Chaining The Children of the Poor

by M. Bakri Musa

The ancient Chinese bound the feet of their baby daughters so they would grow up with deformed tiny feet, thus limiting their mobility and participation in life outside the little world of their homes. These women would then be totally dependent on their men.

In rescinding the policy of teaching science and mathematics in English, the government is likewise binding the intellectual development of our children. They and future generations of Malaysians would grow up with warped intellect. They would then be totally dependent on the government, just as ancient Chinese women with tiny feet were on their men.

My friend and fellow commentator Azly Rahman has a more apt and colorful local metaphor; we are condemning future generations to the Pekan Rabu economy, capable only of selling pirated versions of Michael Jackson albums. That would be the extent of their entrepreneurial prowess and creative flair. They are only subsistence entrepreneurs and ‘copy cat’ creators.

Make no mistake about it. The government’s professed concerns for the poor and those from rural areas notwithstanding, reversing the current policy would adversely and disproportionately impact them. The rich and those in the cities have a ready escape; the rich through private English classes, urban children from the already high levels of English in their community.

The most disadvantaged will be the poor kampong kids. That means Malay children. Thus we have the supreme irony if not perversity of the champions of Ketuanan Melayu actively pursuing a policy that would ensure Malay children be perpetually trapped economically and intellectually. I thank Allah that I grew up at a time when the likes of Muhyyuddin were not in charge of our education system. Otherwise I would have been trapped in my kampong.

The idiocy of the new move is best illustrated by this one startling example. In 2012 when the new plan will be implemented, students in Form IV will be taught science and mathematics in Malay, after learning the two subjects in English for the past nine years. Then two years later when they will be entering Sixth Form or the Matriculation stream, they will again have to revert to English.

Pupils in the vernacular schools would have it worse. They would learn the two subjects in their mother tongue during their primary school years, then switch to Malay for the next five while in secondary school, and then switch again, this time to English, in Sixth Form and university!

Had these policymakers done their homework and diligent downstream analysis, such idiocies would not crop up. Then again this is what we would expect from our civil servants. They have been brought up with their minds bound up; they cannot think. They have depended on others to do the thinking for them.

Najib Razak’s flip-flopping on this major national issue eerily reminds me of similar indecisiveness and lack of resolve of his immediate predecessor, Abdullah Badawi. No wonder he supports Najib in this policy shift. Najib should not take comfort in that, unless he expects a similar fate as Abdullah’s. Abdullah was kicked out by his party; with Najib, it would be the voters who would be kicking him out. Public sentiments are definitely against this policy switch.

Failure of Policy Versus Failure of Implementation

The cabinet reversed course because it deemed the policy did not produce the desired results. However, in arriving at this pivotal decision the cabinet failed to address the fundamental question on whether the original policy was flawed or its implementation ineffective.

It just assumed the policy to be flawed. Muhyyuddin and his senior officers relied heavily on the 2005 UNESCO Report which suggests that “‘mother tongue first’ bilingual education” may (my emphasis) be the solution to the dilemma of members of minority linguistic groups in acquiring knowledge.

Muhyyuddin and his advisers seriously misread the Report. It was concerned primarily with the dilemma at the societal level of members of a linguistic minority having to learn the language of the majority (“national language”) versus the need to maintain linguistic diversity generally and minority languages specifically. UNESCO was rightly concerned with the rapid disappearance of languages spoken by small minority groups. The report was not addressing specifically the learning of science and mathematics.

Malay language is not at risk of disappearing; it is the native tongue of literally hundreds of millions. To extrapolate the UNESCO recommendations for Malay language is a gross oversimplification and misreading of the report.

The UNESCO Report does not address the issue of when and how best to introduce children to bilingual education. Later studies that focused specifically on the pedagogical and psychological aspects instead of the sociological and political have shown that children are quite capable of learning multiple languages at the same time. Even more remarkable is that the earlier they are exposed to a second language the more facile they would be with that language. They would also learn that second language much faster; hence second language even at preschool.

The acquisition of bilingual ability at an early age confers other significant cognitive advantages. These have been documented by clinical studies with functional MRIs (imaging studies of the brain). Malaysia should learn from these more modern studies and the experiences of more advanced societies, not from the UNESCO studies of backward tribes of Asia.

The other basis for the cabinet’s decision was ‘research’ by local half-baked and politically-oriented pseudo academics. They should be embarrassed to append their names to such a sophomoric paper. The quality is such that it will never appear in reputable journals. As for the Ministry’s own internal ‘researchers,’ remember that they came out within months of the policy’s introduction in 2003 documenting the ‘impressive’ improvements in students’ achievements!

The one major entity that would be severely impacted by the cabinet’s decision is our universities. Yet our Vice-Chancellors have remained quiet and detached in this important national debate. They have not advised the cabinet nor lead the public discussions. Again that reflects the caliber of leadership of our major institutions.

Had the cabinet decided that the policy was essentially sound but that the flaws were with its implementations, then measures other than rescinding it would be the appropriate response. This would include recruiting and training more English-speaking teachers and devoting more hours to the subject.

What surprised me is that when Mahathir introduced the policy in 2003, he was supported by his cabinet that included Najib, Muhyyuddin, Hishamuddin, and over a dozen of current ministers who now collectively voted to reverse the policy. Likewise, the policy was fully endorsed too by UMNO’s Supreme Council then. Like the cabinet, many of those earlier members are still in that body today. Yet today the Council also voted to disband the policy. Muhyyuddin, Hishamuddin and the others have yet to share with us why they changed their minds. The conditions that prompted the introduction of the policy back then are still present today. This reversal will do not change that.

Najib, Muhyyuddin and Hishamuddin are “lallang leaders,” they bend with the slightest wind change. Unlike Margaret Thatcher’s famed resolve of “This lady is not for turning,” with Najib, Muhyyuddin, et al., all you have to do to make them undertake a U turn would be to blow slightly in their faces. Blow a bit harder and they would scoot off with their tails between their legs. These leaders will never lead us forward.

This reversal will not solve the widening achievement gap between urban and rural students. The cabinet has yet to put forth new ideas on ameliorating that problem. So, just as ancient Chinese women were physically handicapped because of their bound feet, rural or more specifically Malay children will continue to be intellectually handicapped by their warped and small minds, the consequence of this policy shift. Perhaps that is the real objective of this policy reversal, the shackling of the intellectual development of our young so they will forever be dependent on their ‘leaders.’

  1. #1 by raven77 on Monday, 13 July 2009 - 8:57 am

    Actually Najib is still surrounded by the same advisers who almost lost him the Pekan seat in 2004 and used an all time high of phantom voters in 2008 to give him that false majority…..the same fellas probably gave the same advice regatrding blowing up a Mongolian girl, Anwar’s sodomy, the Perak fiasco, fixing the judiciary, etc etc….

    The PR must pay more attention to the chief of his advisors….Rosmah….Lee Kuan Yew did…

  2. #2 by taiking on Monday, 13 July 2009 - 9:07 am

    Najib got Prof Danny Quah of LSE to advise him on economic matters. Well didnt the son of kutty get bill gates to advise the multimedia supercorridor? Bill Gates left after a couple of yrs. No wonder what we now have is a superflop. Lets us see how long Prof Quah stays. 12 months? Less?

  3. #3 by k1980 on Monday, 13 July 2009 - 9:30 am

    South Africa under apartheid imposed inferior education opportunities to its black people, so that they could not gain the knowledge to oppose their white tuans. Is this why PPSMI is thrown out?

  4. #4 by Jeffrey on Monday, 13 July 2009 - 9:58 am

    ///The acquisition of bilingual ability at an early age confers other significant cognitive advantages. These have been documented by clinical studies with functional MRIs (imaging studies of the brain). Malaysia should learn from these more modern studies and the experiences of more advanced societies, not from the UNESCO studies of backward tribes of Asia./// – M. Bakri Musa.

    Some of these modern studies on cognitive advantages of bilingualism amongst children at young age have been pointed out by Lee Wang Yen in earlier thread on this subject.

    They should give equal attention to both National Language and English throughout from primary to secondary level. If they do so the children can cope.

    I don’t think this scrapping of teaching of Science and Mathematics in English (PPSMI) is – as what Bakri asserts – attributable to UMNO’s agenda to keep “Malay children perpetually trapped economically and intellectually” so as to preserve its vote bank. For if they were trapped economically and intellectually, it is equally as plausible that they would be susceptible to PAS’s influence and vote for it instead of UMNO.

    The fact is PPSMI has not yielded desired results in spite of its costs. It is due to PPSMI being a half-hearted measure intended to bring up English by baby steps but in a way as not to compete with the hallowed high place accorded to the National Language consistent with “Ketuanan” (in deference to Bahasa activists and also MCA’s Chinese educationist lobbyists).

    There is no infrastructure to support and make PPSMI effective. That is why even Kit derides it. We have science and mathematics teachers with half-baked English and to fill the gap they’re having English trained teachers half-baked in science and mathematics to support (in what they call a “buddy system” as in diving terminology) to help. In the end, neither Science/Mathematics nor English is learned!

    I agree with Bakri they should give add more English in curriculum than detract/subtract it (which is the impression given by the scrapping of PPSMI). Their main challenge and constraint is how to give more commitment to greater English exposure without detracting the premier status of the national language. The latter is a political imperative. The question of what other method there is in striking of this “balance “ is a thing that they are juggling now.

    I’m however not sure of Bakri’s other contention – that the objective of pre-modern Chinese practice of feet binding was “to limit their mobility and participation in life outside the little world of their homes so that these women would then be totally dependent on their men” though it might well tend inevitably to that effect.

    Likely the objective was to make them physically desirable to men: tiny bound feet means that when the woman walked she has to jiggle more her posterior. One may ask how would deformed feet, when unbound in privacy of home, enhance eroticism? Such is the perversity of humans’ imagination that forbidden fruit including bound feet forbidden from sight always tastes or looks better! :)

    According to Wikipedia foot binding originated first among the elite and only in the wealthiest parts of China, “which suggests that binding the feet of well-born girls represented their freedom from manual labor and, at the same time, the ability of their husbands to afford wives who did not need to work, who existed solely to serve their men and direct household servants while performing no labor themselves. The economic and social attractions of such women may well have translated into sexual desirability among elite men.”

  5. #5 by artemisios on Monday, 13 July 2009 - 10:54 am

    From English to Malay, back to English & finally double back to Malay again. Wow.. I’m lost already. Only in Malaysia..

    What M.Bakri Musa said is true. These policy makers implement ‘backward policies’ on the people & send their own children overseas.

    Math & Science (M&S) must be taught in English. This is never about one language above the other. Never. Should the Malay language be the more suitable language for Science & Math, the whole world would teach their children M&S in Malay Language.

    For those who are overly sensitive please read on & read carefully. I said this is never about one language above the other. Make no mistake, the Malay language is great in its own way. I am from the time when everything was taught in Malay.

    Our “perumpamaan”, “puisi” and “pantun” just to name a few, are beautiful. In Malay language, there are ways to say beautiful things that can never be translated in any other language accurately. In fact they’re so great I’ve seen foreigners coming to M’sia just to study them.

    But when in comes to M&S, English is more suitable. When I studied M&S (in Malay), I felt that many terms where simply made up or copied from English into Malay without much consideration. To me, M&S terms in Malay does not hold much value.

    Consider these English -> Malay M&S terms:
    thermometer = termometer
    beaker = bikar
    arithmetic = arimetik
    vector = vektor
    oxygen = oksigen
    organic = organik
    cell = sel
    buthane = butana
    logarithm = logaritma

    I think our ‘Language Experts’ took about two seconds to translate each M&S term from English to Malay. And they took about three seconds to decide the fate of our nation’s youngsters.

    Please, stop this. By reverting again, you’re not glorifying the Malay Language, you’re cheapening it, & insulting it’s beauty.

    Dear Education Minister & whoever is involved in your decision making, soon there will be scientists, mathematicians, business women coming out from this system.
    How do you expect them to communicate with the rest of the world?
    Or do you want our youngsters to just hide in M’sia?

    I studied science in Malay. Once at work, I referred to a “beaker” as “bikar” in my report. Do you know what happened next?
    I was shamed to the ground by everyone who read the report. People from other departments made jokes about “bikars”. And my boss was shamed greatly along with me. What happens after that is history. Nuf said.

  6. #6 by OrangRojak on Monday, 13 July 2009 - 11:56 am

    That first statement of fact about the ancient Chinese is misleading past insulting, perhaps only surpassed by the second to last sentence.

    Perhaps Bakri Musa and Jeffrey could come to some sort of arrangement which would allow Bakri Musa to get some exposure as a social commentator, only with factually correct and genuinely intellectual articles?

  7. #7 by tsn on Monday, 13 July 2009 - 12:22 pm

    Do not include and condemn Chinese educationists in PPSMI fallout. Just leave Chinese educationists alone, they are too insignificant in overall education system. They know their postion well and from the very first day of PPSMI, they are only talking on behalf of Chinese primary schools, the rest is none of their business.
    Since colonial day Chinese school has never been the main dish in national education system. It is always a bystander but in unfortunate time it becomes victim of idiocy.
    Without the delication of Chinese educationists, Chinese education has long gone with the wind. Today with 6 years of Chinese primary school, one still manages to read novels from HK/Taiwan/China to pass time, otherwise life will be bore to death.

  8. #8 by lesliefkh on Monday, 13 July 2009 - 2:03 pm

    it may effect the graduates grades plus standard of knowledge compared with the world competative. Maybe many dropouts or jobless after schools,college even Uni’s.
    Vision 2020 is far reached,may not be achieved..only 11 years left.
    Only worried of our children future..will their fate be guranteed later? I doubt. cari kerja lain!!

  9. #9 by lesliefkh on Monday, 13 July 2009 - 2:16 pm & unique of your new blogsite. good!!
    wish you dato’ continue to speak for rakyat & for justice. thank you…LKS

  10. #10 by House Victim on Monday, 13 July 2009 - 2:42 pm

    The Basic and Greatest Problem of the UMNO administration the Public Servants are left NOT to do their work and NOT

    to abide by Rules and Regulations. What NJ said can only be Talk and cannot be Walked!!

    The Abuse of Rights and NOT following Rules and Regulations are the Basic for the Police NOT doing their jobs.

    Does Hishamuddin press the Police to do their work accordingly?
    Does the PM press his Cabinet to do the same? If PM cannot even pressing his Ministers to answer the inquiries by

    the Parliament on the PKFZ scandal and many others, HE already had not done his job! Can HE talk and walk for the


  11. #11 by House Victim on Monday, 13 July 2009 - 2:48 pm

    Sorry to have post the above in the wrong column!

    Following is the intended post:

    I believe the finding of unnecessary Topics for budget spending is behind what the BN politicians actually want.

    Do they care for Education?

  12. #12 by Lee HS on Monday, 13 July 2009 - 2:51 pm

    Lee Kuan Yew is right.

    When fools govern a country, there will be chaoes.

    There is no longer systematic way of doing things.

    The “rakyat” will suffer landing nowhere in this world.

    How can these “leaders” be so un-wise. They have done a disservice to the country.

    Do they actually have aims? May be just a slogan.

    I heard of claims that Malaysia has one of the best education standards in the world. I don’t know who said so but all our tertiary institutions has not even been listed in the top 300 universities in the world. Yet UMNO leaders still claim that we have one of the best educational standards in the world.

    Fools they are! Not us!

  13. #13 by limkamput on Monday, 13 July 2009 - 3:38 pm

    There is no doubt that the failure of PPSMI is due to implementation weaknesses, one of which is half baked teachers in our school system today. If we trace back to all the failures that beset this country today, it is essentially due to mediocrity and favouritism we showered on certain race irrespective of whether they are able to perform the task or otherwise. Hence, it is not just the school system that is having the problem of incompetent teachers and administrators. I can easily say that half of our university lecturers are also half baked. The same goes for our civil service and GLCs.

    This country can’t face reality; hence it can never have reform no matter how much we talk and how many slogans we churn out. Please don’t not misunderstand me; if we need to uplift the economic position or create employment for certain race, we must make sure that these people are properly trained and certified before there are given positions. If they can’t make it, they must repeat and repeat again until they are competent enough. For goodness sake, please don’t pass incompetent people and allow them to hold important positions. It is a recipe of disaster. We owe this much to ourselves and this nation.

  14. #14 by vsp on Monday, 13 July 2009 - 9:57 pm

    If we have Malays who can think and reason with the likes of Bakri Musa, Azly Rahman, Raja Petra, Farish A. Noor, Anwar Ibahim, Zaid Ibrahim, Tengku Razali and a multitude of other Malays who can speak eloquent English it would be the death-knell of the feudalistic, fascist and myopic ‘ketuanan Melayu’ political system. Basically, our political system is still feudalistic, being dominated by the ruling class which demands total acquiescence from the population. This ruling class would not tolerate any other opinions other than their own. So how to prevent future Malays from getting smart politically? One of the ways is to frustrate the learning of ideas and knowledge through the English language.

    The Internet is becoming a very powerful medium of acquiring knowledge and ideas. The lingua fanca of the Internet is English. So the ketuanan Melayu government does mind keeping the Malays ignorant. They prefer to translate all the knowledge selectively so that they can still control the minds of the Malays. Just look at the teaching of History. There were many historical facts that are not being taught to the students in Malaysian schools. Facts that embarrass them were being removed from history books.

    So if the Malays were to learn English, they would be empowered to seek knowledge and ideas through the Internet. To prevent that from happening, the government would sabotage any policy that would enable the people to learn English. And with a weak command of English the government hope that the Malays will not have the drive and initiative to seek knowledge from the Internet.

  15. #15 by johnnypok on Tuesday, 14 July 2009 - 3:10 am

    Chinese and Indians have no problem to master other languages. Malays also can do it, but they have been brain-washed from birth to act the way they are now, and for them to change positively will take many generations to come. Still it is better late than never. Najib could be their savior.

  16. #16 by TheWrathOfGrapes on Tuesday, 14 July 2009 - 8:23 am

    Wasn’t Mahathir the culprit who made the switch in the medium of instruction from English to Malay way back in the 80s when he was the Education Minister?

  17. #17 by Woof on Tuesday, 14 July 2009 - 11:51 am

    Where were you? Picking grapes?? LOL

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