Sunday, November 04, 2007

Political Expediency or Policy Flexibility?

5 years after the start of the policy of teaching Science and Math in English, it was recently announced that the UPSR exams for Science and Math would continue to be in English, BM, or in the vernacular language of a student's choice i.e. Chinese or Tamil. My gut reaction to this policy is one of befuddlement and confusion. I was imagining me explaining this policy to some of my American friends. So, Science and Math are taught in English in Malaysia, my American friend would ask. Yes, I said, but exams in these two subjects can be taken in BM, English, Chinese or Tamil. So, what's the point of teaching these two subjects in English, my American friend would continue. I don't know, would be my honest response!

You can read about this issue in various Star reports - here, here, here, here, here and here.

Is this decision an indication of policy flexibility on the part of the Ministry of Education because some students still would not be able to handle exams in Science and Math in English? Or rather, is this political expediency on the part of the Ministry and the Minister, Hishamuddin Tun Hussein, so as not to offend the Chinese politicians in the MCA as well as politicians in UMNO, and to a certain extent, certain segments of the voting population as well?

I suspect that it is the latter rather than the former. Furthermore, I take this as an indication of the failure of the Ministry to successfully implement the policy of teaching Science and Math in English. The excuse that some students in the rural areas still cannot cope with taking these two subjects in English is plainly laughable in that these are the same students who have been taught these two subjects in English for 6 years! The same excuse, hence, is also not valid among those in Chinese primary schools!

The decision not to have an 'English only' UPSR exam for these two subjects sends a signal to teachers in rural areas as well as those in Chinese schools that they can 'revert' to teaching these two subjects in BM and Chinese (and for those in Tamil schools to teach in Tamil). As far as I know, there's no 'monitoring' or 'policing' mechanisms in schools to ensure that teachers actually teacher these two subjects in English. So, if students still have the choice of the language in which to take these two subjects at the UPSR level, wouldn't it be 'easier' for teachers in rural areas and in Chinese schools to teach these two subjects in a language which they have a better command in, presumably BM and Chinese?

While implementing the 'English only' policy would have some short term consequences in that the scores in some of these 'vulnerable' areas might be affected, I fear that the medium to long term consequences would be greater. I wouldn't be surprised if in 2 to 3 years time, an announcement is made that the policy to teach Science and Math in English would be stopped because it was found that it had not achieved its objective of improving the standard of English.

I think this would have been a hard decision to make politically but I think the Minister should have put his foot down and fend off the critics and the naysayers. While some may criticize the efficacy of the policy of teaching Science and Math in English in the first place, I think that to give this policy a fair chance to succeed, it should be taken to its logical end, which is to use only English for Science and Math exams at the UPSR level. By allowing students to choose their language of choice to take these two exams at the UPSR level is to doom this policy to failure as teachers and students 'defect' to learning these two subjects in their own language of choice.


Anonymous said...

Nothing common here......our government is known for not using the brain when considering anything....

To quote Harry Lee...."Let's start thinking about it now."

Anonymous said...

To be really cynical you could say that the language of the exam doesn't really mean anything anyway. Even when we had Malay medium only for all secondary schools, people in rural areas are often teachign in 'vernacular' or even dialect. *shrug*

Anonymous said...

The teaching of Science & Math in English is, unfortunately, just a sham. There is no way students would know the BM, Tamil, or Chinese versions of the English terms unless they are taught in those languages. In other words, either they are just spending twice as much time than necessary; once to learn in English and then in their own language, or maybe they never actually do it in English.
Looking back at the changes in the past 3 decades, I have lost faith in the Malaysian education system for I am suspecting that it has always been tailored to try to benefit one segment of the population.
First, they convert everything to BM. Then they see that non-Malays still excelled eventhough BM is not their mother tongue. Now they are saying education is not just about grades and they propose considering extramural activities such as sports for IPTA admissions. Next thing probably would be to abolish all standardised school exams and take the school administered exam as one of the criteria for entry into the universities ala US system. Then students will get As left and right and who is to question the grading?

Anonymous said...

This about-turn is clearly an admission of failure of the plan to revert to teaching Maths and the Sciences using English as the medium of instruction. I am entirely expecting it, simply because it was painfully clear to all that, if you have no teacher competent in English, how could the scheme ever succeed? The Minister was just daydreaming and finally woke up.

This inevitable about-turn also proved conclusively that our education system is doomed, in terms of our future generations being unable to compete internationally in commerce (or any area for that matter), which would still require a more than just competent command of English. It shows how completely TDM has dismantled the very fabric of our legacy of British educational system. I do not wish the elder statesman ill at all, not one bit, but to those who are still in love with him, I ask you to now contemplate the prospects of your future generations.

Even in China today, the biggest sub-sector within their education sector in terms of lucrativeness is the teaching of English. Obviously, I am not at all expecting our government to appreciate what I am saying here - I am not trying to sound funny or clever, please, it is just that I am convinced our "leaders" are too intellectually challenged to grasp an awareness of what is happening about them.

This about-turn also demonstrates our nation's inherent reluctance to take the bitter short term medicine to prevent a longer-term terminal disease.

I am so sickened by one report I read that implied that the purpose of allowing multilingualism in exams is to accomodate the chinese-stream students. That is exactly trying to tell the Malays, and hence the nation, that the Bahasa-stream students were otherwise having no difficulty switching to English, and are merely "slowing down" for the chinese and tamil schools. Real sickos. How more cynical or dishonest can our Minister be?

To those of you who want to believe that this about-turn is only a temporary measure to allow students in the vernacular schools to "catch up", please also stop your daydreaming.

Unless we stop this disastrous about-turn right now, saying that we are doomed is putting it rather mildly. Whatever the destruction in the past, we must press forward with the teaching of English in all sectors, regardless of how much problems are being encountered presently. I am of course saying that on the assumption that our Minister would import foreign teachers on a large scale, as to depend on the locally-trained teachers we now have is really a non-starter, as it always had been.

Anonymous said...

If our government doesn't put its stand clearly and revert back to teaching science and maths in BM or retaining the answers in either BM or English than I can tell you now we will never be ever teach or learn in English.

All the efforts will be wasted and we will further declined into academic oblivion in the future or near future.

Maybe then it will be too late...

With the elections coming closer the government might rather want to see shorter gain in popularity by teaching and answering science in BM rather than the long implications of the rojak state of affairs

And I will bet you with this uncertaintty many lecturers in the university who fear teaching in English will be smiling again..
It will be just another Pi Mai Pi Mai Tang tu!

Anonymous said...

In spite of the tremendous benefits of learning and studying Science and Maths in English, I'm of the opinion that primary/elementary school children should be taught in their native languages or bi/trilingually if possible. What is more important for the great leaders of the future is the firm grasp of the basics with strong foundation. If the children can understand better the conceptions in whatever languages they prefer, so be it. Understanding is paramount, regardless of languages.
The lingua franca of the world can be better learnt with many other ways than forcing it upon our children. It's another matter if they've grown up and doing international research papers. Most of all, childhood should be fun! :)

Anonymous said...

Nerd is right, we are talkng about teaching of science/math and the most important point is to facilitate knowledge transfer, be it BM, Chinese, Tamal or English.
In this case, we have to give credit to the current Malaysian Education ministry for showing the flexibility to test student's knowledge in science/math in science/math exams and not their English Language proficiency. I hope they can be more flexible in allowing teachers the flexibility to teach in ways they are more proficient in too.
For those who are so against this flexibility, why not try to discuss philosophy or science/math concepts with your kids in language other than English if your medium is English.
Education is meant to bring the best out of every body and at the same time serving a minimum set of values to enrich the community. It is not about forcing one's method onto someone else.
It is the lack of flexibility and self righteousness in some quarters that caused the medium switch and the poor state of affair in the current Malaysian education system, let's not do it again.
We should give more power to the parents to decide how their children should be taught. Let them comminicate in languages of their choice and at the end of the day, we just want them to be good at what they are doing.


chia said...

here at my uni in switzerland, masters courses are now in english, but students still have the freedom to sit for exams in german, or even ask questions in class in german (although that rarely happens). they can even write their thesis in german if they wish. i guess they want to give students the flexibility of answering in a language they can express themselves most conveniently, and for exams where time is ticking, it would be better to concentrate on the science and not sentence structure. i'm all for teaching in english, but i would prefer kids to enjoy science and not see it as a burden!!!

Anonymous said...

They did change the rhythm of Negara Ku once. didn't they?

Then they changed it back again!!

So its a game !

Anonymous said...

I have no problems with the questions remaining bilingual/trilingual. It was obvious from the start that it would take a much longer time to migrate everything back to English. There would be no point in using only English for the exams if the students can't understand the questions.

The Malaysian situation is very complicated. We have the English speaking bunch, the Malay speaking bunch, the Chinese speaking bunch, the Tamil speaking bunch and other minority bunches. It's hard to formulate a policy that is fair to everyone and more importantly, suitable for educating everyone.

Sure, English is the lingua franca of science these days and it would be important to master it but these kids aren't going to be writing scientific papers any time soon. Let them continue with learning in a bi/trilingual environment first and slowly phase them over to English. Lots of countries are doing the same and I don't see any ill-effects. A more important issue would be addressing the quality of teaching in schools.

plato's disciples said...

Yes we're having this problem again. Sure children wants to enjoy learning but then if they get used to the language sooner the better.

If the exam is in multiple language then learning it English would have less important since we can all answer in bunch of languages.

Language shouldn't be a barrier to a good education.

Anonymous said...

I think Nerd, Frank_c,godlessfrommalaysia, and juraiza are all correct. Correct, correct, correct. I wholly agree with them that our nation should dive straight into oblivion. If they constitute the majority view, this nation of ours is fast approaching the end of the road. Even God cannot save us is we are so minded to limit the horizon of our future generations.

How can anyone in their right mind, save the most ridiculously shortsighted of all, think that if we learn science and maths at primary and secondary school levels other than in English, we can still advance at the tertiary levels?!!!

Advance with what? Please show me a decent textbook beyond high school or an internationally commended research paper that was published in Bahasa.

I see how my own siblings now in their thirties, and having studied in bahasa all the way, struggling to improve their knowledge in maths and the sciences after high school, compared to those cousins and friends who went overseas at primary or secondary levels; they were no cleverer when young, yet my siblings could not understand the concepts those friends were expounding. It was painfully sad.

To the idiot who said that learning can be slowly phased into English, please explain how that could be done and when; if the entire high schools are taught in Bahasa, how do we begin to phase into English at uni?? Was not this exactly the problem right now?

If we recognise the problem of having no lecturers who can teach in English, imagine how we could possibly "slowly phase them" if even the students themselves have not ever studied those subjects in English.

So many times I have heard of bloggers like chia above giving ill-considered comparison with foreign countries' languages such as German. Is it really so difficult to see that the German language, and for that matter the Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc, languages and their attendant cultures are so well developed in maths and science over several hundred years already that they could meaningfully reproduce Noble Prize-class thesis in their languages? Could we do that in Bahasa.

Now, I am a Chinese, but let us not be parochial here. Let us think about the nation as a whole. Sure, Chinese can pursue and seek excellence in maths and science beyond high schools, but what about our Malay countrymen. In any event, one has to go to China or Taiwan to do that, so what about other Chinese Malaysians who cannot afford to do so? Are we to demand that the Malays and these other Chinese Malaysians be condemned and be left behind in their intellectual pursuit of maths and the sciences? How can that be right?

As a parent myself in my fifties, I am so sure that the bloggers I mentioned are either not parents or, worse, parents who either have no foresight of their children's future, or who couldn't care less.

Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous 11/06/2007 07:37:00 PM,

I understand and empathise your critical point of view regarding the future development of our country. But honestly, Why should we fear the prospect of being doomed to oblivion as a matter of fact, we already are? That's why we have a RM 90 million cosmonaut/space tourist programme to spice thing up so that we can pride among ourselves to have stood tall among the space-venturing nations. Now, with Russian technology and spacecraft, can we say we should learn Russian language instead of English when the Russian's technologies are comparable to the US/Western Europe? In fact, by learning Russian, technology transfer definitely will become easier for us Malaysians as we have a more cordial relations with Russia compared to the somewhat 'snobbish' US.

I think you've mixed up a little bit regarding the primary, secondary and tertiary level education. As we all know, primary school is a starting stage for our children to learn about life and the society. Studies have proven that children learn best with their native language/mother tongue. For a child who is just beginning to learn what ABC is and number 123, is English so important to reinforce the understanding of scientific and mathematical terms? Definitely not! In today's Information Age, we can neither limit ourselves nor our childrens' horizon. In fact, they will be looking beyond horizons, unlike 50 years ago. I can even claim that we can probably learn more by just clicking the mouse buttons than just sitting in a classroom for 6 hours.

As the children have good foundations in the primary level, we can then safely proceed to use whatever languages that we deem suitable for them to continue beyond tertiary level. Languages shouldn't be a barrier to learning. What worries us more is the quality of the teaching (which is dwindling right now) and the teachers' language proficiency in imparting the knowledge to the next generations. The learning process becomes in vain if the students can't understand a single word the teacher's trying to explain.

Please do not ruin the childhood of the next generations. Let them be a memory to be cherished and not one that's constantly burdened and pressure by parents' expections and exams grades, not to mention the languages used in the primary level.

Anonymous said...

Dear anonymous at 11/06/2007 07:37:00 PM,

The failings of your siblings may have coloured your point of view. On the other hand, some of us here are in our 20s, and having studied in a wholly BM environment in our secondary school days, are actually doing quite well in the science field abroad. No doubt not everyone makes the switch smoothly and some people do struggle, but it's not too difficult as most of the BM terms are just simple "Malay-nization" of English words.

And since you are referring to the idiot who said we can slowly phase people into the English, notice that I said "Let them continue with learning in a bi/trilingual environment first and slowly phase them over to English." And of course, one of the languages to be used is English, which is the topic of our conversation after all. Nobody mentioned anything about teaching high schools in English. The topic of this blog after all is taking exams only in English for PRIMARY school students. Let's not be too emotional, get blinded to what is actually written and resort to name calling. It reflects poorly on the person doing it.

"If we recognise the problem of having no lecturers who can teach in English, imagine how we could possibly "slowly phase them" if even the students themselves have not ever studied those subjects in English." If you feel that there are no lecturers capable of teaching in English, then what makes you think that there are teachers capable of teaching well in English? The lecturers are mostly graduates from foreign universities, usually located in an English speaking country. If they can't teach well in English, what makes you think that the teachers can impart their knowledge to their students after having been schooled throughout their lives in a BM speaking environment? Maybe you would like to encourage some retired teachers to come back to teach the science classes? My father always spoke highly of his science teacher but alas, the man is nearing 80 now.

A 30+-year old policy of BM only cannot just be reversed overnight no matter how much you want it to be. Let's be rational and think through the whole thing for a while. You will realise that it will have to be an iterative process and it will have to be reversed slowly.

Anonymous said...

Correction: "Nobody mentioned anything about teaching high schools in English"

Should be: "Nobody mentioned anything about teaching high school science only in BM"

Apologies. :)

Anonymous said...

The fact that our lecturers cannot teach Science & Math in English is one of the contributing problems. I have always wonder how is that these lecturers graduating from so-called English-speaking universities cannot teach Science and Math in English? People have been saying that these lecturers chose to teach in BM instead. The result is that the Science & Math graduates who ended up as teachers also cannot teach Science & Math in English.
To try to convert to English at the tertiary level is easier said than done. I have seen Chinese students in my university with pages in their Science textbooks marked all over the place with Chinese translations. I guess it must be very tough for them to look up every other words in a sentence and then having to understand the subject itself. The subject is tough as it is at the tertiary level and now you have to compound that with difficulty in the language. The logical thing to do would be to start early. The earlier the better while the subject matter is elementary and not overwhelming. Students learn by immersion and they can adapt very fast if done early. How early depends on the foresight of the govt and the community.
Another alternative is not to go overseas. If you don't go overseas and instead complete all your tertiary education in Malaysia, then you can do all that in BM.
The problem with our Malaysian society is the disparity between rural and urban students. Why is that the small Chinese boy in the Petronas ad can English so fluently in view of the fact that there is no English primary school anymore? The obvious answer is that this is a city boy who has been speaking English at home and many children do not have that benefit.

Anonymous said...

Typo in my comment above:
"Why is that the small Chinese boy in the Petronas ad can speak English so fluently in view of the fact that there is no English primary school anymore?"
While I am at it, I may as well make my stand clear. It should be all or nothing. If the govt wants to do it in English, then do it completely in English, not the rojak approach.

Anonymous said...

I remembered a uni friend of mine who preached and was so gung-ho about his mother tongue and that 'it was the language of the future' that last checked, he couldn't even write his résumé without having grammar mistakes on every alternate sentence.

And last checked again, he was applying to every company in English, and not in his mother tongue. Strange.

Anonymous said...

hai,i think the science and maths education should continue in english as it gives children to master this universal language and have better chances to face the world and have much more choices of universtiy.Or kids should be given choice to write in english or malay and not make malay compulsary.Malaysia is a developing country with many people migrating here.All these non residents are having great difficulty having kids join malay based education.And its discouraging.So i hope govt still keep science and maths in english.And actually make all subjects in english language and give choice for kids according to there comfort of learning.I AM AGAIN STRESSING THAT ENGLISH IS AN UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE AND IT SHOULD BE GIVEN IMPORTANCE IN EDUCATION.

Anonymous said...

Teaching of english in Malaysian school..big failure.??

1. Most student can hardly write a simple english sentence without any mistake.
2. If you ask a student to write 10 sentences about my family, majority of them would not be able to write it without mistakes here and there..
3. Majority of form one students could hardly read and write english in it simplist form.
Six year of primary english lessons. (5 or 6 lesson per week) is a waste of time plus extra classes.


1. Teachers in primary and secondary teachers teach like professors. They lecture their students, student fell a sleep. To the students, the teacher come from a foreign planet. Teaching all the grammer and reading from the text book. Students learn nothing year in year out.When the bell rings, all the student stand up immediately and wish the teacher.. "Thank You, teacher" and rush to the door. They are so happy home...away from the tourture.
2. No participation from students.. No more oral drills, no sentences pattern drill, no making of sentences etc.. (these are old fashion techniques).