M’sian parents defend policy for English in schools

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PETALING JAYA: Parents and industry groups have spoken out in support of the government’s dual-language programme (DLP) pilot, implemented for Standards 1, 4, and Form 1 in 300 schools throughout Malaysia.

On January 20, Parti Amanah Negara (Amanah) President, Mohamad Sabu said the pilot DLP, which allows parents to opt-in for English as a medium of instruction in government-run schools, would see the country “regressing into an era of colonialism”. PKR’s Nurul Izzah Anwar also reportedly withdrew her children from their government-run national school over the DLP.

This touched a raw nerve with many Malaysians.

In a three-hour roundtable with FMT last Saturday, we spoke to stakeholders from one of the nine DLP pilot schools in Selangor for an on-the-ground perspective since the programme’s rollout in January 2016.

Dr M Kalaivani, Parents’ Teachers Association President for a DLP school, was previously involved in a series of English Labs, government-led consultative sessions which led to the designing of the DLP pilot.

Dismissing the anti-DLP movement’s fear that the status of Bahasa Malaysia (BM) would be relegated, she said naysayers “sorely missed” one point: to qualify, the average BM scores for DLP schools must be above the national average. This ensures that schools do not neglect BM in their quest to offer DLP as an option.

Dr Kalaivani also shared: “In our school, parents were given a choice [to opt-in] and all the [parental consent] forms that came back said ‘yes.’

Sharing insights and sentiments on the ground, she said, “I have spoken to friends with kids at other schools and they’re all asking, “Why wasn’t our school chosen?” Other standards are also crying out, “Why is the implementation only in Standards 1 and 4?”

University Malaya lecturer, Azlina Ahmad Annuar, with two children in Standards 1 and 3, emphasised that especially in science, communicating in English is a skill that takes years to acquire, underscoring why the DLP is crucial now for school-going children.

“If it comes too late, if you teach them only when they are postgraduates, it takes much longer for them to learn how to write in English.”

Asni, an economist by training and whose child attends a DLP school, questioned people’s opposition to English when “even our local conferences – oil and gas conferences, halal industry forum – are all done in English, not in Bahasa (BM). So how can you say that English is only appropriate for certain disciplines?”

He also opined that it was pointless to send scholars abroad if they returned non-proficient in English: “If you don’t want to force yourself to learn and communicate [in English] then it defeats the whole idea of taking a government loan, going overseas, and coming back.”

Sumitra, an officer with the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation, with children in Standards 2 and 4, dispelled the notion that proficiency in English was not required in the civil service.

“People have a misconception that in the civil service, low proficiency in English is not a problem, you can survive with BM. The answer is ‘No, you can’t.’

“As a civil servant… in a globalised world, when we head overseas representing the country, you are the face of Malaysia. They don’t even know your name, but when they call ‘Malaysia’, you respond to it. So, when it comes to speaking at an international conference they have to put someone who is proficient in English to represent the country.”

Sumitra also touched on parents who have chosen to opt out of the government schools: “Many are opting for private schools, not because it is superior but they feel that use of English will be better there. So when we know what is wrong, why are we still driving people away from public schools?”

Muhaini Hussin, a mother of one, was strongly in favour of the DLP and shared that many were hesitant about supporting it because their children may not get straight A’s if they sat for exams in English.

She said, “I know some of my Malay friends are not comfortable because they are afraid, ‘My child cannot answer the exam questions.’ But that shouldn’t be the reason why you don’t support the DLP. We have to break this [mentality] that if the results are bad, kita cancel, kita tak boleh jalankan this pilot project.

“People are ready, and even if they aren’t, eventually they will be. We are too exam-oriented now. We just have to pick up and sacrifice short-term for greater gain.”

Sesu, an engineer with two girls enrolled in Standards 4 and 6, said, “By right, we shouldn’t even be having this discussion.”

“I work in an American company, in charge of SEA. A couple of years ago, I interviewed a local graduate. I started my question in English and he stopped me. “Encik, boleh cakap Bahasa Melayu? Saya tak faham Inggeris.” He couldn’t even form a sentence (in English).

“We recognise that BM is the official language, no one is questioning that. But it is vital everybody who speaks BM must know also how to speak and write in English.”

“If the market is going to open up, with TPPA, it will affect everybody. I don’t want my daughters to lose out, which is why I want the DLP.”

Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia (Page) Chairperson, Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim supported parents’ views and added that teaching in English would not erode the status accorded to BM as the national language.

“I believe the national language is protected and whatever language we learn, be it Tamil, Mandarin, or English, will not relegate the national language because it is protected by the Constitution,” she said, citing Article 152 of the Federal Constitution, the National Language Act 1967 and the Education Act 1996.

Microsoft Malaysia Director of Legal and Corporate Affairs, Jasmine Begum shared another aspect to teaching in the information age.

“You are teaching digital natives today. Whether you like it or not, children are turning to devices first. It’s a mobile world and a child is exposed to a device and they largely use search engines that are in English.”

“Being able to teach maths and science in English, you’re guiding them to think, ‘Hey, if I can learn math and science in English in school, I can use the Khan Academy to improve myself.’ The child will explore. This also lowers the burden of parents sending their children for tuition.”

Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers Vice-President, Davies Danavaindran said that the industry supports the introduction of the DLP as it increases competitiveness and value-adds to the Malaysian workforce.

“Sometimes, especially in the rural areas, they think it is not fashionable to speak English or they’re made fun of when they speak English. We should make everyone comfortable speaking in English. It’s a business language, not a colonial language.”

This isn’t the first time the introduction of English as an alternate medium of instruction has been cause célèbre.

In 2006, four students, including the son of ousted Perak Menteri Besar, Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin, filed a suit against the Federal Government, to declare that Teaching and Learning of Science and Mathematics in English (PPSMI), a pre-cursor to the DLP, contravened Article 152 of the Federal Constitution as it violated their right to study in the national language.

The case was decided in 2010, when the High Court set a precedence that the teaching of Science and Mathematics in English did not contradict Article 152 of the Federal Constitution.

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