Enhance, Not Review the Teaching of Science and Mathematics in English

by M. Bakri Musa

Minister of Education Muhyuddin Yassin is doing our nation a great disservice in further delaying the critical decision on the of teaching science and mathematics in English (TSME, or its Malay acronym, PPSMI –Pengajaran dan Pembelajaran Sains dan Matematik Dalam Bahasa Inggeris) in our schools. His indecision merely compounds the uncertainty, especially among educators, parents and students.

What he should be doing instead is to explore ways of enhancing the implementation of the policy, not review it. He should be focusing on finding ways to get more competent teachers, explore innovative teaching techniques, and provide inexpensive textbooks. He should also be busy eliminating such expensive but ineffective teaching gimmicks as the “computerized teaching modules” with their laptops and LCDs that our teachers are unable to handle. Those machines are now either stolen or crashed because of viruses and dust.

The conditions of our students today have not changed from 2003 when the policy was first introduced. If any they are worse. Whatever the rationale was for adopting the policy back in 2003, it is still very much valid today.

Today’s many critics of the policy are latecomers. Where were they when the policy was first mooted six years ago? These critics have yet to answer the basic question on whether the policy itself is flawed or that the deficiencies are with its implementation. They are unable to answer this important question as they are entirely confused over the issue. Their opposition is based more on emotions rather than rational thinking.

Consider the joint statement of our five living National Laureates in Literature. First, the facts they cited were clearly erroneous. Stating that most Nobel Prize winners are from non-English-speaking countries is not only incorrect but missed the essential point that most of those luminaries are English literate. Similarly our National Laureates’ plea that we should emulate the Scandinavian countries missed the important point that their students and citizens are all fluently bilingual if not multilingual, with English being the most common second language. Indeed we should emulate the Scandinavian countries and ensure that our students are truly bilingual.

The Laureates’s concerns are grossly misguided. No one is questioning the status of the Malay language, or its importance in nation building. We all subscribe to that. It is unclear from their statement whether they are against our students learning a second language or against English as that second language.

They went on to make the totally irrelevant point that Mandarin would soon replace English as the most widely spoken language. Having made that observation, they failed to follow up on it. That is, even the Chinese government is now encouraging, no, forcing their students to learn English.

These laureates and other critics missed the essence of the current policy, which is to enhance our students’ ability to read and understand English. It is not the policy’s intention that we should learn English at the expense of Malay. In short, the policy aims to expand our students’ intellectual horizon, not curtail it.

The laureates’ muddled thinking only produces only muddled conclusions.

In truth, it is too early to pass any judgment on the wisdom of the policy. Any policy, especially one pertaining to education and social matters, takes time to discern its effects. To evaluate this policy credibly, one would need to let at least three to five cohorts of students finish the program. Meaning, a time period of about 15 years! Consider that we are only now recognizing the damaging effects of our educational reforms that were introduced back in the 1970s!

Yet we have “researchers” from the Universiti Perguruan Sultan Idris (UPSI) confidently declaring the policy “ineffective” barely four years after the policy was implemented. Earlier, just a few months after the policy’s adoption, a Ministry of Education’s “study” pronounced the remarkable “improvement” in test scores of our students taught under the new program. Who do these folks think they are kidding?

I could not get a copy of the Ministry’s paper, but I have the UPSI professors’. Suffice to say that it would never appear in the pages of refereed journals, except perhaps the Ulu Langat Bulletin of Education. Frankly if I had been an academic, I would be embarrassed to append my name to such a shoddy paper.

This policy would not have triggered its many belated critics had the leadership showed more resolve and greater commitment. They became vociferous and assertive only when former Minister of Education Hishamuddin misguidedly re-opened the issue. Why he did it is best left for him to answer, but I venture that the then looming UMNO leadership contest had plenty to do with it. Old Hishamuddin needed to display his nationalistic manhood once again, especially after the spectacular flop of his earlier unsheathing the keris.

Flawed Implementation

I have not seen any change in the Ministry of Education operations since or in response to the adoption of the policy. I would have thought that at least there would be a dozen English-medium teachers’ training colleges by now to provide for the necessary trained teachers. Likewise our universities should be expanding the number of classes in science and mathematics taught in English so there would be an ample supply of graduate teachers competent to implement the new policy.

Similarly, the ministry should have by now commissioned textbook writers and publishers. Failing that, I would have expected these officials to be contracting with established foreign publishers to buy their texts.

The fact that none of these measures have been undertaken reflects incompetence or lack of commitment to the new policy, or both. The fault then lies not with the policy but with those entrusted with the awesome responsibilities of carrying it out.

Those Malay language nationalists and other strident critics of TSME fail to recognize one glaring reality. That is, our current educational policy is failing our students and our nation. Those who can or have other options for their children have already abandoned our system. We see this especially among the non-Malays. Increasingly, more and more Malays are also following suit. This leaves those poor village folks who have no other choice; they are trapped in the current system. And they are almost all Malays. They are the ones left out, victimized by their own kind, the language nationalists on one side and the incompetent education bureaucrats on the other.

If not for the public sector and the various GLCs acting as employers of last resort, graduates of our current educational system would simply be without jobs. There is however, a limit to the government’s capacity as employer, and we are already way beyond that point.

For a society to advance, it must first come to terms with itself. A major part of that exercise involves recognizing our own weaknesses, for unless we acknowledge that we cannot even begin to overcome them. Malays must recognize that a major problem with our community is that we are not competitive, not even in our native land let alone the global arena. A major contributor to this sorry state of affairs is our defective education system that continues to produce graduates who have abysmal language and mathematical skills, as well as being science illiterate.

We have completely indoctrinated our young and ourselves with a “zero-sum mentality,” that learning another language could only come at the expense of our own. Worse, we have gone further and mentally programmed our young that fluency in another language is not an asset but an expression of hatred for one’s own. In so doing, we exposed our own collective limited intellectual capacity, and an inability to expand it. That is the sorry part.

We are only deluding our young by appealing to their base emotions. Exhortations of Ketuanan Melayu will never make them competitive or guarantee them a place under the sun, not even the sun in our Tanah Melayu. Unless we are competitive, we cannot survive, let alone be Tuan. On the other hand when we are competitive, we would be Tuan even in lands other than Tanah Melayu.

The other part of the exercise involves our willingness to learn from others, especially those more advanced. The ancient Arabs learned from the Greeks, the medieval Europeans from the Arabs, and the Japanese from the West. It saddens me that our luminaries by their actions and words are sending precisely the wrong message to our young. That is, we have nothing to learn from others.

Our political leaders are too preoccupied with their own short-term political survival and gamesmanship instead of leading the way forward. Unfortunately our children’s children will bear the burden of our current leaders’ stupidities.

  1. #1 by k1980 on Monday, 18 May 2009 - 9:59 am

    Students in Cambodia, Laos and many former French colonies in Africa are demanding the right to be taught in English and not in French. But over here, the tuans are still in denial mode.

  2. #2 by HJ Angus on Monday, 18 May 2009 - 9:59 am

    I don’t want to sound the PANIC button but this issue is more urgent and requires the immediate attention and action of both BN and PR MPs.

  3. #3 by Jeffrey on Monday, 18 May 2009 - 11:56 am

    The chances of success are better when one is proficient in spoken and written language. Not only salesmen and lawyers who ordinarily use their mouths to make a living testify to this truth : so too anyone else trying to influence a decision and get a result he desires – whether as a member of a board of directors, a member of cabinet, legislative assembly or even parliament how being eloquent helps. Language is therefore power; it is the tool for power, dominance and superiority. When one’s first language is used or enforced to be used, one hopes one has (generally) greater competence and influence over others to whom the language used is not their first! Language is also power because it transmits ones cultural values to others using it. Today the globalisation of English has assisted the spread of Anglo-Saxon cultural, political and economic values.

    5 living National Laureates in Literature would argue that “Nobel Prize winners are from non-English-speaking countries; that we should emulate the Scandinavian countries”.

    M. Bakri Musa disagrees. He thinks them misquided. Bakri says: “The laureates’ muddled thinking only produces only muddled conclusions”.

    Whether muddled or clear depends from whose perspectives. From perspectives of “Ketuanan” the Laureates’ thinking is crystal clear.

    The superiority of national language and marginalisation of English is completely consistent with precepts of Ketuanan. What more Laureates are the best in the national language and for so long as it is not threatened by English, they will be at apex and the arbiter of the language power pyramid.

    Often it is difficult to be objective when our own vested interest is at stake and we could think of a conclusion that best suits our interest and position and then look for arguments and reasons based on the greater good to justify that conclusion. There is a word for this: they call it expofacto-rationalisation!

    However Bakri has made a cogent rebuttal. He zeros in on the crux of the issue in these words: “We are only deluding our young by appealing to their base emotions. Exhortations of Ketuanan Melayu will never make them competitive or guarantee them a place under the sun, not even the sun in our Tanah Melayu. Unless we are competitive, we cannot survive, let alone be Tuan. On the other hand when we are competitive, we would be Tuan even in lands other than Tanah Melayu.”

    Bakri is right because today what matters is the global language, which due to accidents of history/colonisation etc happens to be English that is spread and embraced world wide.

    Politicians of course are not so concerned about what is the truth as much as a public intellectual like Bakri arguing with the Laureates. Of greater importance to them is votes and sentiments of the vote bank. If “deluding our young by appealing to their base emotions” could secure votes, why not (to a politician)? :)

  4. #4 by tsn on Monday, 18 May 2009 - 1:18 pm

    Your final 3rd paragraph saying definitely is true. If you yourself are not smart, capable and competitive, eventhough you manage to make yourself a TUAN, you are only “TUAN” of idiots and paupers, nothing can be more than that . No enlightened blokes will wholeheartedly accept a dimwit as theirs “TUAN”.

    In this rapid changing world, of course, we must have good command of English to survive and prosper. However before we rush into any solution we must carefully study the problem and weigh the various available solutions. Any unsuitable approach will make our country more precarious, dinner from Jasmine rice to broken rice. Maths & Sciences are understanding and cumulative subjects. Can we expect a 7-years child from Kg Hang Jebat/Ulu New Village/K Estate to understand the course material in broken English, not to forget some of the concepts in these subjects are pretty abstract and fishy, not easy to grab. Here I do not at all mean to demean the English command of the teachers. How naive we are to expect the involved teachers to have sufficient working English standard? The poor souls here too are the victim of “bahasa jiwa kebangsaan”. Before this implementation their lifelong learning process was minimally in English. Out of sudden we demand then to have airborne English standard. Teachers are just like you and me busy with life commitments. Money, children, husband, wife(wives)… not much time left to improve the command of English at this juncture of life. Perhaps with this policy our English standard is improved by 20%, but our Maths and Sciences have downward sliding 50%. What a disaster!

    Encik Bakri I have small request here, since you are quite enlightened, could you kindly check up what will be the outcomes if we teach history or any other art subjects in English. To me if you do not know/understand primary school history due to poor English proficiency, doesn’t matter at all, you just jump into secondary school history and read it as a new story. Language skill & knowledge are just like arteries, it is a well connected network, if you have it, you just can use it anywhere, anytime, immaterial where you acquire it.

    Anyway! Chinese primary schools must remain status quo. Absolutely no English in Maths, Sciences, History or whatsoever. Almost 90% of Chinese primary school students will not continue theirs Chinese learning in secondary school, either lack of opportunities or interest. So if during primary level the teaching language is so rojak, surely the students will become 3 suku, pathetic in all 3 languages, even the basic command of Chinese also kaput. Those want their children to have more English in primary school, please go to national school, don’t be so dumb blindly condemn Chinese educationists.

  5. #5 by k1980 on Monday, 18 May 2009 - 1:22 pm

    Enter any university library and you will come across students doing reference from English texts, while fiddling through a English-Malay dictionary to try to make some sense of what is in the text. A big thank you to Mammaktir who caused an entire generation to be clueless about English.

  6. #6 by Taxidriver on Monday, 18 May 2009 - 3:45 pm

    The BN government led by UMNO leaders is well known for their indecisiveness, and the cabinet is not called a ‘flip-flop’ cabinet for nothing. Former Ed. Minister, Hishammudin withheld that decision for obvious reason, while Muhyiddin is doing same for the very same reason that prevented the former from making it ( decision ).

    Either way, the decision on PPSMI will put Muhyiddin in hot soup, so to speak. Hishammudin knew it. He delayed his decision as he knew he would be leaving for another Ministry. He was smart. ( or stupid? )

    Should Muhyiddin be in favour of continuation of PPSMI, the UMNO and Malay rigids will put up a strong protest. But a reverse decision will make him be seen by the majority of progressive minded Malaysians as someone out of touch with the ever forward moving world. He will be as the Malay saying goes: ‘Katak dibawah tempurung’

    For Muhyiddin to be a better education minister than his predessor and be remembered positively, he should opt for status quo. Time will prove him right.

    Good-luck to you, DPM.

  7. #7 by Taxidriver on Monday, 18 May 2009 - 5:07 pm

    I have seen this video clip wherein MP from Sarawak, Bung Mokhtar Radin,was confronted in the Parliament lobby by a group Malay opposers of PPSMI led by UMNO Youth and Malay NGOs.They were unruly, disrespectful to and intimidated the MP, asking:\ Kau sendiri fasih dalam Bahasa Inggeris?\

    Mokhtar: Tak fasih

    UNMO Youth: Jadi, kenapa sokong?….kenapa kau sokong?…………

    Dr. Bakri, how do you think Malaysia is to move forward if we have people like that who belong to the side of the Ruling Party which, more often than not, give in to their demands for political reasons? Thus far, no Umno leader is brave enough to stop being both HOT N Cold. Every of their decision is quickly reversed at the slightest protest by such people. Not surprisingly, Dr. M calls it half-past-six cabinet. The world calls it a FLIP-FLOP government.

  8. #8 by taiking on Monday, 18 May 2009 - 5:59 pm

    The way forward actually is to bring back english medium schools. Chinese school is an entirely different kettle of fish. The standard of chinese in our country is not far behind china and taiwan and way way better than singapore. That could be the reason why chinese educationist in the country wants to maintain the standard by arguing against teaching science and maths in english.

    Besides, chinese education in malaysia is complete ie all subjects are tought in chinese (except english and bm). And after some years of basic chinese education, it actually gets easier to teach chinese school children science and maths using chinese language. This is because chinese technical terms are normally coined in a way which bear direct reference to their respective technical meaning. So there is advantage to be gained by continuing with chinese for maths and science.

    So the arguments put forth by chinese educationists may or may not apply to malays and indians for having science and maths in their respective languages. So our min is really stuck.

    Let them have a choice. And at the same time it is good to up the standard of our english. For this bring back english medium school.

  9. #9 by ekin on Monday, 18 May 2009 - 6:45 pm

    I wondered why mr pathetic Kassim Amat not blogging yet? Maybe he has to ask his superior first in constructing proper before blogging? HA HA

    If you don’t have experts in your country then the following is what you can do.

    There is only one way to be Shakespear. Copy what he is doing.

    There is only one way to be Mr Obama. Copy what he is doing.

    There is only one way to be a modern country. Copy what modern country is doing.

    The thing is, to be like people or up to people’s standard, you must learn to be them first.

    So if you are not good in English then you will never learn people’s technology because they derived their technologies all in english and thus you will never able to cope up.

    Seriously, I studied all maths and science in Bahasa Malaysia and after form 5, when i got into college, the difficulties came because all the subjects I took for engineering are in English! It took me months before I can re-learn all the terms of maths in English and I struggled alot..Why it has to be this way? Sighs..

    Remember before the 80’s? English was used as command in the schools and that’s where the great lawyers, engineers, architects and doctors came from! Remember our English was once ranking 5th or 6th in the world? Now? I don’t know..

    I don’t say that we should abolish Bahasa Malaysia. With all due respect we should make Bahasa Malaysia important also, but we must solve the root cause of it so that we could compete with the world..

    Sighs…..I bet if we go back to those times, Malaysia could be even more glorious than Singapore..

    Its nice to say but I don’t think this will change…..

  10. #10 by ctc537 on Monday, 18 May 2009 - 7:29 pm

    To further improve English proficiency among our students, one or to more subjects apart from Science and Maths should be taught in English from Tingkatan 4 onwards. Massive campaigns should be launched, especially in rural areas, to drive home the importance of acquiring English literacy.
    The present crop of top Umno leaders are English-educated – PM Najib was educated in England, KJ excelled in Oxford while Wanita Umno Chief Datuk Shahrizat is the product of one of Penang’s finest premier schools, the SGGS, and MU. Perhaps Umno can refer to their leaders’ education background to convince the Malays of the importance of acquiring English literacy.
    Problem is, politically, it could cost them dearly if they appear to be pro-English. For the Chinese and Indians, they generally realize the importance of English and even encourage their children to excel in it. BM is too entrenched in our society now and there is no need to worry about its status as the Bahasa Kebangsaan..

  11. #11 by lopez on Monday, 18 May 2009 - 9:22 pm

    if you are not …you better start , the world wont stop for you except MOE of the current regime.

    If your grandpa and grandma tells you !…. dont forget your mother tongue..you can tell them …don’t worry you be gone soon, i have to stay on…and
    are you going to feed me then and teach me how to be an immortal.
    if the politician also say the same, you better check out what his children are studying and where…..,ost of the times these goons speaks so that they still get their job or income, for example hee haw in perak ,,,now berak.

  12. #12 by imranj78 on Monday, 18 May 2009 - 11:53 pm

    Agreed, Muhyiddin Yasin should make a quick decision on this critical item. In my view, the decision is obvious – stick with English for Maths and Science. The BN government should not delay this any further. Enough studies have been done and it is time the government show some political will to do what’s right.

    LKS, it may help if you can convince more of your PR counterparts to be agreeable to this. It seems that whenever there is a PPSMI demo, PR reps are always there in support; obviously to gain cheap political mileage (as always).

  13. #13 by Lee HS on Tuesday, 19 May 2009 - 12:45 am

    Mr Bakri, well said!

    I was a product of English medium education system 45 years ago. Without a reasonable English proficiency, I would not be able to survive financially until now. I would not be able to learn new skills and technologies to adapt to my new environments.

    Speaking and writing in English do not make me less Chinese. I believe my Malay friends who speak English with me are no less Malays.

    If I were proficient in Bahasa Malaysia only, I would be a bankrupt by now unable to write on this blog because I have to work long hours in order to feed my family. I do not have choices by now. With English language one has better choices.

    Whoever says that English is not important in life for survival at this age, then I can only say one thing.

    “He is out of his mind!”

  14. #14 by AhPek on Tuesday, 19 May 2009 - 2:40 am

    “……….Pm Najib was educated in England,Khairy excelled in Oxford …………..
    …………”. ctc537.

    Sure or not Khairy excelled in Oxford, I thought he was only an average student who graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy,Politics and Economics but I suppose if you were to compare him to the rest of the UMNOPUTRAS,he is certainly a class above all of them.
    But if you were to compare him with Lee Hsien Loong or George Yeo and many others in the Singapore cabinet,he is just so ordinary.

  15. #15 by tsn on Tuesday, 19 May 2009 - 11:43 am


    Khairy is the best amongst the worst, Lee Junior is the best amongst the best, not to forget our beloved ex-PM is the worst amongst the worst. Do not need any further long-winded explaination or mind-boggling statistics to tell why Singapore is with income per capita of USD32,000, genius land blesses with rich natural resources is still lingering in the band of US$5,000 to US$6,000.

  16. #16 by tsn on Tuesday, 19 May 2009 - 12:17 pm

    Lee HS,

    Come to think of it, there is no full/part/banana Chinese, we only have rich/poor/smart/stupid Chinese. Here, no one is quering about the importance of English. What we are discussing here is to explore various ways to uplift our English standard. Anytime, anywhere our youngs must be able to digest the big bulk of knowledge they need to gobble just to stay competitive in this fast changing world.

    The way you put English in absolute position is a bit scary. I tell you what, my neighbour’s neighbour, this China man without a word of ABC is a multi millionaire. Need not cynically guess, his millions definitely are not ill-gotten wealth.

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