By Kee Thuan Chye
One of the brightest things to emerge in these gloomy days is the Education Ministry’s announcement that English will be a must-pass subject at the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) examinations from 2016.
This is something that has been a long time coming. English used to be a must-pass subject until it was stopped from being such so long ago that I can’t even remember when. But what resulted after that was a drastic drop in the standard of our competency in that language. Then the ripple effect caused the standard to drop even further as people who were not proficient enough in English came to be trained to teach it in schools. I have heard many horror stories emerging from that situation.
At one time, Malaysia was among the top countries in Asia that were proficient in English. But nowadays, most Malaysians can’t string a sentence together properly and without making grammatical errors. These include English-language teachers themselves – not just those teaching in schools but also those teaching students learning Teaching of English as a Second Language (TESL), and even English Literature, in universities. This is embarrassing.
In June 2009, Deputy Prime Minister and Education Minister Muhyiddin Yassin asked whether English should be made a must-pass subject at SPM after he found out – reportedly to his surprise – that it was not. At the time, it seemed as though he was just floating the idea to see if it would get the right responses, considering that the issue of English can be a sensitive one, especially to so-called nationalists who are fearful it might supplant the position of the national language. It has taken him four years to announce his ministry’s decision in the affirmative.
The Government must have finally woken up to the realisation that English is important as a global language, and no Malaysian child should be left behind in the quest to master it.
Nonetheless, the announcement came as a bit of a surprise. Few hints had been given lately to herald its coming. Furthermore, the target year for implementing the new ruling is only three years away. To some, that seems rather soon. After all, the number of students who failed SPM English last year amounted to a substantial 23 per cent.
The big concern is over whether the education system would be prepared for the compulsory pass. Do we have enough competent teachers? Are they well-equipped and well-trained? Would the students who have to face it in 2016 and are currently weak in the language be able to catch up?
Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim has expressed reservations. He asks if students are ready for it. “I agree it should be made mandatory for students to learn English,” he says. “I agree that English proficiency should be boosted. But mandatory to pass? The quality of teachers and infrastructure should be upgraded first.”
He’s right about upgrading the teachers and infrastructure, but as for students being ready, it may just need their being thrown into the deep end for them to get serious and study the language with purpose.
Right now, many of them don’t even care to learn English, and that’s why they are so poor at it. They are misguided into thinking that it plays no part in their lives. They are even told by some quarters that it might have a negative influence on their culture and identity, which of course is utter rubbish. But once it becomes a compulsory pass at SPM, the students’ attitude will change.
The stamp of official recognition for the language will also reinstate its place in the collective consciousness. This was lost after 1970, with the resurgence of neo-nationalism, to the detriment of Malaysians. Now that we have been left behind because of our English decline, it is time to catch up fast.
So, even if the quality of teachers and infrastructure is still not satisfactory, once the political will to promote English has been asserted, the upgrading must proceed right away. It needs a jolt to the system to get things rolling; this surprising decision is the jolt we’ve been waiting for. It is not something that should be given too much preparation time for, because as we have seen often in the past, when this is the case, the people involved will merely drag their feet. Nothing gets done till the deadline draws near, so there’s hardly a difference between a short deadline and a long one. The latter merely delays the process, and we can’t afford to delay improving our English any more.
To be sure, it will meet with resistance. And the obligatory reaction from groups calling for the upholding of the supremacy of the national language.
Even Anwar makes that grumble. He wants the Education Ministry to uplift Malay first and strengthen students’ command of the national language before addressing their command of English. But this will always be a perennial issue – and after more than half a century of Malay being the national language, the champions of that language are still not satisfied. It doesn’t look like they will ever be. Simply because they will politicise the issue of language no matter what. And Anwar is obviously doing that, too. To try and win the support of the rural population, including that of Sabah and Sarawak as well.
But the time has come to stop politicising the study of language and the issue of education as a whole. Malaysian students through the decades have suffered enough because of politicisation. The study of history in schools, for example, has been so narrowly focused on Malaysia, Islam and Umno that our young know hardly anything of world history. This is pathetic.
Of course, Malay must be accorded its appropriate status as the national and official language, but this has been a given since independence. And its position was further emphasised after 1970. Many hours are dedicated to teaching it in schools. And all subjects in national schools except English are taught in Malay. So how could its status be threatened?
Indeed, the time has come for our politicians to think of the people instead of their own self-interests. They should think of the benefits that the mastery of English will bring to Malaysians, and the country as well. It will help open minds, and also create opportunities. And if we don’t start now to bring English back, we may never get started. This is what should propel us to action in order to move forward. Not the unlikely threat to Malay. Not the short time being given to get things going. And certainly not whether our students are ready for it.
When they are faced with pass or fail, they will be ready.
* Kee Thuan Chye is the author of the new book The Elections Bullshit, now available in bookstores.