Saturday, 11 July 2009

The mastery of the English language

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

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.


HLiza said...

Whatever people says..I'm all for improving English for our education system..I support which ever ways they use..I'm one of the lucky ones to always have good English teachers..they make a whole world of difference..I see how my siblings suffer under half-hearted teachers. And I think parents need to change their mindst too..they have to see beyond their more English books, encourage more English conversations..they must have a vision themselves so that their kids live a better environment. I hate it when people think improving English will make kids forget your mother tongue..they can assign one parent to focus on one language like what I'm doing hubby is a BM master as he's a the kids enjoy both world.

Just saying out maleh cerita pasal benda ni..jadi emotional pulak. Sorry pak..

Chahya said...

I truly agree with the points you've raised.
I was actually quite surprised with the decision made, but it was a decision made out of the best interest of the people at large.

I hope the next time before MOE come up with new policy changes, needs analysis researches are carried out first, so that whatever decisions made are based on strong empirical basis, and the masses are more confident in those decisions made.

I'm sure those teachers involved in the policy changes have a lot of say too, as they are the ones who are supposed to carry out the tasks. If these Maths & Science teachers, who are largely the product of education delivered in BM, feel that teaching in a different language would somehow affect their competence and their students' outcome, surely this has some implications to those implementation of ideas.

I think it's time for change of management style too, from top down to bottom up now.

I rasa kasihan juga for teachers. Diorang le yang have direct impact of these policies yg berubah2 ni..regardless of public harsh kutukan in media when they ask for raise, or talk about grades, they carry out juga apa pun polisi yg dah dibuat, suka or not.

Talking about teachers -lari sikit dari tajuk, I could understand their needs to be treated like their other counterparts in other departments. Graduates grade 41 are given only 3 years to be promoted to 44 in other govt depts, but DG41 teachers have to wait till 10 years. I was quite shock to hear that my sister's friend (working in other govt dept) who is younger and lesser working experience by 8 years is now at grade 48 and waiting to be promoted to 52, whereas teachers 8 years older and more experienced is still at grade 44. One kena dpt grade 52 baru dpt jadi ketua jabatan like pengetua...and tu pun dah nak pencen baru le dpt.

Not to say that there are no creams who become teachers, but dont wonder lah if the creme de la creme of graduates tak opt for this profession as first choice, even if they if they like teaching.

Ok, back to the topic, I too feel as parents we need to instil the right attitude when it comes to learning English. English language is undoubtedly important, none can win to debate against this.

In fact the more language one knows, the better. Knowledge doesnt come in only one language.

D said...

Oh, wow - a topic I feel so strongly about! I was trained in the UK to be an English teacher and therefore understand the problems concerning the acquisition of the English language.

Yes, of course, everyone is right in this matter - be it Mahathir or Muhyiddin, I can't deny. My only regret is that when the change was imposed some years back, it was done abruptly, without a full back-up plan: Maths and Science teachers weren't trained BEFORE HAND(most would have opted to do something else if they knew!)and the materials and support had not been developed well.

The first year national exams were conducted in English (Maths &Sc), they manipulated the figures to ensure that they could portray 'everything was excellent'.

I feel sorry for everyone who was made a guinea pig, not to mention the amount of money spent on courses, seminars, training and textbook designs.

Sometimes people think all changes are innovative. Sometimes those at the top think they know everything. Sometimes we make mistakes.

Tok Snake said...

i learned my english from beano and dandy......

VersedAnggerik said...

I blog coz I'm also trying to improve my command of written English too!

But the kids? They've got to 'pushed' in school to grasp that command of the language. And now its not happening!


Patricia said...

This was an excellent post, Fadhil. And, I agree with most of what you say.

In the final analysis, it seems like we leave everything at the door of the government: even down to the language our children speak!

So, you are right.

If there is a will, there is way. Trite and cliched, but true.

One last thing, about the teachers: Yes, they can be taught to be fluent and efficient. But in the meantime, they'd have been filling the ears and the minds of our children with English errors that cannot be undone. It's called fossilisation: where you repeatedly hear or say the wrong thing, and so it becomes entrenched in your brain as the right thing. That's what's happening now, and will continue to happen - unless and until we get teachers who are fluent in English.

Oldstock said...


Sesekali jadi emotional takpe... we need to voice out what's in our hearts and minds. Whether the government listen to us or not, that's a separate matter.

I can see your children growing up having good command of both English and Malay. Keep up the good work.

Oldstock said...


Wow... panjang lebar Puan Chahya menulis kali ini. Rasanya tidak perlu saya tokok tambah apa-apa lagi.

I fully understand the problems you highlighted about teacher's promotions. I have 4 in-laws in the teaching profession. As you say, there really need to be a drastic change in the management style within MOE. Let's see if Muhyiddin is up to the mark. Previously, Hishamuddin didn't do anything much.

Oldstock said...


Nice to read your views on this. When the change was made in the first instance, it was done at the behest of the then PM who had an authoritarian hand. The fact that our teachers were not prepared for it was conveniently overlooked. Now, they are changing it again as if to correct a `wrong' that was done previously, with full knowledge that it could also be a `wrong' move.

As I said, everybody is right... depends on which side you view it from. Only time will tell if someone or everyone is wrong.

Oldstock said...

Tok snake,

Are those mags still around?

Oldstock said...


Need to speaking the Inglish to the kids at home more la... so their Inglish not too bad lorr... heheheh..

And lagi satu, cakap Melayu kat umah takleh ada slang pantai timur tau :-)

Oldstock said...


I do not wish to sound too pessimistic, but as a nation, we are going downhill on this English thing. I just hope we hit the bottom of the trough soon.

afah said... is now to each his own..and, Oldstock,we're already at the bottom of the is up to us as parents now..extra class, tuition, personal coaching..

Anonymous said...

Oldstock: It is quite normal for me to get unsolicited CVs of people wanting to join investment banking all year round.

I must say that I have learnt not to get overly excited over well-written CVs; 'coz many a time, a preliminary interview with the candidate had fallen flat after I find that they can't even communicate reasonably in English.

But what about that well-written CV you might ask? Uhmmm.. have you heard of templates? 'Nuf said.

Oldstock said...

Salam Sdra Afah,

No need to despair too much. I look at it this way : for those of us who are willing to go the extra mile to have our children be better in English, the payback would be the extra advantage our kids would have compared to the general masses whose skills will remain average.

Thanks for dropping by. Will pop over to your blog soon.

Oldstock said...


Early on in my career, I paid particular attention in the presentation of my CV. Have to be impressive and detailed, I thought.

Nowadays, I've trimmed all my years of experience into 3 pages only. My approach now is : if you want to know about me, let's talk.

Madam Markonah said...

Just to share a true story. My brother went to see a doctor at a clinic cause he was having a migraine attack. He asked the dr. how he came to have migraine wondering if it was hereditary or if it was from a poor diet. The dr. replied... "No lah... anybody can got migraine. I can got, you can got..." It took all of my bro's willpower not to burst out laughing to the dr's face hehehe...! We joke about it to this day.

Oldstock said...


If can got, then how to cannot got? Heheheh...