Friday, October 24, 2008

English education needs political courage

I don't know what's wrong with the Minister of Education. Maybe he's preoccupied with his party's politics. Or, to borrow an expression from the wise and erudite blogger Sakmongkol, perhaps the Minister is being dragged down by his hikayat advisors.

But, he really needs to display more political courage to do what is right for the country, our beloved Malaysia.

The Minister needs to play a leadership role in the matter of maintaining English as a medium of instruction for the technical subjects of Mathematics and Science.

A golden opportunity
Once in a while, an issue arises that represents a golden opportunity for stakeholders, people who have a direct interest in the matter, to rise above themselves, their community and constituents for the sake of a greater good. I believe that the issue of teaching English in the subjects of Mathematics and Science to be one such issue.

As a parent with three children in various stages of schooling in Malaysia's public schools and, as someone who is part of the Malaysian SME community, I am such a stakeholder.

Tower of Babel
What has disturbed me over the past few months is the unstructured noises and opinions over this matter. Educationists from various communities appear to be united in wanting to see the end of the teaching of English for the subjects of Mathematics and Science. Instead, they prefer the medium of instruction to be in their own non-English languages.

Some academics have decried the fact that their quarrel is over the emphasis on technical subjects like Mathematics and Science as opposed to teaching the foundations of English grammar. They may have a point.

The myth of language and cultural identity
There are even groups that fear the loss of cultural identity, silly as it sounds. How can a Chinese Malaysian be any less Chinese or any less Malaysian by being conversant in an international language of knowledge and commerce such as the English language?

I can lay some claim to being very comfortable speaking, writing and thinking in English.

But, I still wave the Malaysian flag like a madman whenever I can.

I can't stand being without my regular bakuteh (bringing my own collection of ti kuanyin, pu er or oolong tea to brew), wantan noodles, chicken rice and nasi lemak. I break into Bahasa Malaysia whenever I can in my daily conversations. And, come Chinese weddings I lustily do my yam seng cries. I've read, to the best of my ability, the Analects, Tao Te-ching, Three Kingdoms, The Art of War, some works of Lu Xun (all English translations, of course. *blush* *blush*) and I watch lots of Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou movies (with English subtitles, of course. *blush again*). During the Chinese New Year my family organises a lion dance troupe to perform homage before the family altar.

All this, with a limited knowledge of the Mandarin language. Some people have called me a banana (yellow on the outside, white inside). So what? It doesn't make me any less Chinese, does it?

I am certain that Malays have the same inclination and predilictions in their culinary preferences and cultural conduct. Likewise with the Indians, Ibans, Kadazans and all suku kaum that is conversant in English but know and understand their cultural identity and sensitivities.

Truly, the non-English educationists need to explain this irrational fear of loss of cultural identity when they use this issue in the discourse on the usage of English as a medium of instruction in Malaysian schools.

National competitiveness
In my previous post I tried to deal with the aspect of value chain and knowledge capital. To build on the matter a bit further, let's look at the expression national competitiveness which has also been widely used by the political leaders.

The expression national competitiveness is still a matter of debate among economists. But, to avoid being caught in the thicket of concepts and the bark of words, I will declare here that for this post, I am using the Paul Krugman view that the expression national competitiveness should refer to productivity.

This refers to acquisition of knowledge that is transformed into marketable skills but with increasing value. So, productivity is not just about the number of widgets produced per worker. Productivity, in this context, refers to the value of the work or service generated by each worker. It is the qualitative aspect of productivity that Malaysia should now focus on instead of the quantitative aspects. That is how Malaysia can aim to be competitive. That is how Malaysia can move up the value chain.
How do we move the Malaysian workforce in sizeable numbers from minah karan skills of soldering, assembling and packaging of electrical and electronic (E&E) products to higher levels such as industrial design which requires higher order thinking and skills?
Just one example
I personally believe that given Malaysia's multiracial, multicultural and multireligious millieu, the fundamental exposure of each Malaysian to the cultures of the Malay, Chinese, Indian, Iban, Kadazan and other suku kaum and, within each of these cultures, so many subcultures based on geographic origins, Malaysia is a potential world leader in the field of industrial design. do we know that our designs can be used for mobile phones, satellites, cars, light bulbs or even pencils, without exposure to knowledge of areas such as production engineering?

Okay, another example
There is also all this talk about biotechnology. Malaysia's different communities have so many different petuas and herbal and mineral remedies. The native communities in Malaysia have even more numerous natural remedies since they live closer to Nature. Western researchers have been scouring our forests and mingling with natives for years and they have been extracting plants, flowers and minerals used by natives to take back home to research on the active ingredients.

Once identified, the process of extraction of the active ingredients are patented. The formula is then sold to giant pharmaceutical companies for commercial production. The royalty payments make these researchers multi-millionaires.

WIPO has helped to create awareness and, regulate this knowledge theft. My point is that there's still a helluva lot of such knowledge. But, we still need Western researchers because we lack the skill sets. These skills can only be acquired with proper education. The foundations must be correctly constructed. The starting point are Malaysian primary schools and secondary schools.

By the way, our southern neighbour has created a joint-sharing biomedical research facilitiy called Biopolis. It is a strategic move. Bold. There is huge potential for moving up the value chain and acquiring knowledge capital.

Lost in translation
As I wrote in my earlier post, if we accept that three-quarters of the world's knowledge in either written in or, translated into, the English language then, a Malay-educated, a Mandarin-educated or a Tamil-educated Malaysian technical worker will need to have a dictionary beside him or her at all times. As he or she comes across an unfamiliar English word (you can check for yourself, most of the technical texts are in English) reference must be made to the dictionary. I can assure you, it is a painful experience.

Some years ago, I had some dealings with partners from a Spanish-speaking country. The correspondence and contracts were in Spanish. I had a Spanish-literate lawyer, of course. But, not being content with the translation, I wanted to read the source documents myself. Let me just say that a document that would ordinarily have taken me twenty minutes of reading to understand, took me two hours. Even then, there were nuanced phrases that I missed. It ain't easy, I tell you.

Just visit any major library in Malaysia. Just count how many books there are in the English language and, how many there are in non-English. I used to frequent the Main Library at University Malaya. In many of the books that I took off the shelves I saw many margin scribbles in Bahasa Malaysia which translated the English words. I thought to myself, these poor students, how painful it must be for them to conduct research for their term assignments and seminar papers. And, what about the nuances contained in these works? Probably missed by the poor student. How to get a distinction or an A?

Political courage
So, back to the Minister of Education.

Will the Minister muster the political courage to rise above the tribalism that now dogs the English-as-a-medium-of-instruction debate?

Will the Minister have the spine to urge and inspire the warring tribes to rise above their petty parochialism for the sake of the country and their children?

Or, will the Minister display the courage of a churchmouse and, wait....and, wait....and, wait.....until the storm subsides, come what may.


myop101 said...

dear ctchoo,

just to digress a little....

to put the words of some of my chinese educated friends into context as to why they defend Chinese medium education in Malaysia:

"but there are phrases and words that would be lost in translation unless we learn to understand and speak it in our mother tongue."

there, that in part summarizes how less Chinese we will be as we will not be able to appreciate the calligraphy, the meaning of each stroke or when they speak using phrases and so on and so forth...

those of course who preached this don't simply view language as a utility for direct communication. for them, each word used carries with it individualism, a sense of belonging, an attachment to a glorious past and a roaring future. Also, the fullness of their experience would somehow be able to communicated in full as the exact comparison may not be available in other cultures.

And what about familiarity? sometimes the utility itself conveys intrinsic prior understanding and trust (like when a person asks if you are hokkien and whether you can speak it), somewhat irrational if one think about it.

as for me, i only know how to read and write in 2 mediums, Bahasa Malaysia and English. My cantonese has improved over the years, thanks to help from watching TVB series and talking to my wife. i can remotely understand Mandarin and to some extent, Hokkien but i don't think i can even form a proper sentence in Mandarin and Hokkien.

over the years, i observed that sometimes to use the language the other party is comfortable with actually reaches out to them faster than the official languages of the state.

some asked if i ever regret not learning mandarin. to be honest, that is the least of my concerns. perhaps when China exert itself greatly and eclipse English, i might be worried, but even then, who is to say English will really go the way of Greek and Latin as the lingua franca of the world in the near future?

Brian Barker said...

Hi ctchoo

The language problem worldwide is immensely complex, and I add the comment as a native English speaker, living in London

I also notice that Barack Obama wants everyone to learn another language, but which one should it be? The British learn French, the Australians study Japanese, and the Americans prefer Spanish. Why not decide on a common language, taught worldwide, in all nations?

I think it is relevant that UNESCO will meet in Paris, on 15th December, to acknowlege Esperanto, as a living language, in conjunction with the International Year of Languages

An interesting video can be seen at A glimpse of the language can be seen at

de minimis said...

myop 101

Interesting views.


I see you're back on Esperanto. Each Malaysian community have their basic language be it Malay, Mandarin, Tamil, Telugu, Malayali, Iban, Kadazan, Bajau etc. The Malaysian discourse is whether we can augment our economic skills with a strong command of the English language so that Malaysia can maintain its competitive strength internationally.

Anonymous said...

Hi ctchoo,

Yr view resonant with many 'banana' m'sians' of all races.

Many has lost the 'way' while tracking in this 'chauvinistic' jungle!

Look at causality, causes & effects, pls!

The argument of teaching the science/maths in mother tongue has her merits. Enough has been said.

The mamak's 'ketuanan' thought caused the southward trend of the English proficiency & the subsequent flip-flops through our educational systems worsen the situation. But that's history!

And the implicit blames on the vernacular schools r un-called for!

Yet, currently, many of U equals the teaching of science/maths in English as the holy grail to improve the standard of English proficiency! This is a very shallow way of looking at the big picture?

The big picture is English proficiency in our educational system, just in case U r lost while making a turn in the 'chauvinistic' jungle along yr line of thought.

How can one equal the improvement of English proficiency in schools with teaching tech subjects in English is really beyond any logic thinking.

In fact, the end result is like free-falling, can't catch both ends except crashed at the bottom.

Just imagined talking to someone interlaced his/her conversations with English tech terms, using broken English syntax! Or for that matter reading some 'English' write-ups with a similar set-up!

The solution of our poor English proficiency lies with proper English teaching structures, liken to the olden 50s & early 60s. That's means good English teachers & relevant placing of the English subjects, not necessary just the techies, in the schooling systems.

Perhaps, U r just purely reminiscent about yr good old day without realising that U r a product of a bygone proper English school.

U don't 'catch-up' yr English while just studying English under techies subjects!

AND like it or not, the current administration will never has the courage to implement proper English schools.


de minimis said...


Contrary to your assumption, I'm actually a product of a transitional era in 1968-1969 sandwiched between the people who had an English medium and a full BM medium. So, I can claim to have studied Maths and Science in English but everything else in BM. This is exactly the position in schools at the moment.

I'm a little bit surprised that my post comes across as wistful and nostalgic. That wasn't my intention at all.

I believe that since the ball has started rolling, reversion is a bad thing. It's like crawling back into the cave for a false sense of security.

The idea is to move forwards. By my time, all teaching of grammar was tossed out. My English skills was actually acquired by reading lots of Enid Blyton, Alfred Hitchcock and so on. The teachers weren't really teaching even then, save for a precious few.

So, as a product of an earlier era where English was taught in Mathematics and Science but no serious grammar was taught, I can tell you that it is truly possible to maintain the current system. We just have to get the govt to put more money into training the teachers and, as a stopgap, get the retired teachers out for another 3 to 5 years to secure a solid transition.

Let's not be too cynical or smug here.

Anonymous said...

I'm not trying to be too cynical or smug here.

So U r a transitional product! Then U r the borderline case, sided more on the lucky edge.

My take about yr luckiness - during yr transitional time, those teachers basically still had a good command of English. So their teaching of those tech subjects flight through without much problem.

Fast forward to today, can U imagine having a teacher, who has poor English proficiency, to teach tech subjects in English. More like no-3-no-4. Thus the poor students suffered!

'I believe that since the ball has started rolling, reversion is a bad thing. It's like crawling back into the cave for a false sense of security.'

I agreed with yr above with BIG but. Reason been without a tutor with good English background, teaching tech subjects via this tutor IS a big dis-service to the poor kids.


de minimis said...


I agree with your concern. I've got children that are undergoing the system. I hate the fact that the policymakers are playing with my children's education.

All Malaysians want the same thing. A good education that will allow our children to acquire skills that can help them earn a good living when they start working.

The current crop of teachers are the product of the 100% BM syllabus era. So, I sympathise with their lack of facility in English. But the govt can remedy the situation in 2 ways:

1. provide even more training resources to teach the teachers English.

2. co-opt the retired teachers on a 2 year, 3 year or 5 year contract to either act as trainers or, directly teach.

I am trying to figure out more solutions to the situation so that the Malaysian education can move forward. But I sense that the politicians are scared shitless for fear of offending one community or another. It almost makes me pine for Dr M...almost.

ben said...


What is your opinion about this report ?

Extracted from an article in the NST written by How Kum Hor on Thu, dated Jan 31, 2008, I would like to highlight the following points

“About 90 per cent of Chinese children in Malaysia go to Mandarin-medium primary schools, which are run by the government. But less than 5 per cent go on to Mandarin-medium secondary schools, which are privately-run and fee-paying. Parents prefer to send their children to government schools, where education is free. Many drop out because they cannot cope with the change in the medium of instruction. The Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) estimates that 25 per cent of Chinese students quit studying before they are 18, when they are due to sit for a government exam equivalent to the O levels. This estimate puts the annual dropout figure at over 100,000 - what the party’s youth wing calls a ’silent epidemic’. There are no official figures on the number of dropouts among the Chinese, but feedback that the MCA gets from the community suggests that the situation has deteriorated, especially over the past five years.”

walla said...

The Tents

There are two tents. One big, one small. The big tent was built by a foreigner, the small one by a local. Both tents contain food. The big tent has the most delicious and stomach-filling food in the world. The tables are always well-laid and the buffet is constantly supplied with the freshiest and most varied of menus. The small tent has only small bites of inconsequential and yesterday's fare such as you see at our local hotels in offbeat places we call resorts. Service is poor and if the oysters have already been walloped, too bad; wait for the next catch.

Both tents are free. Anyone can enter them and partake.

While millions of people all over the world have made a beeline for the big tent, our educationists and politicians are telling our own people to go for the small tent. Their reason? you gotta support local otherwise thirteen million in a world of seven billion trying to progress will lose their culture.

But there is another tent. A third tent. It's hidden behind the bushes. It's where some of these locals are exclusively trained well in how to appreciate the food of the foreigner. They are given the full course, free, of course, and then sent overseas to partake some more of those culinary delights. After gaining high honors from such culinary arts schools like oxford and imperial, they return (if at all) to sit in boards and continue to tell all the locals that they must support local fare by patronizing only the second tent.

Are there only three tents out there? No. Alas there is one more tent. A fourth tent. This fourth tent is in tatters. Some locals just get together to erect it and patch up with what they can rummage from hand-outs. Over the years, this fourth tent has stood heavy rains and high winds. Maybe the heavens look down and see the spirit and will of these people and say 'yes, it is good'.

The food of the fourth tent is special. You see, although the tent is humble in aspect, the food and menu are world-class. In fact, they are so creative they are at least four years ahead of the same in the second tent.

But those educationists and politicians think they're trouble and must not be well-supported.

Because they're not halal.

The Acrobat

There is a database called sciencedirect. With springerlink, it is one of the two most widely used scientific databases by universities and research houses for their academic content. After all, researchers like to post their findings as acrobat (pdf) articles in databases such as these so as to get cited more often which is a big criterion for their recognition and career progression.

Sciencedirect has 9 million acrobat articles.

Now here's the story. I am so great with such things that in the virtual world i have gained wide recognition as walla-the-great (while being, sniff, much older than this blogger, for sure). One day, a group of youngsters from a certain country (you know which) posed me a challenge. Can you find this article titled x written by y and published in sciencedirect on z? Of course i can, i replied exultantly. Indeed, before you can say "we're screwed" i already found it.

Then it dawned on me why they asked me for that precise article and none else out of the nine million.

You see, each acrobat posted in sciencedirect is complete. If they say it's 21 pages, there will be 21 pages in that article when you open it.

Well, that particular article said it contains 21 pages but when i opened it, there were only 10 pages. 11 pages were missing. This is heresy, i thought. Tenacious to the last drop, i wrote directly to the author. He was just as surprised why his world-famous article was posted incomplete in that database of nine million acrobats.

For that group to ask for that particular article, they must already have read the other 8,999,999 acrobats. Because they are scientific articles, they are not easy to read but one is quite sure they are useful for progress, modernization, improvement and all the other humbug things one needs to build a nation and progress a 'race'.

All those acrobats are in english, even those written by topnotch japanese, korean, dutch, belgian, american, israeli and chinese researchers (just to name a few 'races').

Now there's another database with content all in english. It contains by now some seven million acrobats. Each acrobat is an analyst report. Think one hundred of the world's most well-paid analyst broker houses with thousands of analysts making use of databases like the commercial equivalents of sciencedirect, tools like bloomberg terminals, writing acrobats on almost realtime basis to produce reports on every counter, sector, economy of the world, influencing decisions of ceo's, investors and even politicians. Those reports may run from a few pages to some five hundred. The latter are of course only made privy to a select number of well-heeled individuals and corporations. After all knowledge is power and elitism is a premium.

Those acrobats are also in english.

Now, Hishammuddin and your group and the 1,000 translators on the payroll of DBP, what was it you were saying again about language and education?

de minimis said...

bro walla

I'm speechless at the depth and reach of your thoughts on this matter. You have taken us all on a holistic view of the issue and shown us the context in which this matter should be dealt with.

ben said...


Excellent insight. I was like...wa lau eh! We're still so comfy in our tempurung and oblivion to the happenings of the outside world.

Always, enjoy your comments.