(This originally appeared in The Malaysian Insider on July 16, 2009. So some of the narrative might be dated. Incidentally, this is also the day Teoh Beng Hock was found dead.)
JAN 12 — Today is the 28th anniversary of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s ascension to the prime minister’s seat. It is also my birthday. Since the stars have aligned as such, it is only apropos then to speak about our common obsession — education, or more precisely what we use to educate our children.
There has been much disdain, confusion and celebration over Education Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin’s decision to revert back to Malay or mother tongues to teach both maths and science in primary school, and then in Malay only when these children go off to secondary school. In summary, a decision to get this nation back to its pre-2003 status.
I support the decision. Because it helps the most number of Malaysians have the best possible education under the circumstances we have built for ourselves as a nation.
Education is too expansive a process — it enables greater autonomy and cooperation in societies in equal measure, and without exception becomes the catalyst of personal liberation — to be shrunk to a single issue, of the choice of medium of instruction.
But the public school system has clear-cut objectives, to provide the most comprehensive basic education for most if not all its constituents in their growing years leading to adulthood. It is to give everyone a chance at life.
Everyone, even those who are unclear about the need for the education made ready to them. Which is why modern states make basic education compulsory and free.
Parents through their life experiences know they need to give that education for their children’s growth. And children despite their moans and groans waking up to their alarm clocks and chasing the school bus intuitively want to learn.
So a choice of language must come down to two considerations: the customers (the students and their parents) and the resources available (teachers, school infrastructure, textbooks and system supervisors).
Egalitarianism, not elitism.
Comparing English and Malay/Mandarin or Tamil in terms of global competitiveness is a false analysis. It has to be about comparing the strengths of the languages considering the customers and the resourcews at their disposal.
To ask schools with an average group of teachers to thrive using English for their technology subjects — because their teachers got language reorientation in “bengkels” and textbooks are hurried to them before the ink dries — has always been a bridge too far.
There is a smattering of schools which have revelled in English in the last six years, no denying there, and the parents of the children there are the ones leading the chorus decrying the education minister’s decision.
They — as consolation for the deconstructing of the past six years — can value add those schools with initiatives; English for technology programmes, equip their science/IT labs, etc.
What is our reality?
By political compromise, and the absence of political will, Malaysia’s basic education has always been instructed in a group of languages, resulting in a multi-tiered system.
Our education system was already experiencing systemic problems long before 2003, and the use of English as the medium to be a “magic pill” to our past, present and future problems was just thoughtless.
And for Mahathir to have forced it in at the tail-end of his tenure, therefore passing the buck to the next guy, was insensitive, and at left the policy rudderless.
It has never been a debate about the efficacy of English nor its potential to equip our students. It is a debate about how many of our students have the ability to exploit the English language in our resource-strapped school system.
For my nephew it is great. Growing up in an English-speaking home, and plans firmly in place for him to pursue an education overseas, getting accustomed with English for his O-levels works for him.
But it is not about him or the kids in my weekend football clinic in the suburbs alone. It is not about any one of our children. It is about the many, and unless we all talk in the context of the many without thinking only about how great it would be for the children under our roofs, we will not agree to workable decisions for our public education system.
It’s about the ones we leave behind. The seven-year-old looking bewildered in class, who’d struggle with maths and science irrespective of the language. The student with parents who can’t help him with his homework — these parents rely on the system to compensate for their social disadvantages. They get no tuition.
They either learn inside the classroom, or languish.
A language they are conversant in will increase the possibility of learning, echoing Paulo Freire’s pedagogy of engaging the oppressed in their environment structure, not a simulated or adopted one.
This is not to mean we can’t eventually transfer to English, or have a single medium in our public schools. I’ve been an unqualified supporter of a single public school system in Malaysia.
Still, the reversion does not fix the myriad of problems in our struggling public school system. We have to confront the multi-tiered school system, the short supply of capable and willing teachers, derelict school buildings, over-focus on facilities construction rather than equipping facilities and the disappearing landscape of sports.
At least the reversion stops a major haemorrhage.
Today is also the anniversary of the atomic age. The culmination of centuries of learning — maths and science — colluding in a desert in New Mexico 64 years ago to produce unprecedented energy with the explosion of the first the atomic device.
Learning is all about energy, either harnessing it or losing it. I’m sure Oppenheimer would put learning before language. As should we.