Continue Teaching Science and Mathematics in English

by M. Bakri Musa

The government’s decision to revisit (and most likely do away with) the current teaching of science and mathematics in English is an instructive example of how an otherwise sensible policy could easily be discredited and then abandoned because of poor execution. Had there been better planning, many of the problems encountered could have been readily anticipated and thus avoided, or at least reduced. The policy would then more likely to succeed, and thus be accepted.

Ironically, only a year ago a Ministry of Education “study” pronounced the program to be moving along “smoothly,” with officials “satisfied” with its implementation. Now another “study” showed that there was no difference in the “performance” (whatever that term means or how they measure it) between those taught in Malay or English.

The policy was in response to the obvious deficiencies noted in students coming out of our national schools: their abysmal command of English, and their limited mathematical skills and science literacy. They carry these deficits when they enter university, and then onto the workplace.

The results are predictable. These graduates are practically unemployable. As the vast majority of them are Malays, this creates tremendous political pressure on the government to act as employer of last resort. Accommodating these graduates made our civil service bloated and inefficient, burdened by their deficient language and mathematical abilities.

This longstanding problem began in the late 1970s when Malay became the exclusive language of instruction in our public schools and universities. Overcoming this problem would be a monumental undertaking.

The greatest mistake was to underestimate the magnitude of the task, especially in overcoming the system’s inertia. Today’s teachers and policy makers are products of this all-Malay education system. Change would mean repudiating the very system that had produced them, a tough sell at the best of times.

In their naivety, ministry officials convinced themselves that such enormous obstacles as the teachers’ lack of English fluency could easily be overcome by enrolling them in short culup (superficial) courses that were in turn conducted by those equally inept in English. Or by simply providing these teachers with laptops programmed with instructional modules!

Even if we had had the best talents devoting themselves exclusively to implementing the policy, the task would still be huge. Unfortunately we have Hishammuddin Hussein as Minister of Education shepherding the change. An insightful innovator or an effective executive he is not. Being simultaneously an UMNO Youth Chief, he was also distracted in trying to pass himself off as the champion of Ketuanan Melayu.

These factors practically ensure the initiative’s failure. The tragic part is that the burden of the failure falls disproportionately on the rural poor, meaning Malays, a point missed by these self-professed nationalists. I would have thought that that alone would have motivated them to succeed.

A Better Way

Teaching science and mathematics in English would solve two problems simultaneously. One, considering the critical shortage of textbooks, journals, and other literature in Malay, teaching the two subjects in English would facilitate the acquisition of new knowledge by our students. With the exponential growth of new knowledge, it would be impossible to keep up solely through translations, even if we were to devote our entire intellectual resources towards that endeavor.

The other objective was to enhance the English fluency of our students. Of course if that were the only consideration, there are other more effective ways of achieving it, like devoting more instructional hours to the subject.

If, as the recent Ministry’s “study” indicates, there is no difference in performance between those taught in Malay or English, that in itself would favor continuing the program because of the twin benefits discussed earlier. Besides, changing course midstream would not only be disruptive but also counterproductive. Our educational system needs predictable stability and incremental improvements, not disruptive U-turns and faddish changes, especially in response to political pressures.

A more important point is this. Altering a politically pivotal and highly emotional public policy requires careful preparation and deliberate execution. If I were to implement the policy, this is what I would do. Lest readers think that this is hindsight wisdom on my part, rest assured that I had documented these ideas in my earlier book, long before the government even contemplated the policy.

Being prudent, as we are dealing with our children’s and nation’s future, I would begin with a small pilot project, analyze the problems, correct the deficiencies, and only then expand the program.

First, I would implement the policy initially only at primary and selected secondary schools, like our residential schools. The language requirements as well as the science and mathematical concepts at the primary level are quite elementary, and thus more readily acquired by the teachers. And at that level the pupils would not have to unlearn much as everything would still be new.

In schools where the background English literacy level of the pupils is low as in the villages, I would have the pupils take English immersion classes for a full term or even a year. We had earlier successful experiences with this with our Special Malay Classes and Remove classes. This strategy has also been tried successfully in America for children of non-English-speaking immigrants. Another idea I put forth in my earlier book is to bring back the old English schools in such areas. As the Malay literacy level in the community and at home is high, these pupils are unlikely to “forget” their own language.

At the secondary level, our residential schools get the best students and teachers. Consequently the program could be more easily implemented there as the learning curve would be steep, and mistakes more readily recognized and corrected. Once the kinks have been worked out, expand the program.

Second is the issue of teachers. Fortunately Malaysia has two large untapped reservoirs of talent: recently retired teachers trained under the old English-based system, and native English speakers who are either spouses of Malaysians or residents of this country. Given adequate compensation and minimal of hassles, they could be readily recruited.

I would add other incentives especially if they were to serve in rural areas where the need is most acute. Thus in addition to greater pay, I would give them first preference to teachers’ quarters.

A permanent solution would be to convert a number of existing teachers’ colleges into exclusively English-medium institutions to train future teachers of English, science, and mathematics. As the present teacher-trainees have limited English fluency, I would begin admitting them right away in January following their leaving school in December of the preceding year.

From that January till the regular opening of the academic year (sometime in July), these trainees would undergo intensive English immersion classes where their entire 24-hour day would be consumed with learning, speaking, thinking, and even dreaming in English. With the subsequent three years of additional instructions exclusively in English, these graduates would then be fully fluent in English.

With such quality programs, these graduates would be in great demand within and outside their profession. With their heightened English facility and mathematical competency, their educational opportunities would also expand as they could further their studies anywhere in the English-speaking world. With such bright prospects, these colleges would have no difficulty recruiting talented school leavers. Our teaching profession would also be enriched with the addition of such talents.
As for textbooks, there is no need to write new ones. The contents of these two subjects are universally applicable. Meaning, textbooks written for British students would be just as suitable for Malaysians, so we could select already available books. With its purchasing clout, the government could drive a hard bargain with existing publishers.

I hope Ministry of Education officials, including and especially Hishammuddin, would heed these factors when they review the current policy. They should continue the current policy, correct the evident errors, and strengthen the obvious weaknesses. The success of this policy would also mean success for our students, and our nation. That is a worthy pursuit for anyone with ambitions to one day lead the nation.

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  1. #1 by AhPek on Tuesday, 17 June 2008 - 11:20 pm

    Cheng On Soo,

    If you say that there will still be that many unemployed even if we were to make all companies use BM as their official work language, perhaps the best person to ask for something else to blame for the problem is
    Kasim Amat.He has a panacea for all Malaysia’s problems, I am sure of that.

  2. #2 by Anak Malaysia on Wednesday, 18 June 2008 - 1:33 am

    Dear Malaysians,

    All languages are good for the speaker or listener to understand and interpret the meaning by sound spoken and words written. If a student can master many languages in his mind, then the student is indeed a great staff asset for the United Nation bodies. Many Asian are multi-lingual with several languages and their students are highly salaried , sort after by MNCs and also given top positions in many foreign affair ministeries. So it is regret to take note of some bloggers/writers here criticised about the racist schools in Malay, Mandarin and Tamil. They are too short sighted in their understanding of the importance of a mother tongue language and master English as a main language for commerce and international communication.

    Limkamput quoted that I am not a “Sheikh” or Arabian origin and PR Malaysian here and my English is horrible. It is fine for a humble Arabian citizen to read such negative feedback, nevertheless, my message is very fruithful and informative to all Malaysians.

    Frankly speaking that I was educated, can read,write and speak fluent Arabic, English, Japanese, Mandarin, Italian, Spanish and Thai languages. I am also fluent in Bahasa Malaysia after attended 18 months intensive classes in Malaysia. I can master all 8 languages for past 30 years after graduated with a triple degrees, master and Phd in fuel technology, atomic engineering and accountancy and IT in elite universities in Dubai, UK and USA.

    I think Limkamput is another joker like Kasim Amat who love to write rubbish, non facts and non figures supporting statements but criticising other writers and bloggers here. What a shame to both Limkamput and Kasim Amat?

    Your nickname “Limkamput” well means you are “Kamput/Koyak” type of person is indeed suitable to replace your surname. In the name of ALLAH, such person is useless grabbage scum or “sampah masyarakat”. No hard feelings yeah !!

    If all Malaysians have similar taste like Limkamput, then PR Malaysian wonders why your beloved government has continued to marginalise, discrimate and insult the intelligence of the people of Malaysia for past 50 years but many mismanaged public funds and misused of power in Malaysia.

    No further comments and glad to read positive feedback from good writers and bloggers here.



    Al-Sheikh Ahmeed Al-Malmudi Fuad
    (Retired) Senior Fuel Engineer & Analyst
    PR Malaysian & UAE

  3. #3 by limkamput on Wednesday, 18 June 2008 - 5:36 am

    Anak Malaysia, Jangan panggil sendiri anak Malaysia kalau PR sahaja, faham? Tidak boleh undi pun. Beli petrol put tak dapat rebate, nak cakap besar pula. Tak malu kah?

    There is saying, if you want to know a language know it well. What is the point of you knowing 10 languages, but the proficiency is all “tong sampah” standard. Moat Americans and the British know only one language, but they master it well. Ya, i know, most Asians, particularly Malaysians, claim to know three or four languages, but the standard is “phua tang sai” to be of any use.

    What do you mean by elite universities in Dubai, UK and USA? You mean the Ivy League (from the USA)? Tell you what, if you can prove that you got a Masters or Phd (even in sociology or Islamic studies) from the Ivy League, i shall quit this blog for good. How about it?

  4. #4 by limkamput on Wednesday, 18 June 2008 - 9:20 am

    Repost because of typo:

    Anak Malaysia,
    Jangan panggil sendiri anak Malaysia kalau PR sahaja, faham? Tidak boleh undi pun. Beli petrol pun tak dapat rebate, nak cakap besar pula. Tak malu kah?

    There is a saying, if you want to know a language know it well. What is the point of you knowing 10 languages, but the proficiency is all at “tong sampah” standard. Most Americans and the British know only one language, but they master it well. Ya, i know, most Asians, particularly Malaysians, claim to know three or four languages, but the standard is “phua tang sai” to be of any use.

    What do you mean by elite universities in Dubai, UK and USA? You mean the Ivy League (from the USA)? Tell you what, if you can prove that you got a Masters or Phd (even in sociology or Islamic studies) from the Ivy League, i shall quit this blog for good. How about it?

  5. #5 by lakilompat on Wednesday, 18 June 2008 - 4:43 pm

    The scholarship department who handled and approve the distribution of scholarship still continue to treat non malay as beggar. Rejecting their application even though they earned 13As or giving them inferior offer, it is fortunate these Malay rascist are not the only department in the world handling scholarship. I don’t see many Malay doctor make it, most private hospital like Glen Eagles Medical, Lam Wah Ee, Island Hospital, most of the doctor are chinese or indian (non malay).

    I doubt Malay who applied the scholarship really use up the money to pay for school fees or use it to buy motor bike to join the Mat Rempit or Minah Rempit gang on the street.

  6. #6 by kokhaw on Wednesday, 18 June 2008 - 10:09 pm

    Hi, all. I am a new comer. With regards to whether chinese, english or bahasa in teaching, instead of debating base on races or type of school, can we look at another angle base on fact?

    Chinese is a very special language which using pictorial wording. I have posted a quite comprehensive discussion and comparison between learning chinese and english in my webpage as follow:-

    After read though the article, hopefully, you can understand that why historically and generally, chinese are smarter and good in trading. It is because of the language they practised.

    Majority of humans have the same ability since born, but why certain race of population is smarter. It is because they are trained to become smarter.

    Therefore, in stead of debating base on something sentimental and sensitive, why not base on the fact, we choose something good for the future of our children and the country.

    Thanks for reading my message and we shall expel forward.

  7. #7 by damianmp on Thursday, 19 June 2008 - 4:13 am

    If we combine all the ideas together, we can create miracle. As a trainer of the ETeMS program, I have done all I can to deliver the goods. I have talked for many years on the implementaion of ETeMS since its started in 2002 for year 1 until 2007 for year 6. It is absolutely unfair to anticipate the product because we have just completed the cycle. But, I have made some critical observations that are really bothering me. It is a question of attitude! Unless we change our attitude we’ll never accomplish our objective. It is not really a question of talent or skill because with positive attitude we can achieve our objective. Politicizing this issue does not help while some politicians practise double standard. There are so much to rectify….it will take time to recover the lost glory! My advice is, we have to continue with the program!!

  8. #8 by trublumsian on Thursday, 19 June 2008 - 6:45 am

    Kasim Amat et al., you need to get out of the well and smell the coffee out there a little more. Puuhleez, it’s been 50 years we’ve been resigned to a good view of the rear ends of those around us wheezing by. Seriously, you’ve been victimologized for too long buddy! The less unemployables in Malaysia, as a group, has been feeding Victim-unization doses from generation on in a vicious cycle. Here’s a tell-tale symptom — self fulfilling prophecy without the heart to admit it.

  9. #9 by tourman53 on Thursday, 19 June 2008 - 6:58 am

    The govt. should bring back the English medium schools if they’re really serious about the english knowledge.
    Pls don’t interfere with the chinese school. A solely chinese school means all subject must be taught in chinese except for languages. That’s why they’re called Chinese school.

  10. #10 by trublumsian on Thursday, 19 June 2008 - 7:09 am

    How bout this for some introspecting on why some countries do well using non-English….. basically, only those who meet 1 of these 2 criteria need apply:

    1. Size. A population that is huge will have the opportunity to use critical mass to function wholesome in a cocoon. I.e. China, Japan, and arguably the EU.

    2. A well-oiled engine. A people that is (gulp!) united – concussively, mind you – and has a culture of pushing each other to excel will roll, roll, and keep rolling in gathering moss. The system feeds on each other. I.e. Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and arguably the EU. And what is the lingua franca of these countries when they’re ready to explode and impose onto the global market?? No points for guessing English!

    So, need Malaysia apply?
    : (

  11. #11 by trublumsian on Thursday, 19 June 2008 - 7:41 am

    So here’s my story, and folks can tell me what WENT right that can be applied to our once promising country. Ok, or what went wrong..? :P

    Anyways, I split my primary ed years between Singapore and Malaysia (a Chinese school in Seremban). My sec ed was in a Malay school, although I converse with my buddies in Cantonese outside of earshot. I did well in my SPM, but apparently not good enough for a spot in a local U. I got a B3 in Bahasa btw. UCLA took me without me begging, and Berkeley did too when I knocked on their MBA program. No, I’m not rich, I had to pay off loans for 3 years. Nor am I Einstein reincarnated, I just function under a no-free-lunch mentality. Anyhoo, my 4 years in an English/Chinese medium prepped me for life. My sec years were spent learning the maths and sciences in BM. I had no problems adapting them to my college years. You see, teaching these subjects in English is not the cure, but the immersion of English during formative years, IS. Subjecting students to 2, 3, or 4 classes of English or in English will not help much. Providing an environment to speak and use it will. In the past 8 years, I’ve been sent to manage shop by 3 different Fortune 100’s in places like Japan, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Mexico, and the UK. I can’t help but attribute that to my ability to speak and write in eloquent English and the many forms of the Chinese language. That, in turn allows one to pick up other languages like Espanol with a little more head start.

  12. #12 by trublumsian on Thursday, 19 June 2008 - 7:46 am

    typo corrected:

    2. A well-oiled engine. A people that is (gulp!) united – concussively (I meant to say conducive-ly)

  13. #13 by lopez on Thursday, 19 June 2008 - 6:56 pm

    i say let the malays study their malay in malay medium schools, let the tamils study in their tamil medium schools and let the chinese study in their chinese medium schools.

    And of course let us have the good old english medium schools
    and let their parents decide for themsleves.
    The government is there to faciliate that this is want of the people, so be it.

    If you are keen to know what about national interest and competitiveness, i say man,it is already in place as a nation, we have people who are multi tongue and it is of internationale repute.

    So where is it so difficult for those so call policy makers, dumb or have hidden agendas.

  14. #14 by trublumsian on Friday, 20 June 2008 - 8:24 am

    I’ve heard many ethnic Chinese telling me what they want is an education system like Singapore’s, with a touch of Bahasa added into it. In order to really compete on even keel on the world labor market, Singapore is way ahead in foreseeing and prepping the young minds for it. Now, Malaysia should retain its lingual identity, granted, and whatever school formats the Chinese and Indians are asking for should include ample immersion of the language. Young minds are capable in learning 3 languages in parallel if you allow them. Don’t hold back the inclined and diligent ones just because the less motivated ones can’t keep up. That said, we suspect THAT is exactly what the politicos today are up to, in the name of affirmative action. And speaking of affirmative action, is Malaysia the only country who subscribe to the notion of it being for a majority people??

  15. #15 by ummahzy on Friday, 27 June 2008 - 4:53 pm

    As an American citizen teaching English in Malaysia, I have witnessed the unfortunate consequences of a policy that seems to have been implemented “without necessary preparation.” From the start, I have empathized with both the students and the teachers.

    CLIL (Content Language Integrated Learning) is now one of the new buzzwords, or acronyms, in English language training. CLIL is teaching subjects such as science, and Mathematics to students through a foreign language (i.e. English in Malaysia). CLIL can be performed by the English teacher using ‘real’ content (i.e. algebra or biology) or the subject teacher using English. Both methods result in the simultaneous learning of content and English.

    The goal is to make the student proficient in both the foreign language and the subject area, for example English plus Math and Science. To reach this goal, it is necessary for the English teachers to be aware of the areas taught by the subject teachers. The work of the English teacher should help prepare students to keep pace in the Math and Science class.

    I think that with training (of English and content area teachers), Malaysia can produce graduates who are ready for the workforce and able to compete academically and professionally on an international level.

    Furthermore, I’d like to use this blogpost as an opportunity to say thank you to Malaysians of all races for accepting me into their classrooms and giving me the privilege of sharing my mother tongue with them. I came to Malaysia with the intention of staying for two months and have been here for almost four years now. I stayed because of all the opportunities here for me to work and develop professionally, but especially to help others.

    I hope that the Malaysian authorities will do their part in developing and implementing policies that will make Malaysia a land of opportunity for Malaysians!

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