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Scaling the language barrier

THE English language is now promoting interethnic unity in Malaysia, albeit unintentionally. Malay, Chinese and Tamil educationists who were once natural enemies have now joined forces to oppose the English for Teaching Mathematics and Science (ETeMS) policy.

Politically, leaders in the Barisan Nasional (BN) are divided on whether to continue the policy, while the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) is solidly behind the call to scrap it. However, it can’t be ruled out that a new consensus may emerge after the Umno party elections.

Some of the members of Gerakan Mansuhkan PPSMI, which was launched on 31 Jan 2009 and comprises
50 organisations opposing the teaching of maths and science in English

The standard of English has deteriorated in Malaysia, over the past decade, while the English language is enjoying increasing importance in a globalising world. Taking both these factors into consideration, isn’t the call to abolish ETeMS and reinstate the old status quo irrational and irresponsible? I don’t think so.

A flawed policy

While the policy’s opponents have not been able to offer superior alternatives to convince a divided public, ETeMS is essentially flawed and must go.

The main argument justifying ETeMS is that since the bulk of knowledge in science and mathematics is produced in English, learning these subjects in English would allow students to acquire knowledge directly without depending on translations.

Why is this argument flawed? Well, not every student intends to become a mathematician or scientist, so not everyone needs to comprehend mathematics and science publications in English.

The policy would be fine if it did not entail any costs, e.g. if switching the teaching of these subjects to English did not affect the ability of weaker or non-English-speaking students in mastering these subjects.

This, however, is clearly not true. It is self-evident that one’s ability to learn depends on one’s ability to understand what is being taught. This is the argument for mother-tongue education, in a nutshell.

But teaching science and mathematics in English to all students of varying abilities has inevitably entailed a sacrifice of the general standard of these two subjects. Does this benefit the country in the long run? Criticisms that the standard of these two subjects has been artificially lowered speak volumes of the magnitude of this problem. So, why don’t we have different policies catered for students of different aptitudes and endowments?

There is another argument, even more flawed, that justifies ETeMS: the more students are exposed to the English language, the more their mastery of the language will improve.

(Pic by skol22 /
Let’s take this argument to its logical conclusion. Let’s look at arts and commerce students — these kids do not need to study science and mathematics beyond a certain level. Science-stream students, however, are normally required to take some humanities subjects even at university level.

So, if students need to be “exposed” more to the English language, ETeMS should really be redirected to focus on history, geography and religious or moral education subjects. Why force the right medicine down the throat of the wrong patient?

A dishonest policy

An honest analysis will show that the policy prescription should never have been about teaching mathematics and science in English for all education streams. The arguments supporting ETeMS have not developed into logical, systematic implementation. In fact, the two arguments used to justify ETeMS are mutually contradictory.

For example, following the argument that science and mathematics literature is mostly in English, science-stream education should have logically been fully converted to English with the status quo retained for all other streams.

But following the argument that students should be more “exposed” to ideas in English, it is the medium of instruction of the humanities subjects that should have been switched to English.

These policy options are actually quite logical. But they have been taken out of the public debate because they are not politically viable. This in turn suggests the two arguments are actually spurious.

For example, if we had converted science-stream education to English in toto, we would eventually be creating a linguistically defined class division in society.

Not unlike colonial times, command of English would determine one’s opportunity to be a doctor, an engineer, an architect, a computer programmer, or an IT tycoon. Eventually, it would determine one’s acceptance into the economic and sociopolitical elite. Clearly, this position is political suicide for politicians, especially the Malay nationalists from Umno.

On the other hand, if we had instead switched the language of instruction of the humanities subjects to English, we would have had to face two difficult scenarios. Firstly, would improvement of students’ command of English have been achieved at the expense of a general deterioration of academic standards in the humanities? If yes, would the policy have been worth it?

Secondly, and more importantly, no matter how important English has become globally, would we need the entire nation to be conversant in English, even at the price of academic regression?

Students in school. What are the costs of having English as the main language of instruction?
(© Lexa_Lotus; source: Flickr)

Why this dishonesty?

The policy question before us is actually very simple. There are three factors to take into account.

Firstly, we need to improve the general standard of English for all students, and produce some students with an excellent command of English.

Secondly, any policy should not cause academic standards to decline, especially among students who are socioeconomically disadvantaged; for instance, those from poorer backgrounds and rural schools.

Thirdly, any policy should not marginalise the national language and other mother-tongue languages such that Malaysia loses its national character and multilingual advantage.

What’s the solution? Revive English-medium schools, alongside the existing Malay, Chinese and Tamil-language streams. Parents who want their children to learn all non-language subjects in English can then have a choice, instead of turning to the mushrooming private and international schools.

Why then has this simple and straightforward solution not been pursued?

First, it would mean that the decision to convert English-medium schools into Malay-medium schools beginning in 1975 was wrong. Incidentally, it was Tun Dr Mahathir Mohammad who was education minister when this language-switch policy sentenced English-medium education to death. Nearly three decades later, it was Mahathir again who wanted to switch back to English-language education for science and mathematics.

(© Stillfx / Dreamstime)
Secondly, and more importantly, if English schools are revived, they would likely attract students from stronger socioeconomic backgrounds. Malay-, Tamil- and to a lesser extent, Chinese-medium schools might eventually be reduced to inferior education providers, inviting the wrath of ethno-nationalists from every community.

By sacrificing academic standards across the board, ETeMS avoids such political embarrassment and covers up the real need to beef up English-language education for the weaker students in all streams.

In a nutshell, this policy is political expediency at its worst.

The main casualties are now weaker students from poorer families and rural schools. Most of them will learn little in mathematics and sciences with minimal, if any, improvement in their command of English. These underperforming students are likely to fill up the lowest paid jobs in future, hence frustrating upward social mobility.

However, students from more advantaged backgrounds suffer, too. They learn less mathematics and science than they otherwise would because the current standard for the two subjects needs to be lowered to produce evidence of success. They also cannot learn other non-language subjects in English if they want to.

The win-win solution

The ETeMS debate, now framed as a “yes” or “no” dichotomy, is effectively a tug of war between the pro-English elites and other Malaysians.

The policy must go if we do not want continued injustice towards more students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Reverting to the old status quo is however not tenable. It would deny both the nation’s developmental needs and the preference of pro-English parents and students.

But we need not be caught between two false choices.

Reviving English schools will not only meet the need of improving the standard of English in a purely utilitarian sense. It also fits the argument for upholding mother-tongue education — English is, after all, increasingly the mother tongue of Malaysians of all ethnic backgrounds, whether Malay, Chinese, Indian, Dayak, Kadazandusun, or Eurasian.

What about national unity? This is a question that may be asked by supporters of ETeMS as a gradualist method to eliminate multi-stream education.

The answer is again straightforward. Firstly, a single-stream education system could not possibly maximise the use of the English language for every single student anyway. One must thus choose between better, albeit varying, standards of English for everyone or the homogenisation of the education system.

Secondly, blaming communal division mainly on the education system is intellectually lazy and unreflective. Intercommunal solidarity is built not through homogenisation, but through cleavages that cut across communal lines. How the ill-thought promotion of English has unintentionally unified the Malay, Chinese and Tamil educationists is a case in point.

A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat uses the Federal Constitution as his “bible” to fend off the increasingly intolerable evil called “state”.

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28 Responses to “Scaling the language barrier”

  1. fence-sitter says:

    I’m very concerned. My personal observation is that the proponents didn’t have concrete suggestions make up for any loss of the role of the national language in education as a result; at least not as much as the opponents called for improved English language lessons. I’ve read somewhere of a prominent educationist who called upon Bahasa classes to be taught from Year 5 onwards to make way for the role of English in all subjects in our kids’ formative years.

    Meanwhile, there are other aspects which the pejuang bahasa should look into around the country, for example, the media. The so-called Malay drama characters and newscasters still speak bahasa rojak which ruins the beauty of bahasa by adapting English words which already have native equivalents. And why are the restaurant menus, which used to be in BM in the 90s, are largely in English?

  2. Dr Syed Alwi says:

    Dear people,

    How technologically advanced is Malaysia? Nowhere! Why? Because Malaysia cannot assimilate new technologies fast enough. Why? Because the international scientific community writes in English – whereas Malaysian kids are taught in Malay!

    So you either translate the millions of scientific books and journals into Malay – or else you are out of the game!

    Look at Singapore. I thank God that Singapore chose to educate us Singaporeans in English. Because of this vital fact – Singaporeans can easily tap into the state-of-the-art world of science and technology. We can keep up with the rapid growth of technology.

    To me the issue is very clear. Either you translate millions of scientific books and journals into Malay – or you simply teach in English.

    Malaysia cannot compare herself with Japan, Korea and China etc. Malaysia is NOT a scientific powerhouse. Indeed – I would say that Malaysia is far, far behind Singapore even.

    Whether you like it or not – the international language of science and technology is English. Ignore this – and your children will definitely curse you many years from now.

    Best Regards
    Dr Syed Alwi

  3. Kah Seng says:

    Chin Huat,

    Good one, as usual.

    Pointing out the dishonesty of the policy is really good.

    A vast hidden problem is the high-school commerce graduates. While HS science students have been switched to English in maths and science, I think commerce students are still pursuing Malay-medium curriculum. Global business English is even more English-intensive than science, and more difficult to learn. (Think about writing and arguing concepts of marketing, accounting, international contracts, finance, etc. in English.)

    Commerce graduates (HS or U level) will suffer a lot, especially the below-average students. A large percentage will be Malay males from middle- to lower-income families. Unemployment here will explode for many years.

    High schools: Since it is politically impossible to revert high schools back into the vernacular version (of the mid-20th century), a practical compromise may be to revert to 1975 and keep the teaching of maths and science in English in high school, and add geography and commerce in English.

    Then let the primary schools go back to mother-tongue education, including English-medium school as a primary alternative (a la 1975) for those who consider their mother tongue to be English.

    In a nutshell the compromise you are suggesting has a magical date for rolling back the clock: 1975.

    Cynically, we can tempt the Umno Malay nationalists with this prospect: A strong English-medium primary school system will severely weaken the Chinese vernacular school system. This is the hidden agenda that you are too kind to list under the other examples of policy dishonesty.

  4. secular kebangsaan says:

    What else can the school system do to promote racial unity, and attract non-Malay students and teachers back to the sekolah kebangsaan?

    Remove religion from schools. Other races feel intimidated when every school event/function/assembly begins with a prayer. Four to six hours of precious learning time per week is dedicated to religious classes. Moreover, most parents send their children to religious schools/classes outside of regular school hours.

    Don’t get me wrong, religious studies are important. But it should happen outside of school.

  5. menj says:

    Dr Syed Alwi, it is people like you who will destroy their own mother-tongue at the expense of assimilating Western influence. Singapore is not Malaysia so stop comparing apples and oranges. Singapore does not have a statement as in Article 152 of the Federal Constitution which clearly states that Bahasa Melayu is the national language and that governmental correspondence and educational policy must be based on that.

    As for the claim that by accepting English means accepting development, that is debunked by Japan, South Korea and China. All of these countries use their respective national languages to teach Science and Mathematics. Even European nations such as Germany and France do not use English to teach subjects related to Science and Mathematics.

    – MENJ

  6. Dr Syed Alwi says:

    Dear menj,

    Malaysia is not China, South Korea, Japan, Europe etc. Those are scientific powerhouses! Malaysia is a Third World country with very little technology. Indeed Malaysia is very far behind Singapore in terms of technology. So what are you going to do about this? Are you going to translate millions of scientific books and journals into Malay? Or are you going to teach Maths and Science in English? Which is more realistic?

    A wrong decision will lead to hi-tech investments going elsewhere.

    Best Regards
    Dr Syed Alwi

  7. chinhuatw says:

    Dr Syed Alwi,

    Is Singapore’s success dependent so much on its science and technology? I am afraid the greater part of its success may be in the commerce and services sectors.

    Therefore, the argument for English’s expanded use should not stop at teaching science and mathematics. If becoming Singapore is what Malaysia aims at, then we should press for teaching humanities and commerce subjects in English.

    The relevant debate is therefore not whether to improve the level of English, but how. My article argues that the language-switch policy merely disguises the real problem – the failure of English-language education in all streams.

    Establishing English medium schools would force this problem into the open and force the politicians to find solutions. So, why do we insist of shooting down choice and competition in education?

    Chin Huat

  8. menj says:

    Mr. Syed Alwi, nobody is saying that Malaysia is Japan, South Korea, etc. But one common feature between Japan, South Korea and other European countries is that they have an education policy in their own respective languages. There is no valid reason on why Malaysia should not do the same. As for where translation of scholarly journals and other related material is concerned, that is the job of DBP and the respective public universities and not directly related to the issue of PPSMI.

    Since you are a Singaporean, you ignorant about certain matters exclusive to Malaysia only. I was a product of an education system that taught Mathematics and Science in Bahasa Melayu. Do you see my command of the English language affected in any way?

    The answer to the impasse on the standard of English is to revamp the current English syllabus taught in national schools which suck to kingdom come. You are unaware that this is the right solution to take since you were not part of the Malaysian national school system as I was.

    – MENJ

  9. why so takut? says:

    1. Teaching science and maths in English has nothing to do with whether BM is the national language or not. So just scrap this argument. Protect the national language by teaching science and maths in BM? No sense at all. BM is still being taught and emphasised in many aspects of school.

    2. What is the fear of having English medium schools? That the students will have a better chance at jobs with the multinationals? Does this not prove that English medium schools are indeed superior in ensuring jobs for its students?

    3. Let there be a choice of sains dan matematik for the group who finds it difficult to cope with the language. And not fear thatthey will lose out if they compete with English medium schools.Iif they do fear that then aren’t they admitting science and maths in English would be an advantage?

  10. Dr Syed Alwi says:

    Dear Menj & Chin Huat,

    This is not about pride in cultural heritage nor political choice or whatever. This is about the stark reality of technology transfer. About how you plan to acquire state-of-the-art technology to power your economy.

    Singapore used to depend on the service sector. But increasingly – we have moved to focus on high technology. Hence our effort towards building up many high tech sectors and even – to import “foreign talent”.

    The only way you can go about tapping on the rapid growth of science and technology – is by using the international language of science. And it’s English.

    Menj suggests that DBP translate the millions of scientific books and journals into Malay. An honest answer is that it is not possible for DBP to translate the millions of scientific books and journals into Malay.

    Malays must wake up from this kind of closed-minded thinking. What are your children going to do without technology ?

    How do you seriously assimilate high technology from foreign cultures ? You cannot say that Malaysia is in the same situation as Japan, China, Europe, etc. The Europeans have been through hundreds of years of the Industrial Revolution. The Japanese were industrialised even before World War II. But Malaysia is just starting out very very late. You do not have much time to catch up.

    Best Regards
    Dr Syed Alwi

  11. Dr Syed Alwi says:

    Dear Chin Huat, this is for you:

    On your point regarding the English medium school – do you honestly think that Malay Malaysians will accept English medium schools ?

    They will not. Just read Harakah-Daily regarding the use of English. Just read what the Malay NGOs say about the usage of English.

    Malay Malaysians do not want English medium schools. That does not bode well for Malaysia and her attempts to transfer technology. Tak Boleh!

    Best Regards
    Dr Syed Alwi

  12. menj says:

    Those pro-PPSMI supporters are arguing that learning Maths and Science in English will improve a student’s command of the language as well as grasping the fundamentals of the subjects concerned. However, the TIMSS 2007 study report which was released at the end of the last year has suggested otherwise.

    The results of the study show that the average scores of Malaysian students in maths and science has dropped drastically. The Mathematics 2007 score went down to 474 points compared to 508 points in 2003, and 519 points for 1999. The Science score went down to 471 points in 2007 compared to 510 points in 2003 and 492 points in 1999.

    So what evidence do PPSMI supporters have to continue with this policy?

  13. Dr Syed Alwi says:

    Dear Menj,

    If that is the case regarding English – then I think that Malaysia is in for trouble. Because she cannot possibly transfer state-of-the-art technology in Malay. You need English for that. There is no doubt that DBP cannot translate the millions of scientific books and journals into Malay. It’s impossible.

    Best Regards
    Dr Syed Alwi

  14. why so takut says:

    Ha ha. What bs. Of course you will expect some drop in the beginning. Probably a TEACHING problem. I’m sure when it was switched to BM from ENGLISH years ago there was also a drop.

    Comparing ourselves to Japan and Korea. Just look at Proton. Pride of the nation?
    The point is, where does our education system compare to these countries? Can our students even compete with students from these countries?
    I was a product of the sains and matematik era. My education really only took off when I read in English.

  15. SHoo says:

    It does not really matter that much whether you teach in English or Malay. Either way if you politicise education you are going to fail.

    When Mahathir did the conversion they found that the standard of education deteriorated and if prolonged Malaysia’s competitiveness will surely worsen. Now they think they can try to correct it simply by teaching the two subjects in English. Now there seems to be some doubt about the correctness of the decision with opposition from some groups.
    You cannot but pity the young students who have to suffer from the poorly conceived and badly implemented policy.

    Eventually the nation suffers.

  16. no2 says:

    Even if millions of books are translated into BM, the reading culture is low.

    The government did advertise on reading, but it was temporary. It seems like a trend in the media and I think that’s the culture of Malaysia, everything is just temporary or following trends.

  17. apa takut says:

    I was part of the sains and matematik era. Did you know that the Medical Council of Britain withdrew recognition of the MBBS (UM) because of language issues?

    Carry on with the policy and be a jaguh kampung. In this globalised world, why do we insist on giving ourselves a handicap? Bring back English medium schools please. Think of the future.

  18. lizzie wong says:

    I do notice that the standard of science for my primary school children seems to have been lowered quite a bit, so that is a setback. Some of the problems lie with teachers who are not conversant in English. Imagine my nine year-old daughter having to correct her English teacher, not once, but on many occasions to the point that I asked her to not do it.

    While the initial result may not be positive, but as with all changes, we need to give it time.

    In the work place, I can see that English is widely used, and for as long as we operate within global confines there is no escape. As I see it, all the readers of TNG seem very well versed in English. Now, do we get to where we are if not for the old system?

    We need to ask, is it a question of this or that, BM or English? There is no denying that with the national school system, non-Malay children have succeeded in mastering our national language, and I am very pleased with that.

    What is the GMP’s proposal? Revert to the old days? Well, who loses? My children won’t. They will spend more time to master BM even more in order to do better in their school subjects, and at home they are exposed to lots of English and English medium materials.

    Reverting to the old system will hurt the rural folk and lower social strata more than the middle class, I think.

    I for one, do not know which is better, but those in positions of influence need to think long and hard.

  19. lizzie wong says:

    If the issue is about “mother tongue” being sidelined, I think, yes, please introduce English medium schools. As Chin Huat rightly pointed out, a lot of our kids (whatever the racial background) could well be pro-English.

    Do we have that option?

  20. lizzie wong says:

    I just saw that placard which says, “Jangan bunuh bahasa ibunda”. Really, would teaching maths and science in English do that?

    Not that the present system is 100% effective, but I do think that the standard of English in Malaysia needs to be given a boost, quickly.

  21. menj says:

    While you were all busy dissing the national language and promoting the English language at the expense of Bahasa Melayu, one hundred thousand protesters made themselves heard yesterday. I was proud to be among them.

    If you think that the PPSMI policy has mass support, show the proof to us. Go to the streets if you dare support the policy, I challenge you.

    – MENJ

  22. D Lim says:

    The deterioration of English started many years ago when nationalism gripped everyone and we converted the mainstream schools into Malay language schools. Nothing wrong with that since all Malaysians should speak Malay well. However, it is the implementation method and the ideology that English is NOT important that became the problem. Unfortunately, it still is and will be for quite some time to come. Unfortunately again, the kids who lose out in languages are generally those from the lower socio-economic backgrounds.

    It is to our children’s advantage to be learned in another language besides our national language be it Tamil, Mandarin, Japanese, French, etc. Language must be taught when kids are young. It is not easy to MASTER two languages let alone three. But we can set the path of our kids to be multi- or bilingual by introducing a second language to them from kindergarten onwards. Perhaps our policy-makers can talk to linguistic experts around the world. One good example of a bi-lingualism policy is just across the causeway i.e. Singapore. Most Singaporeans are bi-lingual and most speak two languages well. How did they do it?

  23. Dr Syed Alwi says:

    Dear Menj and other Malaysians,

    I pity Malaysian children. Without a good command of the English language, how do you propose to transfer technology ?

    Yes – 5,000 people marched against the PPSMI. In Malaysia, Malay-Muslim NGOs and political groups have made street demonstrations their modus operandi.

    As a Singaporean and an onlooker – I have basically written off Malaysia as another failed state within the Muslim world.

    Best Regards
    Dr Syed Alwi

  24. PUCHONG MALI says:

    Reading the arguments of PPSMI proponents, I find that they always miss a glaring point about the flaws of the policy which has been raised by the opponents, that is, PPSMI is not the effective way to improve the standard of English language of our pupils.

    On one hand you are worried about us not keeping pace with other nations in science and technology, but the teaching of the subjects themselves are compromised because of this half-baked policy. On the other hand you gloss over the measure which best solves the problem of poor English language standard, which is improve the teaching of the subject itself. Why not just increase the class time of English language lessons in school and leave the teaching of science and maths in which ever language the pupils are most proficient in? And the language that pupils are most proficient in usually happens to be their mother-tongue.

  25. brainsnoenuff says:

    1. Learning in English is an advantage.

    2. The rural kids can’t cope and therefore can’t benefit from the “advantage”. The opposite effects occur: they become more disadvantaged.

    3. Their solution? Level the field so that the rural kids look better? After all an A is an A whether in English or BM.

    4. The effect of that? The advantage that would have been gained amongst those kids who could have coped, especially gifted kids whose potential is only limited by the government’s policy. And the effect of that, we breed generations of mediocre kids whose only hope for a job is locally. And our uni degrees lose their credibility – they become mediocre.

    5. Finally? The Chinese kids are going to learn in Chinese and BM (and struggle in uni), the well-to-do Malays will send their kids abroad or to an international school for an English-medium education and an advantage in life.

    6. Why not maximise our potential? Let those who can cope gain the advantage, no? Unfair to the ones that can’t cope? Make everyone mediocre so that the mediocre look good? A self destructive strategy.

    7. By the way, how many foreign university graduates were amongst the crowd? How many of them have produced papers in internationally acclaimed journals?

  26. brainsnoenuff says:


    You are absolutely right.

    That is what we are arguing for.

    Let it be taught in BM. But let the English option remain.

    But if you see the arguments of some of the opponents, they are not arguing for the option. They are trying to hide behind “protecting the national language” and want it to be taught only in BM. I think it’s a fear that they will be disadvantaged if the English option remains, so their strategy is to have a policy to hold others back. “If I can’t do it, neither must I allow you to, for you might become better than me!”

  27. Petra says:

    I am a student, and I honestly feel that the way Maths and Science is taught right now is fine. What is the point of studying Maths and Science in BM if you will have to relearn all of it in English when you enter a university or a college. The English language will also better the younger generations in coping with a technologically advanced world. Most people in the cities understand and speak English fluently enough to cope up with these subjects in English although it may not be their mother tongue. And though those in rural areas may not be so well-versed in English, there is always the option of answering in BM, as the science and maths examination papers are bilingual.

  28. nobody says:

    Dear Dr Syed Alwi,

    What do you know what we students, who are the prey of this stupid system, feel? You never went through it yourself. It’s ok for you who’ve been taught in the language but what about us who haven’t? We can barely cope with the two subjects in bahasa let alone in English. Think about it.

    You go on about Malaysia being unable to advance because we’re not learning in English. Well, do you think we’d be able to go even further if we can’t even understand a thing taught in class? The whole thing’s ridiculous. Not all Malaysians are planning to be scientists or mathematicians or politicians. What’s the purpose of learning until such a high level when you don’t even use it? I mean, what’s the use of a tailor learning maths in English when he only needs basic maths? It’s a pure waste.

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