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A nation divided

Police, media and the majority Malay Malaysian crowd during the GMP gathering on 7 March 2009

PERHAPS the easiest observation one could make about the Gerakan Mansuhkan PPSMI (GMP) gathering on 7 March 2009 is that it was mono-cultural.

While there were representatives from Chinese-language education proponents in the thousands-strong crowd, these numbered in the mere double-digits. Tamil educationists were absent altogether. The crowd was overwhelmingly ethnic Malay Malaysian, sporting banners saying: “Bangsa Melayu, Bahasa Malaysia”.

Many were young men, sporting kopiahs. As often as not, their chants were Islamic refrains. And when the riot police started firing tear gas at the marchers, the expletive of choice was “laknat!” — a curse with religious connotations.

The way discourse within the anti-ETeMS (English for Teaching Mathematics and Science policy) movement is being perverted is best symbolised by the words of the poet and columnist Che Shamsuddin Othman, better known as Dinsman. On 24 Feb 2009, in a speech at a forum on the issue, Dinsman said if the policy to teach maths and science in English continued, the Malays would lose their language and religion.

Legitimate concerns

Isahak Harun (Source:
The GMP has legitimate worries, backed by scholarly data. The memorandum the group submitted to Parliament on 17 Feb 2009 cites three studies by academics — including one by Emeritus Prof Datuk Isahak Haron of Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris (Upsi).

Conducted in January 2008, the study observed Standard Five students in 28 schools, and polled 1,692 teachers, in an effort to divine the efficacy of the ETeMS policy. Its conclusion? The policy wasn’t working. It was even detrimental to students, especially ethnic Malay Malaysians and Orang Asli children from rural schools.

According to the study, one of the reasons why ETeMS was not working was because “many teachers themselves are too weak” in their grasp of English to “clearly and comfortably explain” scientific or mathematical concepts. A summary of the study, presented during one of the roundtable discussions on the issue in 2008, recommended a two-fold solution:

  Revert to the Malay language as the medium of instruction for the two subjects, as the majority of Malaysian teachers and students are already proficient with the language.

  Allocate more time for the teaching of the English language, and look for ways to improve its instruction.

The GMP, in its memorandum, echoed those recommendations, and advocated for a more holistic teaching of English, including an emphasis on English literature as part of the curriculum. The group has been careful to stress that it is not “anti-English language” or “Malay language-crazy”.

Upsi director Prof Abdullah Hassan, part of the GMP organising committee, couched the issue in pedagogical terms, stating that the transfer of knowledge is best done in one’s mother tongue.

Although Abdullah thought that Malay should be given preference, as it is the national language, he considered it a separate issue. As an educationist, he supported the cause of mother-tongue education. “If some of us want to learn in Mandarin, we have no problem,” Abdullah maintained.

“The issue is that we are teaching knowledge in a language 90% of our students don’t know,” said GMP chairperson Datuk Dr Hassan Ahmad at the launch of the movement.

Hassan Ahmad
Hassan also brought class into the argument, saying that those most disadvantaged by ETeMS are students from the rural poor, who lack the privilege of growing up in homes where they are exposed to English, as opposed to those in urban areas.

Reactionary rallying

Unfortunately, these nuances and statistics-backed reasoning against ETeMS are being superseded by reactionary rhetoric. The issue is rapidly becoming a rallying cry for Malay-Muslim supremacists, as evidenced by Dinsman’s leaps of logic.

Additionally, the participation of political parties such as PAS is not helping to steer the issue back to shore.

At a GMP-organised forum in the lead-up to 7 March, figures like PAS president Datuk Seri Hadi Awang received applause when he said that “the cause of the disappearance of the Malay language are Malay leaders themselves … their actions are damned!”

Teras president Mohd Azmi Abdul Hamid, who also spoke, called for the abolition of “that faction” — meaning Umno — and said the planned gathering would be a way to show up “leaders who were race traitors”.

Conversely, when Parti Keadilan Rakyat deputy president Dr Syed Husin Ali noted that support of the Chinese and Indian Malaysian communities would be vital in making the movement a success, he received the least applause. Rational voices like Syed Husin were rare during the forum.

Is it any wonder, then, that when the march to the palace on 7 March began in earnest, few non-Malay Malaysian faces were spotted in the crowd? According to the prevailing rhetoric, it was no longer a pan-communal fight for mother-tongue education, but a Malay-Muslim wrestle for racial pride.

Perhaps many are also subconsciously connecting their discomfort about ETeMS with suggestions to abolish vernacular schools. For instance, the controversial proposal by Umno’s Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir to abolish vernacular schools in toto, which was shot down by the MCA, Gerakan, and eventually by Umno president-elect Datuk Seri Najib Razak.

Divisions on the other side

But those who support ETeMS are also divided along similar ethno-nationalist lines.

On one hand, there are the Malay nationalists who appear to be aligned with Umno. Hence, organisations such as Pewaris Permuafakatan Islam and the Muslim Consumers Association strongly back the ETeMS policy, precisely on the grounds of Malay nationalism.

Defence of ETeMS for them goes hand in hand with defence of the special position of Malay Malaysians and Islam as the state religion.

The justifications that this faction of Malay nationalists uses are no different from that used by other proponents of ETeMS. Firstly, they talk about improving students’ access to the latest advances in mathematics and science; and secondly, improving students’ command of the English language. Of course, ETeMS critics have demolished these two arguments.

Pandora’s box

Mukhriz actually opened wider a Pandora’s box that has not really been closed yet. In fact, by suggesting what he did, he also invited the likes of renowned Chinese Malaysian educationist Datuk Khoo Kay Kim to peer into the box. And Khoo’s response has provoked even more discomfort among Chinese-language educationists — the subtext of the criticisms against Khoo being that he is a self-hating Chinese.

Khoo (Pic by Hafiz Noor Shams)
But Khoo’s argument for defining “mother-tongue” education deserves deeper discussion. He does not dismiss the individual’s basic right to or need for “mother-tongue” preservation.

But, he says, “Tamil is not the mother tongue of every Indian [Malaysian]. The Bengalis, Punjabis, Malayalees and Telegus have their own mother tongues. In Sarawak and Sabah, the indigenous people have numerous mother tongues.”

Hence, Khoo is asking a deeper question about whose interests are actually being served in this debate on language in education. For example, when Chinese educationists define “mother-tongue” education as Chinese students of various dialect groups being taught solely in Mandarin, what are they actually promoting?

Digging deeper into this Pandora’s box, we come to the heart and soul of the ETeMS debate: how then can we build a nation of capable, intelligent Malaysians? It is clear from the heightened discourse on ETeMS that language is a major polarising factor.

Chinese-language educationist Dr Kua Kia Soong has stressed that language itself is not polarising. It is only when it becomes a lightning rod for racial politics that language becomes divisive.

The basis of Kua’s thinking, therefore, is that it is not what language we choose to teach Malaysian students in, but the content we teach in that language. In other words, one can teach racism in either Malay, Chinese, Tamil, or English. But it is just as possible to impart values that embrace diversity and national unity in any of these languages.

By extension, it is also possible to teach science and mathematics in any student’s mother tongue and teach them well, while ensuring that proficiency in English is not compromised.

But is the reverse true? That all Malaysian students can effectively be taught mathematics and science in English, without compromising either their cognitive development or their command of their mother-tongue languages?

These questions can only be answered five to 10 years from now by the very students who have been affected by this policy. But until then, the ETeMS discussion points towards one unalterable fact: 46 years after the birth of Malaysia, we are still trying to figure out how to make Malaysians.

See also: Teaching in English: Do or don’t

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11 Responses to “A nation divided”

  1. Yusuf Martin says:

    How odd that English was taught in schools, in Malaysia, before without these difficulties.

    Mother tongue learning is suitable only for the first few years of knowledge acquisition, thereafter students will need to study in the internationally accepted language – English, if they intend to study at higher levels, or interact with people globally. Those without good English language skills will suffer ultimately.

  2. cl says:

    I believe the sanctity of BM had been challenged way before PPSMI was introduced. Take a good look at those urban upper-middle-class Malays. It’s bahasa rojak all the way, replacing saya and awak with I and you, among other English words which already have bahasa equivalents. With the standard of their own native tongue being no match to even characters in dubbed cartoons, it leaves non-Malays and foreign learners bewildered with how bahasa had been learnt over the times.

  3. chinhuat says:

    Bravo to Shanon and Zedeck for this wonderfully-written analysis that captures the nuances from many angles and exposes much falsehood and hypocrisy.

    I would like to add to two things on the March 7 rally turning out to be a mono-ethnic event.

    Firstly, as the Malay opponents of the policy are divided between the more inclusive and the more ethno-nationalist elements, their non-Malay counterparts, especially Dong Jiao Zong, should be partially responsible for the near mono-ethnic turnout. The participation of the Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall leadership in this sense helped to keep a more inclusive tune and image.

    Secondly, there has been an obvious lack of interest to seek common ground in the English media (with rare exceptions like The Nut Graph) and English-speaking civil society. Read the editorials and letters-to-editors in the English newspapers you may get the impression that Malaysia will come to its end if the policy is approached. No acknowledgment has been paid to the policy critics’ alternative suggestion to enhance English command such as longer hours of English teaching and the incorporation of English literature into the language subject. Let alone more “radical” solutions like reviving the English schools – which would address the aspirations of pro-English parents and students, and may also evoke the anger of ethno-nationalists – as suggested by this writer and others.

    The unfortunate stand-off between the pro-English Malaysians and everyone else is the outcome of polarising discourses from both sides. Through their action and inaction, the more exclusive elements from both camps have forced Malaysians to a false choice of either/or.

    In the zest to defend ethno-nationalism or to embrace globalisation, real issues are left undiscussed. Much of the real concern about the language medium is economic, the employability of the younger generation and the upward mobility of those from weaker socio-economic backgrounds.

    More class-conscious arguments are needed but are sadly absent. Ignoring the class consequence of the language switch policy will not spare us from the perpetuation of ethnic politics and and ethnicity-based preferential policy. Those perils will instead get worse.

    For the non-Malays who naively think that imposition of English will enhance the employability of Malay kids and therefore reduce the need for NEP, think thrice.

    Do you think those Malay parents who are opposing the policy really prefer to forgo their children’s future because of ethnic pride? Do you really think their complaint that rural students’ academic achievements have been affected is false? You’d better be right if the policy continues. Otherwise, the sacrificial lambs of this policy (incidentally, the majority of whom are Malays) will only fuel more ethnic sentiments and perpetuate ethnic discrimination.

    Let’s be clear: there is nothing wrong with parents wanting their children to learn more English, especially if they speak English at home as their mother tongue. Our policy has been so unfair to the native speakers of English in this country, whether they are Malay, Chinese, Indian, Dayak, Kadazan-Dusun or Eurasian. They have been denied their vernacular schools for three decades!

    This wrong needs to be righted but not by another wrong. When I read about comments that cited the suffering of students in the last language-switch policy (no coincidence, Dr Mahathir’s work as the Education Minister) to justify that of today’s students, I can’t help to think: is this a long overdue revenge for some English-speaking Malaysians?

    It’s time to move on. Let everyone get what they want. Don’t force our choice on others. The pro-English parents should not insist to impose their choice on everyone else. Similarly, the ETeMS policy critics should make clear their support for the revival of English schools.

    There is common ground to be found – better English through longer teaching hours and incorporation of English literature in the English syllabus. For the nation’s sake, don’t pretend as if there is none.

  4. klfs says:

    When the children are young, normally they use their “mother tongue” be it Bahasa Malaysia, Mandarin,Tamil or English to speak to their parents. It is normal that the children can absorb the knowledge of science and maths easier. When children grown up to secondary school age, their English knowledge should be at a certain level that enables them to understand simple English language. At this time, to teach maths and science in English can get better results.

    In my opinion, it is the question on how we can teach children English more effectively and may be double English subject time during primary school.

    For me as an example, during my secondary school time, I had no problems in learning maths and science even in Bahasa Malaysia – got good results even though I learnt maths and science in my mother tongue during my primary school time. And when I studied in university overseas, the maths and science subjects were taught in English, and I had no problem to learn either. Why? Because I had already “got power” with both Bahasa Malaysia and English, which I have learnt all these years.

  5. Dennis Madden says:

    In this debate everyone is looking at the present or back to the past. Nobody it seems is looking to the future of Malaysia or Malaysians.

    Anyway the issue is not the language of maths and science which is just a red herring. The real issue is the language of education and the language of the future.

  6. Nizam says:

    Good analysis, though I feel “laknat” was a curse period … nothing more

    The thing is the article asks a question that it already answered..

    “But is the reverse true?”… Well, “Conducted in January 2008, the study observed Standard Five students in 28 schools, and polled 1,692 teachers, in an effort to divine the efficacy of the ETeMS policy. Its conclusion? The policy wasn’t working. It was even detrimental to students, especially ethnic Malay Malaysians and Orang Asli children from rural schools.”

    The study was already done, need to wait 10 years still?

    Sure it may be problem of implementation rather than policy … but is there really a need for the policy in the first place, which brings so much problems in implementation. Improve the quality of English, period!

    I’m from a Malay medium school, have studied abroad, and been to many international events, but my problem is not English, but really notice how people from other countries are more aggressive in expressing their opinion. No, language medium in school is not the problem.

  7. Pratamad says:

    All the scholarly analysis and debate are besides the point, simply because our teachers are not prepared to teach in English. If the policy is to have any success, it should be properly planned and executed: train the necessary human resources first.

    But the Ministry of Education’s approach is funny and fooling itself: give every teacher a laptop computer. What has that got to do with teaching in English other than providing avenue for enriching cronies again?

  8. same old bs says:

    It’s the same old story. Improve English. We can have all the English lessons but the standard of English will not improve unless the students are FORCED to do it or are motivated to do it. That was the the strategy used for BM. Must pass, must get credit to get Grade 1 etc. Are we willing to do that? Fail students if they don’t pass the English test? At the moment failing English has no consequence so who cares? Shall we make a credit in English compulsory? Even more hue and cry.

    Hallo. We are talking about primary school here. How many kids from Chinese/Indian/Sikh families speak BM at home to their kids? So primary non-Malay students are not already proficient in BM when they get to school. And for years they are able to learn sains and matematik and do it well. I don’t believe Malay kids are less intelligent than others so the reverse should also apply ya? They should be able to do well. Is it detrimental to rural kids … hey we talking about a long term goal. I came from a local medical school. The ones with the so called “power” in BM and English are the urban kids and it’s because their English is good. The others were completely hopeless in their English and certainly looked BAD in college.

    Unfortunately, because of this there were always the weaker students and struggled to pass exams. I would think that making them study two subjects in English in primary school would FORCE them to learn in English and would benefit them in the long run. Sooner or later it’s going to catch up with the ones who don’t have a command of the language! Better to struggle in primary one and two than to look stupid in college.

  9. victor says:

    I am always curious why nobody questions *why* Tun Dr M implemented ETeMS considering he was the Education Minister who switched teaching medium in national secondary schools from English to BM? Could it be because of BM, due to its having more syllables than English, e.g.”sembilan” has three syllables when “nine”has only one, makes it not so efficient as a medium of teaching maths and science due to memory retention difficulty? I can never memorise phone numbers in BM! I also recall that En Mokhtar, a retired court registrar, devised a system whereby “satu” is pronounced as “tu”,”dua” as “wa”, “tiga”as “ga” and so on to help his kids improve maths results. The Moktar system has been proven to be successful. Has anybody asked Mahathir why he implemented ETeMS?

  10. tengku mohd faizal says:

    I did my primary schooling in Kuen Cheng and secondary schooling in Confucian Private, but that does not make me less Malay, nor reduce my Bahasa Malaysia usage.

    These jokers are making a fuss out of nothing. I guess since most of them are unemployed, that’s why they joined the street protest. Or maybe they want to join in the protest to show the world that they really have nothing better to do (since they are unemployed).

  11. Andrew I says:

    Self-hating Chinese. Now that’s a new one.

    Kids tell me that they get fined if they speak Hokkien in school. That’s real self-hating.

    Whenever I get into a taxi in KL and the driver starts babbling to me in Cantonese, I stop them by saying I’m a Penangnite and I speak only Hokkien.

    That’s self love.

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