Press statement by Kua Kia Soong, SUARAM Adviser 2 Feb 2020

Since the prime minister’s “temporary” takeover of the Education portfolio, the country has waited with bated breath wondering what radically new education reforms Dr. Mahathir has in store for us. Now he has announced the reintroduction of the old policy of his first term in office that English will be the medium of instruction for the teaching of Science and Mathematics. His Deputy Education Minister has tried to fend off opposition to such a move, by saying that this is not yet policy despite the fact that the Prime Minister’s announcement is clearly stated in the video broadcast.

The Malay, Chinese and Tamil education lobbies have already aired their opposition to replacing their mother tongue with English in the teaching of Science and Maths. Are they justified in their opposition?

A rhetorical question

Dr. Mahathir claims that Science and maths have to be taught in English since our “indigenous” languages are not equipped to deal with such STEM subjects. But do you think that the French, Russians, Germans, Japanese, mainland Chinese and all other proud peoples of the world are Anglicising their respective mother tongue education systems to cope with globalisation? The British Council must be laughing but they are also probably laughing at how gullible Malaysians are!

For educationists, the teaching method for a language subject is quite different from that of a knowledge-based subject such as Maths or Science. To master the English language, it makes sense to use text that has been designed to teach English. For example, would you use a Maths textbook written in Japanese to learn Japanese?

Using the Mother Tongue is Effective and Egalitarian

Using English to teach Maths & Science would make it difficult for those children whose mother tongue is Malay, Chinese or Tamil to grasp such essential knowledge. It was based on the results of research on the policy affecting rural Malays that then Education Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin advocated the abolishment of this policy in 2011. For the middle class who can afford tuition for their kids, this problem may be overcome, but for those in poorer families, we would be condemning them to a fate we know only too well.

Speaking for the Chinese schools, their record would indicate the folly of changing their medium of instruction for Maths & Science to English: In 1973, when there were still English primary schools in existence, the standard of Maths in Chinese primary schools was higher than that in the former! The performance of Chinese-medium pupils in maths & science has been good even today. So why should they change the teaching medium to English?

English-medium instruction for maths & science does not lead automatically to better performance in these subjects. At an international campus such as at National University of Singapore, there are more high achievers at mathematics from Chinese-medium rather than from English-medium backgrounds. In fact, a few years ago, the Education Ministry was using the Chinese schools as a role model for teaching Mathematics. At the time, typical of the Education Ministry, the Government thought that the key lay in the use of the abacus. The fact was, the Chinese schools had stopped using the abacus years ago!  

What would be left of our Mother Tongue Education System?

Some people maintain that it is a “small sacrifice” to teach Maths & Science in English. In the first place, why should the question of sacrifice arise in this case? Let’s look at the examined subjects in the UPSR for the Chinese and Tamil primary schools, namely, BM, English, Chinese/Tamil, Maths, Science. Now if English is the teaching medium for Maths & Science, there would be left only a single subject in the UPSR (Chinese Language) in which pupils would be using their mother tongue. There would no longer be a mother tongue system in the country!

This will definitely affect the attitude of pupils toward their mother tongue and sabotage the whole justification for having mother tongue education in this country. We will then suffer from the Singapore Syndrome in which pupils study one Chinese Language subject and everything else is in English. The consequence is their leaders now lament the loss of Singaporeans’ traditional heritage and have to resort to “Instant Culture” by importing Chinese scholars from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and graduates of the Malaysian Independent Chinese Secondary Schools (MICSS)!

Since Dr. Mahathir’s latest announcement, the leaders of Dong Jiao Zong have said that they object to this policy for the Chinese primary schools but they have no objection to the teaching of science & maths in secondary schools. Now, if that is the case, why is there a need for the existence of the MICSS? If Dong Jiao Zong agree to Science & Maths being taught in English at secondary level, why not be part of the National Secondary School System instead of being “independent” and imposing double taxation on the Chinese community?

Let there be democratic choice

The best resolution to this interminable flip flopping in language policy is to allow the various communities to have a democratic choice. I am quite certain the Chinese community prefers to keep their mother tongue education system which is also attracting nearly 100,000 non-Chinese pupils into their system. If the Tamil and Malay streams choose to teach maths & science using the English language, they should have this choice. But it should not be forced down their throats if they insist on keeping their mother tongue system intact.

Raising English Proficiency in Our Schools

The Chinese education movement through the years have called for the improvement of English and BM in Chinese primary schools. But their repeated requests for teaching English from Standard One instead of Standard Three were consistently denied by the Education Ministry. Through the years, school committees and PTAs of Chinese primary schools have had to rely on opening tuition classes to coach our children in English.

Raising the level of English proficiency in our schools requires changes in language teaching methodology and resources (ie. sound strategy). The presumptuous and undemocratic method to implement a questionable policy is not the way. The better way is to increase the teaching period for English; train more professional English teachers; supply more and better teaching materials; ensure effective learning environment in smaller classes.

To meet these conditions, what changes need to be implemented in our schools? In order to ensure more teaching hours for English in smaller classes, there must be a move toward single-session schools, which means more Chinese schools and classrooms. The statistics speak for themselves:

At Independence in 1957, when the population of Chinese Malaysians was half what it is today, we had more schools then, viz. 1350 Chinese primary schools, 78 Chinese secondary schools and even a Nanyang university. Now there are only 1285 Chinese primary schools and 60 Independent Chinese secondary schools. Such a cramped environment is definitely not conducive for learning English in Chinese primary schools – the Government does not allow English to be taught from Std One; does not allow the building of new Chinese primary schools, and also does not train adequate teachers for our schools.

Isn’t the solution obvious? The Education Minister needs to focus, focus & focus on effective, research-based educational reform, not the whims and fanciful ideas that involve flip flop, flip flop and more flip flops.

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