Mind their English, children

The students are away on holiday, and if we are unable to fix the policies for their education, then they will pay the price of our vacation-think.

Presently, we are just trying to buy time on the English in secondary school technology subjects implementation.

There is interesting introspection from the on-going debate going on, and with the clock down to a fortnight before the new school year kicks-off they are valid to be examined.

Within the intricacies of the opposition and support – are some of the main underlying conflicts to the issue emerge.

Primarily, the consistencies (or obstinacies, depending on how you look at it) of the oppositions in terms of losing the Malay language, right of keeping multi-lingual education at primary education and keeping up with the world through English.

The roundtable discussion over the weekend was all about these three players.

The Malay take

Starting with the Malay educationists being adamant that Malay will be the way of this country.

And to be fair to them, the politics and policies agreed overall by all main actors in the last fifty years side them. There was a political commitment to make Malay as the medium of communication in Malaysian life, not English nor other ethnic languages.

They can be present and be promoted, but not at the expense of Malay.

On that count, enough people have systematically played out the Malay educationists in the last thirty odd years, when Malay hit its critical mass point in Malaysian life. Parliament, government and officially schools were only operating on Malay, but somehow exceptions were dominant.

There is no better data then the complete unease Malaysians generally have in communicating with other Malaysians generally – the ethnic split along language lines remain.

No one language binds us. That Malay being designated this role for fifty years not reigning supreme shows systemic failure.

I have graduates who were top students in their schools and districts – excelling in their SPM or STPM which are exclusively in Malay- but having noticeably weak grasp of the Malay language.

The excessive use of exams rather than class based assessment (with focus on oral presentations) has rendered Malay a less prominent place to those who are not native speakers.

The prevalence of Chinese and Tamil schools did not help the matter. A good point of reference would be Borneo where Ibans, Kadazans, Dayaks etc have made natural transition to Malay which was foreign to most of the states of Sabah and Sarawak in 1963. This correlates to their younger population attending in schools teaching in Malay from day one in primary school.

Therefore you can empathise with those defending Malay saying that having English as the technology language has eroded further the advent of Malay – which is already curtailed through the presence of vernacular schools.

These are our children

Just like the fall of Johor will mark the end of Umno, the end of vernacular schools in Malaysia will mark the end of MCA.

With no religious base, the Chinese-thinking politicians on both sides – BN or Pakatan – defend the ‘separate but equal’ model for their community.

Unlike in Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore and The Philippines, the Chinese are not generally competent in the national language.

We are the exception inside the Asean.

The Chinese educationists will claim that the young are learning Malay while being taught their subjects in Mandarin, but the elevation of Mandarin as the medium at the start of their academic journey makes Mandarin the default thinking language of the Chinese population.

Those who were ‘bananas’ – English or Malay educated Chinese – have been gradually made into minorities – just like the leadership of MCA. Ling Liong Sik was the last of the English educated leaders for the party.

The perceived unfairness of the NEP and a belief that the government is bent on ethnic division has led to many of those who had no Chinese education to abandon the same path for their children.

Thus explaining the exodus of Chinese and Indians from national primary schools, over the last two decades.

The Dong Zhong’s of the world will deny their promotion of Mandarin at the expense of Malay – however the fear they have of English is immense and lends to my claim.

English is harder to beat than Malay, and the encroaching globalisation is beating them into a retreat.

The longer English stays on as the language of technology irrespective of national or vernacular schools, the threat of marginalising Mandarin grows.

This is not to say that the vernacular schools won’t turn out students who are proficient in Mandarin, it is just that they might just not end producing students who think or count in Mandarin.

The suburbanites

The cry for English is led by the internationalists with many of them former students of English-schools before the conversion of all schools to Malay.

True enough English will give our children the edge, however ignoring the glaring shortcomings of teachers and other resource is a tad bit selfish.

The upper and middle class kids with the support of homes willing to use English and install Astro sets, can persevere in an education system lacking.

The stories of students correcting their Malay-trained teachers attempting to teach maths and science in English have made their rounds. What about the classes where the students don’t know their teachers are failing them?

Ignore the test scores, just look around you. Felda settlements and interior Kinabatangan will not have the structures to teach in English and have not had the ability for the last six years.

There are scores of kids who with knowledge transferred to them in their mother tongue struggle; this reality, giving it in English filters down substantially the number of them who can absorb the knowledge.

The boys are more difficult, therefore lookout for most of the university places for bumiputeras in local universities in the coming 8 years to be even more skewed to females.

The vocal PTAs of the suburbs are only looking at their own ends, not the nations. They want to be able to call their children when they are in Cambridge or Cornell years from now.

They are not too overly concerned about the many that need to get a basic education, so that they can have a life less ordinary than them – at least.


We are far from a solution.

But the path to a solution is disadvantaged by the initial deployment of the policy without a real structure and process (yes, yes thanks for the memories Mahathir) and the various lobbyists not disclosing their self-interest.

Everyone is trying to envelope the matter under the label of ‘we are just trying to be fair to everyone’.

There are possible ways out.

One could be the corporatisation of prominent suburban schools – asking their parents to channel the large block of money they pass to tuition centres to the schools in exchange for better education.

With the burden of these schools relaxed somewhat, pump the money into rural and working class schools.

If it is English, then give them the chance to thrive in it. Not lip service.

The minority communities, the Chinese especially have to debate properly how much Chinese they can imbue in their children without thinning a common-think for all Malaysians.

What is true for now, the options proposed by all three – Malay educationists, their colleagues in the vernacular team and pro-English suburbanites – will create victims.

Only by better rationalisation and ability to compromise for the sake of the children can we start to salvage the public schools system in this country – which is if some of us caught up in the English debate may have conveniently forgotten, is in the gutter.

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