Sunday, September 07, 2008

Two letters on Science and Math policy

Wanted to highlight two letters, one written to the DG of the MOE and another written to NST, on the possible reversion in the policy of teaching Science and Math in English. I've been agnostic on this issue thus far but I think both writers make good points in favor of continuing this policy, flawed as it may be. Better to try to improve its implementation instead of doing another U-turn.

Letter to the NST, written by Cheng Yi, who's also a friend of mine.

I REFER to Zainul Arifin’s “Let parents decide on English policy” (NST, Sept 3).
It is indeed ironic that many of our prominent politicians send their children to private or international schools where English reigns supreme.

When Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad announced the decision to teach Mathematics and Science in English, it rekindled my hope in the local education system.

As it is, most of my peers had opted to send their kids to either Chinese or private schools. But with the teaching of Mathematics and Science in English, I thought there was perhaps a spark of hope in our national schools.

I am sure that many pupils from the rural areas will suffer initially but, as Zainul says, kids are better adapters and adopters than adults. I am sure that many of our English-speaking elite did not hail from English-speaking families. I have many Malay friends who speak perfect English although their parents did not.

To children from English-speaking backgrounds, it doesn’t make much difference.

When I was doing my matriculation in Australia, although I studied in Bahasa Malaysia-medium schools, I had no problem coping with the sudden switch to English when learning Mathematics and Science.

However, my peers who did not speak English (this includes those of Chinese descent) did have problems adapting. As a result, most of their High School Certificate scores were compromised.

At the end of the day, it is better to suffer a bit in primary school than to struggle learning a language later in life.

It is this same rationale that persuades many Malaysian Chinese parents to send their children to Chinese schools. “Although we don’t speak Chinese at home, the kids can cope", I often hear them say. Children do pick up much more easily than adults.

I have yet to meet anyone who says, “Oh, I am so glad we did not study Mathematics and Science in English during our school days".

Extra knowledge is a good thing. I look at the pullouts in the NST like Didik, and am impressed by the Mathematics and Science questions in English. It gives our syllabus an international feel. And it gives me no qualms to send my children to a national school.

Zainul’s suggestion for a referendum within each school is a great one. I am almost sure that parents in my children’s school will vote to retain the policy of teaching Mathematics and Science in English.

The government should look into proper training of teachers. Don’t deprive the children of Malaysia of a brighter, international, global future because of bad implementation of a good policy.

The letter to the DG of the MOE. Much longer than the first.

YBhg Dato’ Alimuddin Dom, Director of Education

YBhg Dato’,

With reference to the above matter, I would like to present to you my view on why it's necessary to continue teaching of Maths and Science in English.
A brief introduction of myself and my family is necessary to get a better perspective. My wife and I, aged 42, finished our primary and secondary education in Sekolah Kebangsaan and subsequently graduated in accountancy and computer science, respectively, in Melbourne Australia. We have two children, Standard 1 and 6, schooling in Sekolah Kebangsaan Taman Megah Petaling Jaya.

On hindsight the decision to pursue my tertiary education in Australia was correct and every single penny well spent despite the major financial obstacle and various challenges. I majored in Computer Science and Instrumental Science and hence, Physics and Mathematics are the core subjects throughout the course. I never grasped Physics until my 1st year and consistently received distinction and the credit goes to Mr Jack Venema my physics lecturer. During my final year, National Productivity Board of Singapore interviewed me and offered me a job upon graduation and so did State Electricity Commission of Victoria. But I declined both offers because my heart tells me to return home to contribute to the nation.

Before I delve into why we should continue to teach Maths and Science in English, let’s look back at the history of our education policy. The change to medium of instruction in Bahasa Melayu began in 1970 for Standard 1 and by 1983 the whole exercise was completed in tertiary education [read here]. Which means we’ve used Bahasa Melayu as medium of instruction for Maths and Science for 32 years.

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, our revered Bapa Permodenan, the architect of modern Malaysia, who transformed our agricultural economic base to manufacturing economic base, realized that if we don’t make our workforce be proficient in English, then the FDIs [Foreign Direct Investment - source of employment] will continue to bypass us. Already, we’re seeing a worrying trend of our traditional FDI investors like Motorola, Matsushita moving out to China, Vietnam, etc. and hence, his decision to change teaching of Maths and Science to English is one of his greatest gifts to Malaysia.

An extract of TDM’s speech entitled "Approaching 2020 – Major Trends that will Impact Malaysian Business" [read attachment for detail]

8. A mass consumer market will make local manufacturing more viable. And there are many things that we can produce. Like Korea and Taiwan we would learn to design and manufacture many things not just for our markets but for export as well.

9. Against this, expect increased and less restricted imports. We must be more competitive. We must develop skills in hi-tech products and we must pay higher wages. The days of low labour costs would have been over before 2020.

10. Our workers must be highly qualified and be trained in higher skills. The workers we would need must be able to handle and service automatic machines, not just assemble things. We will learn to design and produce some of these machines.

11. Training of the workers must be done at specialised training centres. Computer programmes will be needed to do this.

12. What all these means is the business of specialised education and training would become big business. The training centres would also cater for foreign students if we use English as a teaching medium.

13. Malaysia cannot any longer offer itself as a cheap labour country. But the chances are our highly trained workers would still cost less than similarly trained workers in the developed countries. This may mean a shifting of some middle range hi-tech industries to Malaysia.

14. Our advantage today is still the ability to take instructions in simple English. But there will be a spread of English language capabilities in China, Vietnam and other competitors of ours.

15. Accordingly our advantages seem likely to be eroded not only because others are acquiring working knowledge of English but we ourselves would probably downgrade learning of English.

16. I hope that the teaching of science and mathematics in English would continue. But I am not sure. If the decision is made not to, then the hi-tech industries are going to bypass us.

I agree with him that education system is one the most politicized subject. On his part, he has written detailed explanation entitled "MENGAJAR SAINS DAN MATEMATIK DALAM BAHASA INGGERIS" [read attachment for detail] addressing the Malay speaking community to convince them the importance of English. Personally, my encounter with a YB’s response on this matter ["..Mr 70% parents of vernacular schools are against it…] confirms TDM’s view. Lawmakers are more concerned about votes for their self-interest rather than nation interest by articulating to them to look at the big picture. Besides TDM, I have not heard of any other community leaders or lawmakers view on this very important matter.

TDM said "Malaysia is the most planned country in the world. But people do not follow the plans prepared for them. If people had followed the plans, we would have been a developed country by now." When TDM saw the opportunity in knowledge base economy, he quickly embarked on MSC in Cyberjaya. However, the FDI investors are not just interested in the first class infrastructures and venues and incentives. They needed competent IT workforce conversant in English but we could not provide enough for their needs. Instead, they have to recruit from Bangalore [our rival] which negates the purpose of MSC. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why Bill Gates setup their only offshore software development centre in Bangalore because they’ve largest pool software engineers in the world.

Education System must be versatile and evolving to be in-sync with the changing employment needs. A case study of a strategic planning of Singapore is worthwhile. When Singapore government decided to open the two casinos, even before the operators were selected, they have started to introduce courses related to this industry. This is so that by 2010 when the casinos are open for business, the required skill sets are available. These operators are one example of FDIs and one of the operators is our homegrown company ie Genting Berhad. On hindsight, had our education system been planned and executed properly according to our FDI investors’ needs, today MSC would have been another economic pillar and we would be closer to a developed nation.

In my opinion, if we analyse carefully, the noises getting louder against teaching of Maths and Science in English are groups of people complaining about the symptoms of bad implementation plan. I would like to use the analogy of a ship. Education policy is like a big ship and the captain is the head of MOE, teachers are the crews and students are the passengers. If we see an iceberg ahead, the captain will change the direction and it takes time to navigate to avoid the obstacle to reach the final destination.

I think the most important question our policymakers should ask is what should be the determinant of our education policy ? Is it not employability ? Parents and students take pain to consult career guidance about career opportunity. If we agree on this then let us look at the big picture, otherwise why bother to spend 3 years prep school + 6 years primary + 7 years secondary + 4 years tertiary = a whopping 20 years!

Who creates employment opportunity ? FDI investors like Intel, Dell, Samsung, Motorola, Matsushita, etc are some the names we are familiar with. What will attract them to Malaysia ? What makes Dell setup their worldwide callcentre and laptop manufacturing plant in Penang ? Perhaps, Penang workforce have the necessary skill sets and have the necessary English proficiency. The same question applies to Intel's chip design centre in Penang. It is a fact that FDIs are getting scarce and we are competing with China, Vietnam, India and not forgetting Thailand, Indonesia and Phillippines. Hence, we need to continue produce the same skill sets to attract more FDIs.

What type of employment should we focus then ? As mentioned earlier, under TDM’s administration we have diversified our economy to industrial/manufacturing base. In the E&E [Electrical & Electronics] industry, we have to move up the value chain. We can’t continue to rely on simple assembly manufacturing because countries like China and Vietnam are offering cheap low skill labour cost to companies like Motorola, Matsushita,etc. The other areas are biotechnology, information technology, telecommuncation, pharmaceutical, etc

In the era of globalisation, to attract inflow of FDIs we must have the capability of producing higher value-added products which demands medium to highly skill workforce with the ability to take instruction in English. The goods produced are then exported and in return we earn foreign currency. Also, the spin-off FDI to supporting goods and services industry is enormous which create more employment opportunity. Through these economic activities, the Government generates revenue in the form of taxes to pay for the expenditure as outlined in the yearly budget.

Shouldn’t we be consulting with our economic think-tank such as NEAC, EPU, Bank Negara, MIER, ASLI, CPPS, MITI, Economic Council [newly formed] since they’re at the forefront of dealing with inflow of FDIs before we make any hasty decision on such an important issue ?

In my opinion, the main issue that we should focus our attention on is to iron out the teething problem of implementation and not whether we should revert. I am quite disappointed with NUTP for changing its tune. On 8/3/08 NUTP was very supportive with an article on NST entitled "Do the math, keep it in English" to 4/9/08 postion entitled "Teaching Science and Mathematics in English: ‘Wrong to learn language this way". Perhaps, they should read TDM’s speech again, "Approaching 2020 – Major Trends that will Impact Malaysian Business". It's the function of teachers to execute the education policy to meet the needs of the nation.

I am not an educator but perhaps, I can give some input on the student perspective. Let’s examine some facts about the implementation, beginning with an extract of from newspaper. Earlier in the Dewan Rakyat, Deputy Education Minister Datuk Razali Ismail said the Government spent RM2.21bil on information and communication technology equipment in 2003 to implement the policy of teaching Mathematics and Science in English. He said another RM2.4mil was spent on software, RM317mil to train teachers and RM638mil as subject incentives.

Since when does equipment become more important than human in teaching. I graduated in Computer Science without owning a PC and those days writing a program was using punch card and a very tedious process, contrast to today.

From an economic standpoint, the money spent on the equipment is an outflow of foreign currency because they’re all imported [at most, we assembled it]. I would rather that the money be spent on training teachers which also ensure the money stays in our economy. Wouldn’t it be better used if we tapped on the retired teachers and implement ‘buddies’ system where a retired teacher is assigned one to one basis and complimented by night classes.

I disagree with the notion that our students can cope especially those in the rural area. If the teachers are well equipped and confident then the learning process will fall in place. Ultimately, it’s how the lesson is delivered. The success is making learning fun and relevant to daily life and not about mugging and as with my experience in Physics. Besides formal learning, in today’s digital era, students are exposed to the Internet for additional reference source.

I would like to relate a story about a Malay friend who is now a CEO of a statutory body. He was remembered as "a student who came to school on borrowed shoes" and one of very few Malays in an English medium school. He was proud to tell me that he received a Colombo Plan scholarship and a Bachelor of Arts in Australia. My point is that it’s duty of the policymakers to give everybody a chance especially those in the heartland, as a means to get out of poverty.

I think it’s far more productive for MOE and principals, teachers concerned to have continuous discussion to smoothen the edges rather than raising the white flag at this stage. Remember our teachers managed to switch the medium of instruction from English to Bahasa Melayu in 1970s and I don’t see any reason why we can’t do it now.

In conclusion, Malaysia needs to attract more FDIs bring us closer to a develop nation and hence, MOE needs to produce more employable workforce who possess technical skill set and good command of English. Therefore, it is necessary to continue with teaching of Maths and Science in English. History will be our judge for whatever decision you make!

Yours faithfully,
Benjamin Choo
(A Concern Bangsa Malaysia)


Anonymous said...

as a "student of experiment" going through this transition period of Malay->English Medium, i feel lucky not to be left out in the trend.

some of the teachers were really unable to cope with english teaching but we as student benefited a lot from the exposure to english through textbooks, english writing in daily homework and exam.

it seemed so difficult for me when i just started my STPM with whole new English medium of teaching. As time goes by, we'll see the diference.

currently local public universities are still teaching most of the humanities and social sciences subject in BM, i hope there will be a policy to hv all changed to english to better linked to international level.

i hope USM as APEX university will be the leader to start doing so.

de minimis said...

As a parent with 3 children in Forms 5 & 1 and Std 5, respectively, I must say that the letters featured are very well-argued and I fully agree with the points raised. It is very frustrating to see M'sia's education system being in a state of flux all the time. There is too much politicking. The problem is very much in the implementation.

In particular, it is the teachers that need a lot of beefing up in terms of English language proficiency. Those of us who are parents know from personal experience that children, especially at 5 years to 8 years, are like sponges, especially when it comes to languages. So, it beggars belief that teachers are relying on exam results to argue that we need to revert to BM medium. The poor results are actually the outcome of poor teaching!!! So, the focus should be on getting teachers to become more proficient in English, in other words, "TRAIN THE TRAINERS" first and foremost.

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Unknown said...

There is no hesitation in learning Math and science in english rather it is beneficial for malay people becuase english is an international language which is known and understandable almost in every country. So it is no harm to learn in english.

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Anonymous said...

Learning Science & Mathematics in BM or BI, any difference?

Implementation failure:-
1. No desire or half baked ploicy in it's implementation by MOE. Examination are bilingual and most student resort to BM in answering.
This prove that the implemtation is a failure. Why not 1st year of implementation, 20% of question must be answered in english with no bilingual question and 40% of question must be answered in english for 2nd year of exam and so forth....then after 5 years all will be 100%.
2. Teachers teaching sciences are given allowance from 10% to 5% of their pay with the understanding that they will use the money to improve their english. But this policy bring us no where? Monitoring of teacher in the use of english to teach S&M is poor as most teacher resort to use BM in teaching S&M. Biggest Failure??

So blame English for the failure of S& M.

azahar said...

Oh come on...don't change just for the sake of change!

Go on with teaching Maths and Science in English. But, gradually please teach all subjects in English (besides Bahasa Malaysia).

I remember when I did my MS in UGA. Professors over there were all surprised at my power of English. Why? Because I was one of the many products of such a system. I am very proud of it.

Please don't gamble with our children's future following whims and fancies of political leaders.

Be consistent and follow through.

Cheryl@ P. H. Choo said...

I learnt Math & Science in Mandarin when I was in primary school, later in BM (Form 1-3)and BI (Form 4-5). Being honest, it is no big deal to swift to BI from BM but it is a GREAT deal for those used with mandarin as the name and therminologies are totally different. Worse if one is week in English.

So, as a Chinese, i beg... stop the politics, let's learn Maths and Science in English (Science at least as most of us will need it later in our studies).