Second chance for education in M’sia

When the teaching of Science and Mathematics in English was introduced in 2003, our columnist didn’t think it was a great move. He now has a different take and he also has suggestions on how to do it better.

AS acting Education Minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad announced last week that he would be reinstating his idea of teaching Science and Mathematics in English. Unlike how I felt about his first attempt in the first decade of the new century, I am giving full support to this idea, although not for the same reason that he has in mind.

Dr Mahathir feels that teaching both subjects in English would better prepare students for the professional fields at the global level. I agree with him in some ways but what is more important, I think, is that this change in the language of instruction can actually help this nation deal with the worsening racial and religious ties.

In this article, I will explain my change of perspective and also outline what I think would be a better strategy to make this new policy a success.

When Dr Mahathir announced this policy, known then and now as the PPSMI (the Malay acronym for Teaching and Learning of Science and Maths in English), I was most sceptical.

First, the move happened just after the sacking and incarceration of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and the start of the Reformasi movement. At that time, members were leaving Umno in droves and Barisan Nasional was propped up largely by the non-Malays.

I concluded that Dr Mahathir introduced the PPSMI as a political move to threaten the Malays regarding the sanctity of their language and to signal the strong support of the non-Malays. However, the policy slowly but surely became a failure for several reasons.

So why have I changed my view on the PPSMI and now support it fully?

Two things. One is that the public universities, for better or for worse, began to implement English as the main medium of instruction.

Even Universiti Teknologi Mara got on board. It made no sense at all to keep instructing students at schools in Malay when they would eventually end up in a private or public university that used English as the main medium of instruction.

The other thing that changed my perspective was an incident at an interfaith forum.

An elderly Malay man stood up and said, “We have race and religious conflict because our children don’t know English, especially the Malay children. With only Malay as the main language of instruction, the Malays are restricted to only reading books and other things in Malay and watching Malay television programmes.

“If they knew more English, then they would be able to access a world of information and knowledge and not be shocked about Christmas

or Christianity or Buddhism and whatnot. I think the key to mutual understanding and tolerance between religions is English.”

After the forum, I thought about my childhood, when I read Enid Blyton books and Archie comics and watched Scooby-Doo cartoons and the Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea series on black and white TV.

What that man said at the forum was true. Without English, the Malays and other races instructed in their own mother tongue are likely to become narrow-minded. English is the key to nation-building and global co-existence.

One primary reason for the initial failure of the PPSMI was its implementation at both Year One and Form One.

At the primary school level, it was okay but at the secondary school level, it was a complete disaster.

The teachers were ill-prepared and it was impossible to be ready at such a short notice for an advanced level of Science and Mathematics.

In addition, the Education Ministry adopted what I consider a flawed solution of appointing a private company to oversee the training of teachers.

People from Europe and the US were hired with high salaries. But they merely echoed what I had always said: Do more reading in English.

For the success of this second attempt, I wish to outline several strategies.

The first is to implement this policy next year, not immediately. The second is to restrict it to Years One to Three. Third, the subjects of Science and Mathematics should not be examinable yet until the children reach Year Four.

Fourth, for 2020,1, 000 teachers must be sent out to 200 private and international schools that have instruction in English so that the teachers are forced to immerse themselves in English conversations. These teachers can act as assistant teachers but are still fully paid by the government.

They must also be monitored by a body of senior instructors or mentors so that they are given reading assignments of children-level English books throughout that year.

They should read at least 30 children storybooks.

For the fifth strategy, veteran teachers who have retired and can speak English well can be offered part-time teaching to replace the teachers who are seconded to private schools for a year.

The sixth strategy is the most important.

The Education Ministry must hire teachers from our pool of graduates of private universities who have excellent command of English.

At the moment, the ministry only recognises graduates of public universities for teaching jobs although some of them are poor in English.

I have met several Universiti Malaya and Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris graduates who are teachers of English but can’t converse at all with me in English!

My son, Ibrahim, graduated from a private university’s English for Corporate Communication programme but can’t apply to be a teacher in public schools.

His degree is not recognised and he is now a senior executive at an NGO writing minutes of meetings and articles.

My daughter, Khadija, graduated with a degree in psychology after doing a twinning programme with an American university.

I sent her to the US for six months to complete a semester at the parent university. She is now completing her Open University post-graduate diploma in teaching. But she was told that her qualification is not recognised by the Education Ministry for teaching at public schools. She currently teaches Arab children at an international school.

I sincerely hope that when hiring teachers, the government will no longer overlook good Malaysian students who can speak and write well in English. Stop this preference for public university graduates, even though some have a weak grasp of English, and recruit people who can actually converse intelligently and write proficiently.

For our children’s future as global contributors and as citizens of Malaysia that accept all religions and cultures with an open mind, I do hope that this initiative by Dr Mahathir can be the turning point for our nation mired in race and religious tension arising from mass ignorance and poor English.

Prof Dr Mohd Tajuddin Mohd Rasdi is Professor of Architecture at UCSI University. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

By Prof Dr Mohd Tajuddin Mohd Rasdi.

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