Thursday, July 23, 2009

ST Article on English Language Policy

Thanks to Carolyn for forwarding this to me. Thanks to Carolyn for arranging for Hazlin to interview me on the eve of my trip to China. It is published in The Straits Times Singapore, and it was also published in the Malaysian Insider.
 
Thanks to Wee Lee for the SMS, when I was in the grass land in Inner Mongolia.

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Pitfalls of KL's half-hearted policy
Ferocious debate over U-turn in scheme, which was badly implemented

By Carolyn Hong, Malaysia Bureau Chief

Parents disappointed with the government's decision to reverse the
policy of using the English language to teach maths and science
discussing the topic outside a Bukit Damansara school on Wednesday. --
PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

LISTENING to Mr Yeoh Chen Chow now, you would not have realised that
his English was once so shaky that he needed remedial classes in
university.

But when he first enrolled in Cornell University in the United States
to study electrical and computer engineering, he was one of the eight
out of 3,000 students who needed English lessons.

'My grammar was okay but my pronunciation was weak. In school, if we
spoke English, we'd be seen as showing off,' he told The Straits
Times.

Today, the Chinese-educated 28-year-old from Bukit Mertajam, a small
town on mainland Penang, helps young Malaysians in their applications
to US schools.

Mr Yeoh, who believes that the standard of English has continued to
decline, is convinced that the government should keep its policy of
using English as the language of instruction for mathematics and
science in schools.

On the other hand, Ms Sheema Abdul Aziz, 31, a conservation officer
who studied in England after Malay-language schooling, said she had no
trouble.

'But I already spoke good English to begin with, so I wasn't
particularly handicapped,' she said.

The two are among the thousands contributing to the ferocious debate
on the government's recent decision to scrap a six-year-old policy to
teach maths and science in English. It announced on Wednesday that
teaching will revert to Malay, Chinese and Tamil from 2012.

The move immediately drew strong opposition, despite the government's
attempt to explain that the policy had hampered rural children's
ability to learn the two subjects.

Education Minister Muhyiddin Yassin quickly swung into action to
defend the change of policy, taking questions live over an Internet
chat hosted by the New Straits Times the next day.

On the other side, former premier Mahathir Mohamad, who opposes the
move, used his blog to run a poll on the government's decision. Of the
26,000 who voted, about 80 per cent said they were against the
reversal.

'I will then try to let the government know your opinion,' wrote Tun
Dr Mahathir.

A separate poll on the issue, as part of the independent Merdeka
Centre's survey on Prime Minister Najib Razak's first 100 days in
office, showed that 58 per cent of the 1,060 respondents wanted the
policy to continue.

But it is unlikely that the government will change its stand.

The policy was introduced in 2003 for two reasons. One, to increase
proficiency in English, and two, to familiarise students with
technical terms in English to enable them to pursue higher education
in these fields.

It was hailed with joy by English-speaking students, mainly in urban
areas, but it soon ran into protests from nationalists who feared that
Malay or vernacular languages would be sidelined.

Joining the protests later were students, mainly those in vernacular
or rural schools who could not cope with lessons in English because of
poor teaching.

A third group opposed it because they felt that it was a misguided
policy that would not have the desired impact.

It was one of those rare moments in Malaysia where the divide
transcended political and ethnic boundaries.

Malay and Chinese linguistic nationalists joined hands in a temporary
alliance, while politicians and activists of different persuasions
sang with one voice.

There was not a lot of public support for arguments about cultural
pride, but there was sympathy for the children.

There is also some truth in the complaints that the policy was badly
implemented. Many of the teachers were not up to the mark, and stories
abound of teachers using dictionaries in the classroom to translate as
they went along. Or primary pupils correcting their teachers.

According to education director-general Alimuddin Mohd Dom, only a
quarter of the teachers had adequate language skills.

The government is now under pressure to reinstate the policy in
secondary schools, or to allow urban schools to use English.

It has resisted such calls, but has instead promised to raise the
standard of English by flooding schools with another 14,000 teachers,
and to reintroduce English literature classes in primary schools. It
is now taught in secondary schools as an elective subject.

Prime Minister Najib Razak said the government was only changing methods.

'The government is aware how important it is for Malaysians to be
proficient in English for their own advantage and for the future of
the country,' he said.

But Malaysians remain sceptical. Dr Santhi Sivalingam Moorthy, 41,
told The Star newspaper that she might send her three children to
Singapore schools.

Despite assurances, the U-turn also sends out a different message -
something the language nationalists were quick to spot. Opposition
leader Anwar Ibrahim has seized the opportunity to slam the policy as
'treachery to the struggle to raise the dignity of the national
language'.

It was a well-intentioned policy, but in the end, it was doomed by
haphazard implementation, and may now set Malaysia well back.

It is a lesson learnt that a half-hearted policy can do more damage
than no policy at all.

carolynh@sph.com.sg

Additional reporting by Hazlin Hassan

1 comment:

SaPPhiRe DraGoN said...

The woman who said she wanted to send her children to Singapore...it is so sad for Malaysians. The brightest minds of this nation have been brain drained for years to Singapore and with such a policy change, I fear even more will choose Singapore over Malaysia.