Which is better, learning maths and science in Bahasa Malaysia or in English?

By Dr Chen Man Hin, DAP life adviser


So as not to confuse the issue, it is necessary to point out the fact that all are agreed that Malaysian students must study Bahasa Malaysia and be fluent with the language.

It is also generally accepted that students should study English as it is the common language in the world and it is the language of commerce, diplomacy, of business and in science and technology.

For some mistaken rationale, the Ministry of Education has after months of debate and dialogue decided that students should use Bahasa to teach Maths and Science in secondary schools.

This has caused considerable disbelief and distress among many parents who prefer to have their children learn Maths and Science in English. They want their children to fit into the new world which has become global, and where English is the currency acceptable in most countries and in most fields of human endeavour.

In the new world, Science and Technology is the wave of the future. The industrial age is now replaced by the age of knowledge. In the field of knowledge, world libraries and the internet use the English Language as the primary language of communication. It is a sad fact that the libraries of Malaysian universities have failed to provide adequate Bahasa Malaysia reading material in Science and Technology for our university students.

Their parents are very much aware that their children can have a better chance to equip themselves with science and technology if they are well versed in the English language.


Asia leads the world for having the best students in science and maths, as shown by the 2007 report by TIMSS (TRENDS IN INTERNATIONAL MATHEMATICS AND SCIENCE STUDY) .

The international educational scores for 2007 show that Asian countries top the ranking with 1. Chinese Taipei 2. S Korea 3. Singapore 4. Hong Kong 5. Japan 6. Hungary 7. England 8. Russia, 9. United States and 10. Lithuania.

Sadly, Malaysia came in a distant 20th position in Mathematics, compared to 10th in 2003. (see attachment)

The Ministry of Education should look to Asian countries for solutions to the issue of Maths and Science for students in Malaysia.

Learn from our closest neighbour Singapore which took first position in TIMSS 2003 and 3rd position in TIMSS 2007. Singapore teaches maths and science in English.

No one is questioning the sovereignty of Bahasa Malaysia. Maths and Science can be taught in any language, but parents’ choice should be respected.

To join the new global age of a knowledge society it would be in the best interest of Malaysia to encourage students at secondary schools to learn Maths and Science in English.

This is very true for rural and kampong students who can benefit immensely by learning maths and science at secondary schools. We want them to be in the mainstream of global advancement, and empower them with Science to take a rightful place in a knowledge society.

Ensure Malaysia will join the ranks of top asian countries like Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, rather then being in the company of third world countries, by allowing Maths and Science in English in Secondary schools from Form 1 to Form 5.

  1. #1 by taiking on Friday, 17 July 2009 - 9:25 am

    No. No. No. Dr Chen. Dont mention Singapore. There are some singaphobia sufferers in this blogsite. They will react at the sight or the sound of the word “singapore”.

    The issue is kampung malays are weak in english language (thanks to the wrong policy implemented 30+ yrs ago by umno). And now they face tremendous difficulty in acquiring any knowlege that are being communicated in that language – not just science and maths. First they took away your pair of running shoes and replace it with sandals. Then yrs later they discovered that you could not run well in sandals and decided to replace them with clogs. Perhaps the clogs suppliers are some umnoputras huh.

  2. #2 by k1980 on Friday, 17 July 2009 - 9:46 am

    In a certain land, about 55% of the inhabitants had been born with only 1 eye. Because they fear the 45% with 2 eyes would get the better of them, they had the latter blinded in 1 eye. So, there is now a level playing field for all.

  3. #3 by All For The Road on Friday, 17 July 2009 - 9:56 am

    ‘Malaysia BOLEH’ is in question!

    Where do we go from here?

  4. #4 by phat on Friday, 17 July 2009 - 10:06 am

    This is ridiculous. Just because the kampung malays are lazy to improve themselves, I can’t forsake my children’s future. The Umno govt should first stop spoon feeding them. Then they will start learning and see where the world is going to. Without learning science and maths in English, soon Malaysia will be in the top list of most undeveloped countries. The rural Malays will be always be “speaking’.

  5. #5 by nckeat88 on Friday, 17 July 2009 - 10:09 am

    Don’t talk rubbish. I thought DAP is the one who oppose teaching science and maths in English. You sounds more like hypocrite. Whatever you mentioned here had already mentioned by Dr M more than 6 years ago. Don’t try to take credit.

  6. #6 by artemisios on Friday, 17 July 2009 - 10:54 am

    I’ve posted this before, but i’ll repost for emphasis:

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

    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.

  7. #7 by BryanT on Friday, 17 July 2009 - 11:29 am

    There is a contradiction here – the majority of countries in the quoted 2007 report by TIMSS o NOT use English for maths and science.

    1. Chinese Taipei 2. S Korea 3. Singapore 4. Hong Kong 5. Japan 6. Hungary 7. England 8. Russia, 9. United States and 10. Lithuania.

  8. #8 by Mist on Friday, 17 July 2009 - 11:50 am

    Dr.Chen I think the example you gave of malaysia slipping from 10th position in 2003 to 20th position in 2006 is a negative example. It demonstrated the failure of PPSMI program.

  9. #9 by frankyapp on Friday, 17 July 2009 - 12:45 pm

    HI phat,please be careful with what you said……I don’t agreed with you when you said kampong malays are lazy to improve themselves.The kampong malays students are hardworking and some of them are pretty smart too.It’s not their fault when most didn’t make the grade in M&S.It’s the system that has failed them.If you look into most rural schools,almost all English language teachers are not capable to teach M&S.let alone qualified.I witnessed an English language session class,I found the teacher explaining most of the words in BM.To my surprise,I found the English session turned into a BM class.I wonder how on earth the Minister of Education didn’t know about this matter .Hence the culprit is the MOE,not the students.In fact,basing on my own experience,say learning the Bahasa Melayu initially,I told my tutor,not to use a single chinese or English words to explain to the class the BM we were learning at that time. You know what guys ! I managed to excel my BM in days and weeks.Here again,why our MOE didn’t see this simple method.In a nut shell,I think the minister and the MOE just talk about the improvement of using English to teach M&S over the past six years but didn’t bother to see the proper inplementation of its policies.

  10. #10 by frankyapp on Friday, 17 July 2009 - 1:10 pm

    Yeah,I still think we should continue to use English to teach M&S in all secondary schools.BM is important only in Malaysia.If malaysians aspired to be at bar with the majority of the English speaking countries around the world,we must continue to learn the English language vigorously.We have one choice either we accept the English language to move the people and country forward or accept the Malay language to force the rakyat and the country going backward.

  11. #11 by kmchew on Friday, 17 July 2009 - 1:18 pm

    Teach Maths and Science in the mother tongue while in the primary schools. These subjects needs “undestanding” beside just “memorising” the facts. Introduce English terms after primary 4 or 5 to familiarise these students with some Enlish usage. But while in the primary schools, teach English the “proper” way. Teach English grammar- the foundation of the English Language. Scoring high marks in English is not an indication of good command of the language.
    Maths and Science must be taught in English at the secondary school level- introduced in a systematic and gradual way. By form 3, all students should be able to understand and answers questions in English. At form 4 and 5 levels, they must be able to match the skills of those who use the English Language to study maths and science from day one, like those from Singapore or UK or US or Australia.
    Use the mother tongue to lay a solid foundation for learning not just Maths and Science, but all subjects. English is a great tool for learning and acquiring more knowledge.
    We must ensure that we have teachers who understand the subject matters. The Quality of teachers is as important. We still have a huge pool of good teachers, most of whom had already retired, who could teach English, Maths and Science the proper way. Get them to come out of retirement and start teaching again- to improve the general level of all the 3 subjects mentioned and at the same time save the nation lots of money. To lure them, don’t make them report to “senior subject teachers” who do not understand or appreciate good English. They may be retired and willing to serve the nation again. They are proud also. They have self- respect too.
    There is no need to make simple matters difficult and complex. Consult the teachers and ex-teachers.
    I studied first in a “Chinese medium” primary
    school. When I went to the secondary school, the medium of instruction was English. I had lots of difficulties with the English Language. I had no difficulty with Science and Maths. Being a poor kampong boy, I was too poor to go for extra tuition. I must confess that I had real good and responsible teachers who really work hard to impart their knowledge and motivate us to learn.

  12. #12 by Loh on Friday, 17 July 2009 - 1:41 pm

    The government gave the reason for the reversal of PPSMI as the lack of teachers who could teach properly in English. I suppose what is lacking is the teachers who are fluent in the English language in explaining the concept and reasoning involved in the two subjects. The teachers who have been teaching the two subjects should not have problems in understanding the English language, and or in using the English textbooks to teach the subjects, in the language which they are fluent in.

    Given the shortage of teachers who could speak English fluently, but who know the subject matter written in English, the government should allow the use of English textbooks in secondary schools, and the teachers be allowed to use a mixture of English and Malay in teaching. It would mean that the teacher would use the technical terms of the two subjects in English, while explaining the subject in Malay or English as he/she chooses. The students would be able to understand the teachers in either language and to pose their questions in whatever language they choose. The Apanama uses rojak in press conference, so rojak language can be allowed in classrooms. As for the examination, the questions should be set in both English and Malay, and the students should be allowed to choose what they feel comfortable with. Overtime as more teachers who are comfortable with teaching the subjects in English become available, the problem would resolve itself.

    If the government views the issue as purely technical concern it should be able to arrange posting of appropriate teachers to the schools to meet the needs of the students. The bottom line is to continue the use of English textbooks for the two subjects come 2012.

  13. #13 by taiking on Friday, 17 July 2009 - 5:57 pm

    Chinese educationist argued that its easier to teach chinese primary school kids maths and science in mandarin. And they are correct because the essence of technical terminologies in chinese are easier to grasp. This is a real / genuine advantage.

    But the same logic does not apply to malay primary school kids. For them they may find learning maths and science in malay easier simply because they are more comfortable with malay. For them there is no real advantage to be gained here. If their foundation in english language is good they too could be equally comfortable learning maths and science (or any other subjects) in english just like the malay kids in (for those of you who suffer singaphobia pls blank out the next word in the sentence by blinking your eyes once NOW) singapore.

    So the reversion to malay (and mandarin and tamil) actually benefits chinese primary school kids more. Besides, by the policies more time will be allocated to learning english language as a subject.

    But what is perverse is the flip-flop parts of the policies after primary school. A few years in english and a few years in malay. What utter nonsense.

    And the reason given for the reversion was insufficient teachers who are fluent in english! This ought to be within the Ministry’s anticipation when they implemented the english for maths and science policies 6 yrs ago. Any responsible authority would be able to foresee this problem. Then again umno has been actively producing talents based on (-)meritocracy. So we really should not expect more than what we now have.

  14. #14 by OrangRojak on Friday, 17 July 2009 - 7:24 pm

    Education in national schools should be in the national language, I have no doubt about it. There’s something wrong about a mother-tongue surviving as a mother-tongue more than 1 generation – that’s a sign that there are ghettoes. I don’t see any reason why children should not be educated in a foreign language as long as they take and pass the foreign country’s examinations and it is all done at the parents’ expense. That’s a freedom that should not be withheld. Public posts should not discriminate against those schooled in foreign education systems, but ability in the national language should be commensurate with level of employment.

    The thing that makes Malaysia different from a country like Portugal, say, which schools its children in its national language is just that Malaysia’s education system is crap. It has nothing to do with language. When I worked at a UK University, I met undergraduates and postgraduates from all over the world. Those from countries with languages I’d never previously heard of were at no disadvantage if they had been exposed to a decent national-language education. There were plenty of examples of foreign students who had been educated in English in their countries of origin who were much worse off. Their problem was that their experience of education was bad, and teaching in English had made it no better.

    I think you’re all missing the wood for the trees, language is not the issue in Malaysia’s schools: it’s quality. Changing the language won’t help.

  15. #15 by Woof on Friday, 17 July 2009 - 9:24 pm

    “The Apanama uses rojak in press conference, so rojak language can be allowed in classrooms”. Loh

    OrangRojak should take note.

  16. #16 by OrangRojak on Friday, 17 July 2009 - 10:12 pm

    rojak language
    Heh. As long as they speak government-approved Bahasa Rojak, same difference. Malaysia has a special case of a problem that’s common to any country who has or had large-scale immigration. It’s a pity it is all so tightly bound up with Malaysia’s identity crisis. The problem with allowing ‘rojak’ to be spoken, is that in a Malaysian Arabic-medium school ‘rojak’ will be Arabic with the occasional “boleh!” added.

    It’s depressing watching these arguments linger on. The language of Malaysia really should be Bahasa Malaysia. That’s not going to happen while it’s confused with Ketuanan Melayu bigotry. The PPSMI thing always seemed to me to be the wrong solution for the right problem. English isn’t a dead language, so expecting your citizens to learn it from subjects whose textbooks haven’t been upgraded for 100 years is daft. Heavy censorship and the newspapers of Kim Jong-il are what is responsible for the sorry state of English in Malaysia, in my view.

    Maybe they would have been better off teaching ‘Moral’ and Drama in English, and sending the kids off to British Sex Education classes, the pub, protest marches in London or auditions for I’m A Nobody Get Me Out Of Here. That’s the English they really need.

  17. #17 by papa on Saturday, 18 July 2009 - 1:15 pm

    Dr Chen, your party is also glad and supported the use of Bahasa Malayu, as i did not say Bahasa Malaysia as there no such a language on earth,thus, if you can convince your party as well as the Pakatan to retract the statement, you statement here will carry weight.

    May I added that the Singapore text books of science and maths are used in the USA top schools. Check the straight times report of singapore.

  18. #18 by johnnypok on Saturday, 18 July 2009 - 11:54 pm

    The country is run by a bunch of HP6 idiots for the past 50 years, like “Blind leading the blind”, and producing the world’s biggest number of unemployable half-cooked graduates. That is why until today they are still so blind to see, and so mentally-retarded to think, about the importance of English language. NEP has created a lazy and handicapped society.

  19. #19 by Callum on Sunday, 19 July 2009 - 11:29 am

    Way back 2000 years ago during Qin Dynasty, there were hundreds of languages used in China. In fact, Chinese language that most chinese used today is NOT their own mother tongue language. The unification was led by the King, only one language were used.

    Over the situation in India, if anyone of you ever travelled to India before, you will find that India indeed has more than 600 hundreds languages used throughout the whole India. In fact, among Indians are having communication problem. English speaking only restricted within those cities.

    In those days, unifying language is important so as to set a common communication language within the different ethnics. However, the world has changed, we are moving into globalization, when we set the pace for globalization, we then need to have a proper communication tool to bridge the gaps. In China, teaching english is one of the hottest business in most part of cities. Way back 20 years ago when I was in France, most french don’t speaks english, but situation changed, they tend to speaks english now. The world has changed, when we talk about globalization, we must have the tool to communicates.

    Apart from the communication tool (refer to english), it is also a bridge for the developing countries like us to learn the technologies, without this, we will not have trained or sufficient knowledge to deal with foreign investment into our country.

    We are setting aside the differences among races in this country, most importantly, we are developing ourselves for globalization. We must recognize the fact, and of course without loosing our mother tongue. So, using our own mother tongue language is good, but I strongly supporting the use of english as the teaching media especially the maths and science.

    We must set the right pace for our next few generations. Malaysia has already way behind in terms of technologies. We had started industrialization at least 40 years ago while China only started around 20 years ago. Today, 90% of computer made in China, Hi-tech toys were designed and manufactured in China. They are using their ownself developed hi-speed train which can run 300km per hour within cities. They have more than 30 own brands of cars and trucks now. They have successfully developed their own air plane.

    I never underestimated we, Malaysians. But, we must set aside the races, political differences and most importantly, the self interest cronies out from the ruling. If not, we have nothing to show to the world we are MALAYSIA BOLEH !! We must ACT and not just TALK !!! Does “1-Malaysia” really BOLEH ? Or it is merely another propaganda ????

  20. #20 by lopez on Sunday, 19 July 2009 - 11:31 am

    Is it true that malaysian govt sponsored students need to undergo intensive language classes overseas before they are eligible to join regular uni classes.
    And getting paid for it.

    And upon graduation , sponsored students are of two categories..the local graduates and overseas graduates
    is it also true that the overseas graduates (supposedly from UK and USA) will fair better than local ones and normally offered higher positions and remunerations.
    Is it also true that the dean’s job is the local uni is to ensure all students graduate and all parents come for their child graduation day and make a big hu hu ha ha about it, tears shedding thanking the sky and the moon.
    So if your parents is in the rural area, toiling the land day and night, dont ever chance meet another soul except for the cows and kambing and the nearest human are acres away.

    So i think it is better to learn all subject in cow and kambing languages

    mo..mo here and moo a maeeee there

  21. #21 by johnnypok on Sunday, 19 July 2009 - 2:05 pm

    Mr. Moo Hee Dean is another HP6 minister of “AID-DUE-CARE-SHAME” who knows nuts about the importance of English. He only thinks about becoming the next pee-M

  22. #22 by johnnypok on Sunday, 19 July 2009 - 3:14 pm

    English makes it easier to find jobs: Taib
    Lim How Pim & Samuel Aubrey | Sun, July 19, 2009

    KUCHING: Chief Minister Pehin Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud yesterday hoped undergraduates, especially those in Sarawak, would not neglect mastering English if they want to improve their “marketability”.

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