The government has made its decision to revert the teaching of the Mathematics and Science subjects back to Bahasa Malaysia. Many opinions have been published on this matter, be it in blogosphere, in the comments section of online news portals or in the printed media.
This is the first time I am sharing my views on this issue. After mulling about it for the past few days, I decided that I should post something on a subject that is close to my heart.
I have been educated in the English medium all my life. From pre-school right up to university. I am one of the last batch of students that took Malaysia Certificate of Education (MCE) in 1979. At that time, the subjects that were already taught in Malay were Geografi (Geography), Sejarah (History) and Pengetahuan Agama Islam (Islamic Religious Knowledge). From 1980 onwards, all the non-language subjects are taught in Malay and Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) became the only examination available to Form 5 students.
When the government switched the teaching of Maths and Science in English some years ago, part of the objective was to arrest the decline in English language skills of our students. It was feared that the poor command of English would make our students and graduates less competitive in the international field. Proponents on the use of Malay, on the other hand, worry that the national language would fall in prestige and importance. The proponents slogan of choice being, `Memartabatkan Bahasa Melayu'. In simple terms, it became a nationalist versus internationalist debate. Discussions and arguments have been raging on ever since and the latest decision announced by the Deputy Prime Minister cum Education Minister a few days ago may not see the end of it.
Let us analyse some of these arguments so that we can understand some of their merits.
1. The command of the English language among our younger generation is on a decline
In the course of my work, I have on many occasions, had young engineers as my subordinates. They come from both local and overseas universities. With very rare exceptions, most of them have lousy English. Some of them can speak it well enough, but when it comes to writing it down, reading their output makes me cringe. My favourite adjective used to describe their written English is `atrocious'. I even once told my young engineers to look this word up and tell me what it means.
But that does not stop me from continually giving them writing tasks such as preparing draft letters, reports and minutes. If they are willing to improve, then I am willing to teach. What is important here is to have the right attitude.
2. We do not need to learn Maths and Science in English to become a developed nation
The examples often quoted in supporting this line of thinking is Japan and South Korea. They are the two most developed nations in Asia and yet their general command of English is no where near as good as ours. This has not stopped them from being research pioneers in many fields.
True. But we do have to make cultural comparisons between the people of Japan and Malaysia to understand why the Japanese are light years ahead of us in terms of technological development. Having lived for a short period in Japan, the cohesiveness of the Japanese society is something I have never seen anywhere else in the world. They may disagree on little things but when it comes to the major issues, they are quite united. In Malaysia, we can't even agree if recycling our garbage is a good thing.
3. Our teachers are not skilled enough to teach Maths and Science in English
If the teachers cannot be relied upon to teach the subjects properly, how can we expect the students to do well?
This obviously, is a defeatist approach. Given time and resources, I am sure enough personnel can be trained to become good Maths and Science teachers. It is only a question of priority.
4. Teaching Maths and Science in English does not actually help in improving the English language
Mathematics is a subject that deals with numbers, rules and formulae. Physics deals with laws, principles and concepts. Biology is a study of living things while Chemistry is a study of all the different elements in this world. Teaching these subjects in English only helps the student to understand the terminologies in a different language but it doesn't make him a better user of English. A number is still a number, whether you say it in Malay or in English. Doing a medical degree course in Malay does not make you less of a doctor compared to having done it in English, Arabic or Russian. Salt is known as sodium chloride but in Malay it is called natrium klorida. In this case, the Malay term actually follows the chemical symbol (sodium's chemical symbol is Na).
This line of contention can be propogated either way. I tend to agree that having these subjects taught in English doesn't necessarily make you a good English user. But where it falters is the fact that you need a good command of English to expand and explore the sources of information and knowledge, in whatever field of study.
Having said all that, it is perhaps pertinent to bear in mind the primary reason why the government is reverting back to Bahasa Melayu. This is revealed in yesterday's report on The Star Online -> Poorer results when subjects taught in English, says Muhyiddin.
It seems that our rural students (read : Malay), do poorly in examinations because the Maths and Science subjects are in English. If this is to continue, then the number of Malay students that do well in their SPM exams may dwindle and this in turn, may result in less Malays entering university. Apparently, this situation is quite serious and the government has to yield to the pressure of the proponents of change. In the end, it again boils down to the consideration of quantity.
Anyway, what are my personal views on the matter?
Do I think switching back to Malay is a step backwards? Yes, I do.
Do I think the government made a wrong decision? No, I don't. Having considered the position that Muhyiddin is in, I can somewhat understand the decision that he has made. Under the circumstances, I believe he has made the right choice, although for some quarters, not a popular one. Honestly, whether it is popular or not depends on which side of the fence we sit.
For instance, it is reported that the poll on former PM Tun Mahathir's blog indicate an 80% result for those who disagree with the decision. But blog polls are only as good as the composition of its blog readers. A similar poll on a pro-nationalist blog would yield the opposite results for sure. Even that, we need to be aware of the larger section of the population who do not have internet access.
The decision has already been made, by the government of the day, based on circumstances of the time. Perhaps this decision may result in our future leaders and professionals having such poor command of English that our manpower resources are no longer competitive in the global market. Perhaps our nation may falter in its vision to become fully developed by 2020. Worse still, the country may become a laughing stock of the whole world for its embarrassing English translations and join other infamous countries in Engrish.com.
But I do not think that will happen. For as long as there those among us who believe in the importance of a good command of English, there would always be a pressure group who would ensure that we do not slack too far. Perhaps, some years down the road, there may be a situation where a significant support for English would cause another reversal.
As it is now, let's move on. As parents, if we personally feel that English is important, then make sure we instill the correct attitude in our own kids to improve on their own. Don't blame the government if our own children's command of the language is atrocious.