermore, the MOE would not want to be seen as 'interfering' in the 'sensitive' issue of deciding the standard of Chinese exams at the SPM level.

So how should we respond to the current situation in Malaysia?

In an ideal world, I'd get rid of compulsory language exams after Form 3. One should have obtained a sufficient degree of literacy in BM, English and Chinese or Tamil by that time. If one is interested to pursue these languages further, they should be given the option to take subjects like Malay or English or Chinese literature.

But this is not an ideal world and I can see the need to force students to continue to learn English up to the SPM level (at least) given that English proficiency among our students is still very poor. I can also see the need to force students to continue to learn BM given that the command of the national language among non-Malay students is also quite poor. This leaves us with Chinese at the SPM level. I don't think this should be made compulsory in national schools such as Catholic High since these schools, in theory at least, don't need to have a 'Chinese' identity and most of the subjects at the SPM level are taught in BM. (In reality, I'm well aware that most students in schools like these are Chinese and speak Mandarin or Chinese dialects inside and outside of school). This would immediately solve one of Ian's dilemmas which is how taking Chinese would impact his ability to score all A's and get a JPA scholarship. (which probably affect only a small % of students)

I'm in more of a quandary in regards to whether Chinese should be compulsory in Chinese independent secondary schools. On the one hand, one can argue that taking Chinese is central to the character and identity of these schools much like how BM is compulsory in national schools. On the other, one can also argue that since most subjects are already taught in Chinese in these schools, there is less of a worry of these schools losing their 'Chinese' identity or character.

One possible way out is for those setting the Chinese SPM exam to grade on a curve such that more people will get A's. This reduces the disincentive for many students who might want to take this course but are afraid that it will affect their overall grades. And at the same time, the examiners don't need to 'dumb down' the standard of the Chinese SPM exam.

I'll leave the questions of revamping the syllabus for Chinese at the secondary school level or changing the teaching methods aside since I don't know enough about it to give an informed opinion.

For now, there is no easy solution or quick fix apart from making Chinese non-compulsory in national schools. In regards to the growing importance of Chinese as a language, I would say this - it is possible to maintain a high level of interest and activity in the Chinese language without resorting to forcing Chinese students to take it at the SPM level. I think that the cultural and business spheres are much more important and influential in trying to achieve this aim.


Anonymous said...

Typical banana reply. I dun think anyone expected this kind of response. Do some research on what is tested in SPM chinese. The paper should be easy, but the way they marked it makes everyone hard to score A1. Simply a political conspriracy.

Shawn Tan said...

I don't think there anything wrong with the reply. It's terse and without remorse, perfect.

I think that languages should be an option and we should have more to pick from. I know for a fact that in the past, foreign languages like French were taught at certain residential schools. I'm not quite sure if it's still the case at the moment. Nobody should be forced to take any subject if he/she is not interested in it, except for some basics.

Education should be about learning what we'd like to learn, not about learning what is forced onto us. And this culture even perpetuates into the tertiery level, which is rather sad. One would think that at that level, the students should be able to pick and choose their subjects but that's sadly not the case either.

And I don't know how a school could possibly make such a subject compulsory. Is it another case of a little Napolean abusing his/her powers? I wonder what would have happened to Ian if he decided not to check Chinese in the SPM application form.

changyang1230 said...

Although anonymous put it in a crude way, I actually agree with his comment to an extent.

I think that in this post, you unfortunately failed to address the main point raised by Ian, i.e. the huge disparity between the percentage of A1 scorer in Chinese paper and in Malay and English paper. The former is close to 1 - 2% while the latter is closer to 10% nationally (you can verify that in any annual SPM result statements).

I am a product of SPM Chinese paper, and I can assure you that the paper is not really as high-standard as you might have hinted at. In my time, we were tested on some classic proses (can be hard but only an insignificant proportion of the paper), writing (a big proportion), some basic grammar and also construct sentences from proverbs (which in turn is chosen from a FIXED list of some 100 - 200 studied throughout secondary school).

As someone who have taken all three papers, I can say that all three language papers are of about the same difficulty. The only thing that made Chinese paper such a "dreaded" subject is the arbitrarily high score needed to get A1.

This is utterly unfair, and who are we to blame when people can't help but to hint at a political conspiracy behind this issue?

Anyway, I agree with you that Chinese language should not be made compulsory by any school or system. But the problem is, if you make it compulsory but let the current scoring irregularities persist, you will only get less and less students taking the subject, eventually leading to the deterioration of the language command in the whole in the population.

And if that happens, isn't it the very antithesis to "keeping the paper's standard"?

changyang1230 said...

Correction: *if you make it NON-compulsory but ... *

Anyway, let me give another example of how such high passing mark affects a student's future unfairly.

I know a few friends with a very high proficiency in Chinese language - they are school representative in Chinese debate competitions, and have always done well in the school exams. In the SPM, they scored A2 or even B3, much to everyone's shock.

While we can give the benefit of doubt that they might have slipped up during the SPM exam, but a more probably explanation is this: we all know that when grading of a paper involves many different graders and many different candidates, it is unavoidable for inconsistencies to arise, e.g. someone who could have gotten 85 if marked by A may only get 77 if marked by B.

One of the main reasons we allow a rather big margin in for each grades is that we would like to avoid cases such as the person getting 77 being demoted to a lower grade unfairly simply because he got a stricter marker. It's simply a matter of allowing for statistical uncertainty.

Now, with only 1 to 2% top scores getting A1, those unfortunate friends of mine might have been the victim of the stricter markers.

changyang1230 said...

Another real-life example is... everyone knows additional maths is ABSOLUTELY more difficult than the modern maths in SPM; but you don't see the proportion of A1 scorer being different by much in those two subjects. In fact the score for A1 in additional maths is very close to 60 or so, I was once told by some teachers.

Anonymous said...

Apart from Chinese independent schools, only SMJK schools make Chinese language compulsory.

Do some history check on SMJK schools and you will know why they made it compulsory to take Chinese. SMJK schools should be like our SRJK schools but thanks a million to MCA. SMJK is now no diff to SMK schools.

Anonymous said...

There are serious issues with the marking system for chinese paper. I think the current outcome is the government's intention, first to discourage people from taking the paper, specifically in national schools (my time this paper is optional, I dropped it due to the marking system, it's extremely hard to get A). I felt it is also the government's plan to eventually phase out the chinese schools. Just observe the reduction in chinese schools during these few years. Eventhough more are sending the kids to chinese primary, but most will switch to national schools in secondary, citing the difficulty to score more As and get a scholarship for thirtery education. I think what the government has been doing (closing down more chinese schools) was inline with the marking system, to discourage the chinese to take chinese or go to chinese schools.

Anonymous said...

"I suspect that the MOE leaves this issue solely in the hands of the Chinese bureaucrats within the MOE who are in charge of setting these exams. If these bureaucrats are making the Chinese SPM exam harder, it does not hurt the majority in Malaysia so there is little pressure on the part of the MOE to intervene."

If the marking is made ridiculously demanding, then the Chinese bureaucrats are to be blamed. Probably they made short-sighted decisions, in their sincere attempt to raise the standards of Mandarin proficiency.

peng said...

As a former Chinese ed student myself, I'm glad to see the issue of SPM Chinese discussed. But I have to say I'm rather disappointed by this post. It seems to show to how differently chinese educated ppl and non-chinese ed ppl view the matter.

While I agree that Chinese should not be made compulsory at SPM level, I think you need to understand the reality of SMJK schools these days. There is so little autonomy left, Chinese teachers and headmasters tend to view the teaching of the Chinese language as the last bastion. Their passionate defence of the language (to the extent of making it compulsory) reflects their view that Chinese cultural identity itself is being compromised. Again, I may not agree, but I think this is the way my former teachers felt.

I was also surprised that the post made no mention of the commonly held (at least within the chinese ed community) conspiracy theories. By making sure only 1-2% of students score A1 for Chinese, the other 98% are deliberately disadvantaged when it comes to scholarships.

Another reason for the difficulty in scoring A1 could of course be the fact that the exam paper is graded on a scale. Since students who are weaker in Chinese tend to drop the subject, the better students who are left are forced to compete with each other. This skews the curve and automatically raises the raw score needed for an A. And then, the following year, even more students drop the subject. It's a vicious cycle. (Which also means that it could be even worse if schools like CHS didn't make it compulsory for some of the weaker students.)

p.s. ^shawn, if Ian had chosen not to 'check' Chinese in his form, an option I'm sure many CHS students explore every year, he would have been subject to a long lecture in the principal's office. The lecture would end with a 'if you really want to drop it, here's a transfer form'. I don't like it either, but that's the way it is in a school that's already overcrowded.

ipoh resident said...

i agree with what peng has said. as a former SMJK sam tet student, i witnessed first hand how the school administration handled students who wished to drop SPM chinese.

the school headmaster announced this at the assembly, that there is little to distinguish an SMK from an SMJK these days, and the only thing that seperates us is the taking of the SPM chinese paper. if we allow the freedom to drop SPM chinese, we might as well transfer to the neighbouring SMK schools. you cannot imagine how well received that message was to the students. most of my friends would rather be denied a JPA scholarship for not getting straight As, than to abandon a certificate of proof, of your dedication towards your mother tongue language.

the author of this post has no idea how long and hard the road of which chinese schools, SMJK or independent, trod to maintain whatever chinese left in their institutions, and their students, and how hostile the ruling government has been to this enterprise. things seem very easy, like a doddle to non-chinese schooled chinese, but to maintain this last bastion of your very identity is no child's play and is not to be compromised. call us idealists, but we have fought hard to defend our ideals.

Anushia Senthe said...

We have to be clear about which examination and which group of students we are discussing.
From my experience working in the education sector SPM Chinese is taken by Malaysian students (predominantly Chinese but technically open to all) in the National SMK schools and National Type SMJK schools.
If I am not mistaken students of the Independent Chinese schools take the UEC exams which are significantly different from the SPM examinations in terms of syllabus coverage, skills and marking.

Therefore was a bit concerned with the generalization of SPM being taken by students in the Independent Chinese schools.

2 useful links that may be helpful :


changyang1230 said...


I know that Chong Hwa Independant School (Selangor) students usually take BOTH UEC Chinese paper and SPM Chinese paper. Not sure whether it's the norm for all independent schools or just an exception.

The SPM chinese result in Chong Hwa isn't that good either. In my gf's batch there are only about 6 to 8 students who got A1 out of about 600 students.

As I mentioned before, the Chinese paper issue has NOTHING to do with the "difficulty of the paper" at all. I already elaborated on that using the example of specialist maths vs. modern maths - one is much harder than the other, but due to the adjusted cut-off points, you don't see much difference between the percentage of A1 scorers.

This issue is ABSOLUTELY about where they set the cutting points for A1, and unless we find out who sets the cutting point and why they are doing it (and I hope that those privy to this information could share with us), there's no point discussing this issue based on speculation alone.

Anonymous said...

"Typical banana reply. I dun think anyone expected this kind of response. Do some research on what is tested in SPM chinese. The paper should be easy, but the way they marked it makes everyone hard to score A1"

Agreed. And for your information, the syllabus did went through a revamp few years ago, which I feel is easier and more accessible to current students. Nevertheless, it does not translate into more A's so clearly there is another issue involved.

Anonymous said...

im a chinese 'banana', a product of the national schools.

does that mean i have lost my 'identity' as a chinese???

Anonymous said...

to anonymous @ 27/3/08, 11:56pm:

No, you have not lost your "identity" as a chinese. But, IMHO, you may have lost and may never understand the values, e.g. 诚,毅,勤,勇that we hold dear, which i think, are what that separate between a non-chinese-ed and a chinese-ed Chinese.
It's not about being able to read, write and speak Chinese, it's about the common values that each Chinese SRJK or SMJK teaches that make us Chinese.


Anonymous said...

Actually the exam papers was set according to the syllibus and marked accordingly. But the grading process is not done by the Chinese educators, its decide by the exam syndicate officers. that's why, the number of A scorers are controled by others.

Anonymous said...

Excuse my ignorant, who is the examiner of the UEC paper? If the SPM paper is suspect and the UEC is more "fair" why not all opt for UEC and boycott the SPM paper and see if there is any statisctically significant different in the result. Maybe have it marked in Beijing like the English "O" Level?
By the way labeling other as banana or durian is a form of prejudice with a very false sense of "superiority".
Warmest regards,
Lau Eng Chong

Anonymous said...

I am an ex student of SMK. I managed to score A1 in SPM Chinese 07. I don't think that its difficult to score A1. Studying Chinese just like studying other subjects. Not so difficult. In fact, before taking SPM,I just do revision on the origin of Chinese idioms. Languange is quite same with Maths, practise makes perfect.SPM Chinese is quite easy if you compare it with STPM Chinese.

Jarod said...

I must say that the chinese SPM paper may be tough for some people who took it if they never put in effort. IMHO, all chinese student who studied in CHINESE Primary Should continue to take it up while they are at SPM level. WITH the CHINA as a main country that lead the rest, the important of Mandarin language is increasing. i for one had not taken my chinese SPM , i regretted it and would encourage all SPM student to take it up no matter how hard. It is still ur native language and u should deal with the difficulty. No matter u get A's or not, as long as you GOT it in SPM. (B/C also nice la...no nd to jump off the KLCC la :p )

The way the teacher mark could also cause the A's for the student. (some time u need to see the teacher mood! wtd)

alot of factor....cant name it. but please do continue taking Chinese for those SPM level student. A bit of irrelevant, but for the sake of future chinese student!

caitlin kang jia qian said...

I totally disagree with the part you guys say that Chinese should be made non-compulsory. I had a lot of friends who complained about having to take chinese, but you know what? It's actually a good thing that the school forces them to learn it, and does not allow them to drop the subject. The people who actually put up with Chinese lessons and examinations.. they are proficient in at least three languages. As it is, it's difficult enough to learn ONE new language, but imagine. These people know THREE. I think that's something worth being proud of, don't you agree? Not everyone can boast knowing three languages. Sometimes students just can't see the light at the end of the tunnel and decide to drop the subject, just because they can. What will happen then? 10, maybe 20 years later, they'll start wishing that they didn't drop the subject. So let the students complain, I say, and make it compulsory. Like some people have commented, the standard is not THAT high. It's just the way the papers are marked. Personally, I regret the fact that I transferred to a private school in standard 4, thus making it virtually impossible to continue studying the chinese language. And at that point in time, I didn't want to anyway. 8 years on,and I really regret that. JPA scholarships are one thing.. helpful- definitely, important- most probably. But there are some things in life that are worth so much more than that. So to all the students out there taking Chinese.. hang in there. I salute you.