Now that a government whose ideas appear much more progressive than those of the previous Umno-led Barisan Nasional government is in power, I think it is time to bring back the English-medium school.
This is, of course, not a new suggestion. Over the years many progressive-minded people and groups, including the G25 group of former prominent civil servants, have called for a return of the English-medium school.
Before national language-lovers, nationalists and the usual bunch of NGOs and politicians cry foul, let me say that I am all for Bahasa Melayu/Bahasa Malaysia (BM) as the national language. And I want national schools to continue teaching in BM.
I am suggesting, as others have done previously, that English-medium schools be offered as an alternative language stream, not as a replacement for national schools that teach in BM.
After all, we do have three language streams at present: BM, Mandarin and Tamil. Yes, I know, some people have suggested that schools teaching in Mandarin and Tamil be abolished. I don’t agree with that. In fact, I am all for including English as another language stream to provide Malaysians with more options.
Many urban parents are stretching their budgets to send their children to international schools so that their children will have a better grasp of the English language and a firmer foothold in the global village.
It was reported last year that English-medium international schools had mushroomed in recent years and that there were 99 such schools with an enrolment of 39,460 students. Obviously parents sending children to such schools know that the world is indeed an oyster for those with a mastery of the English language.
I would like to quote two gentlemen on the importance of English.
In November 2017, Nor Zahidi Alias, the chief economist of Malaysian Rating Corp Bhd said low proficiency in English was one of the main obstacles in the path of Malaysian graduates finding employment.
The other gentleman is better known, and goes by the name of Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
In February this year, Mahathir, then in the opposition, said Malaysians who viewed English negatively would lose out as it was both an international language and the language of knowledge.
He added: “In the past, it was Greek, then it was Arabic, then it was Latin and from Latin, European languages became the language of knowledge, the most common being English.
“If we want to wait until that knowledge is translated into our own languages, there’s a possibility that not everything will be translated. There is also a possibility of things getting lost in translation.”
Now, Mahathir has a point there. Some older readers may remember that when US President Jimmy Carter visited Poland in 1977, he ended up “saying” things he did not mean because the interpreter failed to do a good job.
Carter’s “When I left the United States” was translated by the interpreter hired by the US State Department as “When I abandoned the United States” and when he said, “your desires for the future”, the interpreter translated it as “your lusts for the future”.
In refuting the argument that learning English would make people forget their mother tongue, Mahathir said: “I studied at an all-English school. They didn’t have the Bahasa subject when I studied there. But I used the language whenever I spoke to my family and friends, and I read books in Bahasa even though, admittedly, there weren’t many.”
During his first stint as prime minister from 1981 to 2003, Mahathir tried to introduce policies and programmes that promoted English, such as the teaching of Mathematics and Science in English, which was discontinued by the Najib Razak administration in 2009.
Incidentally, current Home Minister Muhyiddin Yassin was the education minister in 2009. In 2014, Muhyiddin famously said he was baffled why “our children after completing pre-school, primary school, secondary school and tertiary education still cannot converse in English”.
The Najib administration made a pass in English compulsory for getting the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia certificate at Form Five level effective 2016. Earlier administrations had also tried to improve English proficiency by introducing various policies and approaches.
Maszlee Malik, the latest in the line of education ministers, has just proposed that schools set aside two days a week where only Bahasa Malaysia or English is used to help students improve their language skills.
I wish him luck.
But, as the late chief minister of Sarawak Adenan Satem said in February 2016, these policies have failed.
“All those policies on allocation, putting emphasis (on English) etc, have been failures… We have thousands of unemployed graduates who cannot put words into sentences in English. Because of that, we are backward by tens of years.”
He went on to say: “I remember a federal minister who said, ‘We will not entertain any correspondence if it is not in Bahasa Malaysia. That is not a good policy.”
A good policy, I believe, is bringing back the English-medium school.
And this is the best time to do so, as most PH leaders seem to be more forward thinking. If they make a decision soon, preparations can begin – especially in training teachers, publishing required books and building some new schools – and perhaps in three to five years, the first English-medium school can open its doors.
But if the PH government does make such a move, proponents of English-medium schools, and the government itself, must be prepared for a tough fight. You can bet there will be rallies by those opposing the move. This time, though, we can expect Umno and PAS to lead the rallies.
A Kathirasen is executive editor at FMT.
The views of the writer do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.