At Last, the Right Decision on English

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.

  1. #1 by sheriff singh on Saturday, 14 September 2013 - 12:05 pm

    Why bother ?

    For the vast, vast majority of the people who will most probably continue to live under their coconut shells, watch RTM and TV3, and read Utusan, England is not important. Do you need ‘England’ to understand EPL?

    Now Arabic, yess, Arabic, this will ‘liberate’ you.

  2. #2 by Loh on Saturday, 14 September 2013 - 2:13 pm

    Najib says that government assistance given to bumiputras and bumiputras alone does not deprive other races of their rights.

    Najib should first understand that if assistance to bumiputras comes from government funds which are meant for all races, then assistance to bumiputras alone means that a proportion of the funds which ought to be utilized similarly for others races are used up for bumiputras. Is that that depriving other races of their right to enjoy whatever enjoyment the government scheme presents to bumiputras.

    NEP was for 20 years. It is now 42 years after the advent of NEP, and yet Najib openly robs non-Malays of their rights.

  3. #3 by yhsiew on Saturday, 14 September 2013 - 2:50 pm

    Well, the Ministry of Education may make English a must-pass subject in the SPM examinations from 2016. What if they set the passing mark of this subject at 20%? Any attempt to improve the education standards of this country will be in vain if politics stands in the way.

  4. #4 by Loh on Saturday, 14 September 2013 - 3:03 pm

    Najib has just made the most racist announcement, and yet Malaysians who are adversely affected keep quiet. It appears that they are getting ready to migrate!

  5. #5 by Di Shi Jiu on Saturday, 14 September 2013 - 6:12 pm

    From what I know, many of the UMNO elite and their children who have studied overseas, have extremely poor skills in English.

    I have met some of them and they seem embarrassed to talk to me despite the fact that they travel overseas frequently to Europe, UK, the US, etc.

    This business of making English a must-pass subject is interesting because I suspect that the bar will be set really really low – just like all the subjects in all those other half-past-six universities that infest Malaysia.

    We will probably end up with many Malaysians who have a false sense of confidence in their ability just like all those half-baked graduates I have met.

  6. #6 by cemerlang on Saturday, 14 September 2013 - 9:10 pm

    Between today and 2016, anything can happen. Politics is like magic. Now you see it. Now you don’t. Then you see it again. Then you don’t. Like you can mean when you don’t. Or you don’t mean it when you do.

  7. #7 by rockdaboat on Saturday, 14 September 2013 - 11:05 pm

    Why bother to learn English?

    Whoever and whichever country that wants to deal with Malaysia must use Bahasa Melayu.

    Those who don’t want to use Bahasa Melayu in dealing with Malaysia can always go to other countries!!!

    This is, taking the cue from our learned Ministers.

    • #8 by cemerlang on Sunday, 15 September 2013 - 9:57 pm

      Like in Japan, South Korea and yet Malaysian youths are singing their K pop, J pop…M pop anyone ?

  8. #9 by sheriff singh on Sunday, 15 September 2013 - 2:26 am

    If they bring in lecturers from India, our students can learn Hindi and English, and also learn how to shake their heads too.

  9. #10 by Noble House on Sunday, 15 September 2013 - 3:51 am

    It was revealed recently that some 70 per cent out of the 60,000 English Language teachers who sat for the English Language Cambridge Placement Test failed miserably. This means at least two-thirds of our English teachers are considered “incapable” or “unfit” to teach the subject in schools.

    How on earth could the Education Ministry employ 70 per cent of English Language teachers who are not fit to teach the subject in the first place? Is this another case of the “blind leading the blind” for real?

  10. #11 by Winston on Sunday, 15 September 2013 - 9:14 am

    Takes fifty-six years to come to this decision??
    And haven’t we been told frequently enough in the past that BM can serve the needs of everything in this country??
    So, they think that this sop will appease Malaysians??
    And what is there to stop another flip and flop??

  11. #12 by boh-liao on Sunday, 15 September 2013 - 9:44 am

    Totally naive 2 believe in what UmnoB’s top dogs bark, esp fr d I Malay first creature
    Want 2 b proficient in English? Simple, just do what U hv 2 do 2 achieve it, NEVER depend on our schools n education system, nay, in fact forget abt our ed system

    • #13 by cemerlang on Sunday, 15 September 2013 - 9:59 pm

      ya lah…which makes you wonder all the A + excellent results their English teachers give them or according to their national exams

  12. #14 by Cinapek on Sunday, 15 September 2013 - 12:14 pm

    “….At one time, Malaysia was among the top countries in Asia that were proficient in English…”

    More than that. Our standard of English was so high that when I went to college in Canada in the ’70s, my “O” level English was recognized as college level standard and I was exempted from taking this subject. At that time, if my memory serves me right, it was also assessed as equivalent to the University of Michigan entry level English. Alas, today our students are required to take English language proficiency tests as part of the requirements for acceptance in US universities and, I believe, in other foreign universities too.

    Anwar has a point about whether the education system is ready to prepare SPM students adequately to meet the challenge of a must-pass for English at the SPM exams by2016. Our English standards have sank so low that the resources needed to bring the level of English to a decent level may simply be non existent. This will not be fair to the students who will be the victims if the system cannot prepare them well enough to meet the challenge by 2016. On the flip side, I also agree with the argument that we must start somewhere and a must-pass requirement will motivate students to take the study of English more seriously. As such, can I suggest that we take a tiered approach to grade the students starting from even before 2016? Slowly increase the difficulty of the tests so that by 2016, we will know what level of tests will suitably test the student and yet give them a fair chance to pass.

  13. #15 by tak tahan on Monday, 16 September 2013 - 12:30 am

    I seconded boh-liau that we just need to do whatever we need to do without even depending on school or education system solely.I was educated from sekolah kebangsaan in Malay medium and it took me only 2 years of Japanese study in Japan to enroll in Japanese college with Korean,Chinese,Taiwanese and the rest with more advantage in Chinese writing.You just have to do it,no excuse.I don’t agree with Anwar on this particular point of view,i will say a minus point for him just for own political interest….

  14. #16 by tak tahan on Monday, 16 September 2013 - 12:36 am

    The longer you ponder your decision,the least you’ll achieve your destination..

  15. #17 by boh-liao on Monday, 16 September 2013 - 1:54 am

    By now, rakyat should or must oredi KNOW dat whatever d UmnoB/BN gomen plans 2 do 4 our school kids, rakyat can forget abt it – cos we hv lame, incompetent, openly n proudly acclaimed racist, corrupt UmnoB ministers, busy ensuring self-enrichment, KAYA raya

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