Mariam Mokhtar on The Great Putrajaya Denial of English in Malaysian Schools

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We need English to open our minds and to excel on the world stage, in science, technology, diplomacy, tourism, banking, international trade, aviation and business.

Anyone who wants to destroy a nation need not resort to weapons of mass destruction. All one has to do is to tinker with the education of the nation’s children, then sit back and wait a few years for the disastrous consequences.

This is what has happened in Malaysia. A complacent public allowed extremist leaders to dominate almost every area of our lives, including education, and today, we reap the results.

Blame the Umno/Barisan Nasional government because their administration politicised education and language became a very sensitive subject.

Thousands of graduates

When Dr Mahathir Mohamad became Education Minister in 1974, and later prime minister, his affirmative action policies on education, his lack of meritocracy and his flip-flop on teaching science and mathematics in English, condemned at least two generations of Malaysians.

We churn out thousands of graduates, but many lack self-confidence. Those who cannot speak basic English are embarrassed when criticised. Others lack basic communication skills, whilst a good percentage of graduates have a sense of entitlement. They think that a degree means they can demand perks and benefits without showing how they can be of value to an employer.

Today, many Malaysian parents are increasingly dissatisfied with national-type schools. The usual complaints are the poor quality of teachers and teaching, the lack of discipline, racism amongst teachers, racial quotas in sports, and the transfer of teachers who are guilty of abuse, including sexual abuse.

Many disgruntled parents send their children to vernacular schools, where the discipline and standard of teaching are better. Those who can afford to enrol their children in international schools, or overseas boarding schools. Others opt for home tuition. Malay nationalists want to ban vernacular schools but have not demanded the closure of international schools. Why?

English in Malaysian schools

In recent weeks, there has been renewed focus on the poor proficiency of English in our schoolchildren.

Last September, whilst speaking at the ground-breaking ceremony of Sarawak’s first state-owned international school in Kuching, Sarawak’s Chief Minister, Abang Johari Openg said that the state government’s decision was prompted by a need to produce competitive students who could master English at the international level. He opined that many graduates remained jobless, because of their poor command of English.

Two days earlier, a similar remark about English proficiency was made by the executive director of the Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) executive director, Shamsuddin Bardan.

He said that having a good command of written or spoken English, helped in communication both within and outside a company, and he disagreed with the perception that employers discriminated against Bumiputera graduates.

Shamsuddin said that the private sector, which was responsible for 90% of the employment in Malaysia, used English in their business undertakings, and he attributed the failure of Bumiputera graduates to find jobs in the private sector, to their poor command of English.

Dr Tan Chee Khoon

In the 70s, Dr Tan Chee Khoon, one of the founders of the Gerakan party, predicted the threat posed by nationalists to the use of the English language. Dr Tan’s prophecy has come true, as Malay extremists now claim that speaking English is unpatriotic.

Today, Malay children are reluctant to speak English because they are sold the propaganda that it is unpatriotic to speak anything but Malay. The irony is that these Malays then cry discrimination and complain about the difficulty of getting jobs in the private sector, or with multinational companies.

Around Merdeka, our schools and universities were amongst the best in Asia, but Mahathir dumbed down our education in favour of affirmative action policies.

He dismantled a century of British effort to provide education and demolished the work of two centuries of dedicated mission school pioneers. The lack of meritocracy has crippled at least two generations of Malaysians. Ironically, the best students whom we rejected became Singapore’s gain.

Near admission

The closest Mahathir came to admit that his policies had failed Malaysians, was on 12 September 2013, at the 30th-anniversary luncheon of the Japanese Chambers of Trade and Industry Malaysia (Jactim). He said that English, especially in science and mathematics, would help improve the reputation of Malaysian public universities on the world stage.

When asked for his views on the Malaysian Education Blueprint 2013-2025, he said he was displeased with the omission of English in schools. He has forgotten his role in dismantling our education system.

In one case, he claimed that only seven of the 333 graduates who applied for a post in information technology were suitable. The unsuccessful graduates could not speak English and had asked for the interview to be conducted in Malay.

Muhyiddin’s claim

When Muhyiddin Yassin was the education Minister, he even claimed that our education was among the best in the world. The irony was that schools in Sarawak were literally falling apart, despite several hundreds of millions of ringgit being pumped into school facilities in East Malaysia. So, how was this allocation spent?

We need English to open our minds and to excel on the world stage, in science, technology, diplomacy, tourism, banking, international trade, aviation and business.

Political reluctance to make English a priority in schools may benefit extremist politicians in the short-term, but will not help the nation in the long run. – Rebuilding Malaysia