Malaysia

English language lobbyists looking to build political muscle

By Lee Wei Lian
September 11, 2010

KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 11 — The newly formed Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia (PAGE) is preparing to go on a membership drive in order to recruit politically significant numbers to its cause of giving schools the option of using English in science and math subjects.

PAGE, which was established in May, has been among the most vocal groups on the policy of the teaching of science and mathematics in English, known as PPSMI in Malay. The decision to abolish PPSMI last year was widely seen as a political move to appease language nationalists and many have expressed concern that it would cause the standard of English in the country to further deteriorate and hurt the country’s competitiveness.

“The main activity of PAGE in the immediate future is our membership drive as we need to bring up the numbers quickly in order to build PAGE up to a level where its voice can no longer be ignored,” PAGE chairman Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim told The Malaysian Insider in an email interview.

Noor Azimah said that political views should be kept out of education policies but it was “unfortunate” that political considerations had made inroads into recent educational decisions.

“As such, since and if political views are to be considered, then surely the wishes of the voters who want science and mathematics to be taught in English can be considered as a strategy to garner electoral votes, be it in the rural or urban electorates,” she said.

The group also claims that 95 per cent of 3,000 parents polled at PTA (Parent Teacher Association) EGMs were in favour of using English.

PAGE did not however provide indications of how widespread support was in urban areas.

In trying to increase its political heft, PAGE could be taking a leaf out of the book of groups like GMP (Gerakan Mansuhkan PPSMI) whose campaign for the abolishment of the use of English had political overtones when they claimed that it is hurting the Malay language and could cause Umno to lose votes.

Surprisingly, PAGE and some Chinese educationists and Malay rights groups appear to have found some common ground, or at least managed to be less antagonistic toward each other than would have normally be assumed.

Noor Azimah said that Perkasa had indicated its preference to remain neutral during a courtesy call.

“We were expecting to be shown the door but instead they welcomed us,” she said. “They listened to what we had to say and they said, “we are neutral and we understand where you are coming from but we would like to remain neutral,” which is good enough for us,” she said.

While no formal discussion was initiated with Dong Zong, she said that informal discussions with its members indicated that they wanted science and mathematics to be taught in English at the secondary school level.

The education system in Malaysia has been likened to political football with various groups tussling over policies based on communal leanings and many parents expressed concern that students were becoming the victims.

The country had inherited an English language national education system similar to the one in Singapore, but it was abolished in favour of one using the Malay language as the medium of instruction.

While there have been an increasing number of calls for the return of English medium schools in recent years, Noor Azimah said that it is not a priority for PAGE at the moment but the group welcomes discussion on the issue.

“It (English medium schools) had worked for us well then yet managing to preserve our language, culture and heritage. It had proven to have honed the best in the country,” she said.

The interview follows below:

When was PAGE formed and how many members does it have at the moment?

PAGE was formed on 25 May 2010. We are about to embark on a nationwide membership drive. We expect the numbers to be large considering the fact that educational issues are close to parent’s hearts.

Is PAGE pushing just for the retention of PPSMI or is it also keen to see the return of English medium schools?

According to the Laws of Malaysia, The Education Act 1996 states that

“AND WHEREAS the purpose of education is to enable the Malaysian society to have a command of knowledge, skills and values necessary in a world that is highly competitive and globalised, arising from the impact of rapid development in science, technology and information:”

Based on the above clause of the law and that the wealth of information available in the world with regards to science & technology is in English, it explains why PAGE is pursuing the retention of PPSMI. It is not about learning English through mathematics & science but about being exposed to these scientific English terms at an early age. It should develop curiosity due to the convenience of getting appropriate information easily. For instance, a quick google search of carbon dioxide has 24.4 million results compared to ‘karbon dioksida’ with 210,000. Awareness should build the interest that creates a desire to learn. Exposure is key. Furthermore, it is the most economical, easiest, quick-fix solution, stop-gap measure that is do-able for now before our education system slips into further slumber. We are parents who support national schools. We believe that national schools should be the school of choice and the best way to do so is to ensure that our school-going children are given the best possible education, transpired in the best possible manner and taught in the best appropriate language within the means of available resources. Allowing the option of PPSMI to continue will equip our children with the necessary skills for their future undertaking. Clearly, PPSMI is in line with the 10MP education system to create a first world talent base that the Prime Minister and all Malaysians envision.

We certainly welcome a discussion over the return of the English medium schools. However, that is not on our list of urgent things to do but we believe that it is for the betterment of education. It had worked for us well then yet managing to preserve our language, culture and heritage. It had proven to have honed the best in the country. But now, the decline standard of English is undermining the country’s economy and competitiveness.

In May 2002, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad suggested that English medium schools be reintroduced to enable Malaysians to integrate with the new global economy.

“If the people want it, we will do so. Being democratic, the government has to respond to what the people want,” he was quoted as saying by The Star newspaper.

There is much to do before we get there, the implementation would be key to the success of any educational policy. We must have the will and be ready for it.

Does PAGE have any research that it uses to back its agenda?

Though limited by resources and ability, our simple survey, polls and resolutions at PTA EGM results showed that parents were highly in favour of the teaching of science and math in English. Of 3,000 parents who participated in the survey, an average of 95 per cent voted in favour of PPSMI. We are satisfied with the results and hold true that it is based on a sample size of willing parents who are either for or against PPSMI. The results were positive and it is an honest and sincere reflection of parental preference for PPSMI in schools.

Tun Mahathir’s blog also showed that PPSMI was favoured by 86 per cent of 100,204 voters.

The research report to abolish PPSMI was based on inconclusive study about the policy of PPSMI, more accurately, the focus was on teacher competency of teaching in English — Laporan penuh kajian keberkesanan tentang PPSMI di sekolah rendah by Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris (UPSI) and   Laporan Eksekutif Kajian Pembina: Tamatkan PPSMI by Pemuafakatan Badan Ilmiah Nasional (Pembina). This research showed that teachers were not confident in teaching these subjects in English, and hence the failure of implementation. Perhaps it was done in haste and with questionable methods, as only 8 per cent of the teachers are reported to teach confidently in English. Encouragement and motivation should be given to teachers who are successful in teaching science in mathematics in English to continue teaching them. The steps to improve that are taken to better the policy should be progressive and not regressive in nature. We hope these schools are given the option to do so, and there should be more advancement to encourage learning the English language, especially among teachers.

There are criticisms that pushing for English means disrespecting Bahasa Malaysia. How does PAGE address this?

Does learning Mandarin, Tamil or Arabic disrespect Bahasa Malaysia? If the vernacular schools are able to teach in these languages, and also adhere to Education Act 1996 Article 17 (1) — The national language shall be the main medium of instruction in all educational institutions in the National Education System in Malaysia — then English should also be the other option.

The national language is protected by the Constitution in Article 152 and no person shall be prohibited or prevented from using or from teaching or learning, any other language.

At present, the syllabus in national schools provides that 60 per cent of subject hours in primary schools and 53 per cent in secondary schools (science stream) still retains Bahasa Malaysia (BM) as its main medium of instruction not to mention that BM remains as the official language for assembly and correspondence.

Who are the people who are supporting PAGE? Are they mainly from one racial group or from an even mix?

PAGE has the support of a good racial mix of concerned parents, not just in urban areas but also rural. We stand together for the sake of our children’s education; it is not the issue of race or religion. We are not elitist. It is for our children and the country’s future.

It is interesting that PAGE says it has the support of Perkasa and MPM when perception is that these two groups would be opposed. How did PAGE manage to garner their support?

Allow us to correct this misconception. We will not say we have the support of Perkasa. We had paid a courtesy call on Perkasa, a perceived opponent of PPSMI. We were not sure where they stood, we were expecting to be shown the door but instead they welcomed us, they listened to what we had to say and they said, “we are neutral and we understand where you are coming from but we would like to remain neutral,” which is good enough for us. In addition, they volunteered to arrange a meeting with Gapena and GMP and agreed to facilitate towards the progress of education in the country.

Did PAGE also approach Chinese education group Dong Zong?

There was no formal approach to the Dong Zong, however several informal discussions were held with some members of this organisation who shared their concerns over developments in the issue. Those present had expressed their concerns over the fact that due to the imbalance between primary and secondary Chinese schools, most of their children would have to attend national type secondary schools, after standard 6, where the subjects of science and mathematics would be taught in BM. They expressed their wishes too that these subjects be taught in English at the secondary school level.

Are there any other groups, associations or notable personalities who are also backing PAGE?

Having been officially registered, we will now embark on a nationwide membership campaign to garner the necessary support from parents. As far as other groups and associations are concerned, PAGE will definitely be approaching them for their understanding and support in order to compile a larger and an all inclusive voice to persuade the policy makers towards this cause. We are already in touch with notable personalities and they have been forthcoming with their ideas and guidance, however it is unlikely that our objective will be to find a “champion” to head our movement because we believe that parents (as the main stakeholders for our children’s education) would be the best representative.

What activities is PAGE planning and/or looking at in its quest for PPSMI?

The main activity of PAGE in the immediate future is our membership drive as we need to bring up the numbers quickly in order to build PAGE up to a level where its voice can no longer be ignored.

It was reported that PAGE chairman Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim said that BN risks losing support amongs Urban voters over the abolishment of PPSMI. How widespread is support for English education in urban areas?

We have often said that education and politics do not go hand in hand. As such, political views should be kept separate from the decision making process on policies relating to education. It is unfortunate that this does not seem to the case today and political considerations had made inroads into recent educational decisions. As such, since and if political views are to be considered, then surely the wishes of the voters who want science and mathematics to be taught in English can be considered as a strategy to garner electoral votes, be it in the rural or urban electorates. We are not advocating that every child has to be taught in English, we are merely asking that the parents be given a choice of four languages instead of three.