Why English, ah?

NOV 17 — Many years ago when Rick Astley was the heartthrob of many, and hairsprayed bangs were de rigeur, I was in the top science class in secondary school. Unlike my brilliant peers, however, I was not a top science student. 

I struggled for two years in Form 4 and Form 5 in abject misery, trying to figure out the mystery of science and maths. I loved the subjects, particularly biology, but my interest and love for them did not translate into high scores. 

I thus arrived at the most logical conclusion — that I was stupid. Smart enough to do well to get into science stream, but not smart enough to keep up. My teachers, angry and frustrated that I was dragging down the scores, certainly did not discourage me from this conclusion. I dreaded going to school every day to see the scorn in their eyes. 

I fell into depression, and cried every day after school. My father, always supportive, wanted to help but was not sure what was going on. I think he thought that I was possibly taking drugs because every time I entered the room, he had a book in front of his face, with the title, “What To Do When Your Child Is Taking Drugs.”

By the grace of God, or possibly dumb luck, I managed to pass SPM but not very well. 

I was fortunate that despite my middling scores, I was able to study abroad. 

My father, always supportive, suggested that I study something “easier”, “like business or law.” 

But I had my heart set on studying science. 

Much to my surprise, I did so much better in university overseas. Suddenly, I was getting As and Bs. The mystery of science wasn’t so mysterious after all. I eventually graduated with a degree in biological sciences, and pursued a wonderful career in field biology for 10 years.

I wrote to my best friend about my academic transformation with much surprise and happiness. She wrote back, simply saying, “I knew you were never stupid. It was just that you never understood the subjects taught in BM.” 

I’ve been following the PPSMI debate with much interest because I certainly would have benefited if science and maths had been taught in English, rather than Bahasa Malaysia. 

Perhaps logically, one would assume I would support PPSMI as it would have benefited students like me whose command of English is better than Bahasa Malaysia. 

However, I don’t necessarily.

I recognise that I am part of a small yet vocal segment of Malaysian society where English is the language of dominance. For some, especially in mixed-race families, it is our mother tongue, to the detriment of our own native languages. My generation, in particular, grew up with the expectation to speak and write in English well because in our parents’ time, it represented future prosperity. 

But times have changed. 

These days, it is not enough to have a good command of English but to have a strong command of Bahasa Malaysia as well. Just look at all the job ads whether in national or transnational industries: “Must speak and write well in English and Bahasa Malaysia.” 

We shake our heads at Malaysians who don’t speak English well, but how many of us can truthfully say, “I am bilingual, and can write well in English AND Bahasa Malaysia?”

There have been some calls that the reason why Malaysians don’t speak Bahasa Malaysia well stems from our frustration with racial politics. It’s our sneaky way of fighting back Malay imperialism, you see, even though it disenfranchises us even further.

I’m familiar with this argument because it has been the excuse I have used for years. 

However, after working with rural communities of all races, I have realised that Bahasa Malaysia is what unites us all, especially from different economic segments of society. 

The Ibans of Sarawak and Orang Asli of Peninsular Malaysia may have their own beef with Umno but they are certainly more comfortable when we communicate in Bahasa Malaysia, rather than English. 

Now, I’m not one to say yea or nay to PPSMI but I would like those debating on the matter to consider students in the middle of the fray.

I know what it is like to go through school studying in a language I don’t understand, and feeling incredibly stupid. I know what it is like to have teachers more interested in investing in academically brilliant students than students struggling to keep up. 

What I don’t like to see are students being used as pawns for political gain. For whatever education policy we eventually decide upon, can we do so for the interests of students and not politicians? As well, as a top academician has said, to have the political courage and fortitude to see the education policy through? 

If I could impart advice for students, I would say, yes English is important but Bahasa Malaysia more so because we are Malaysians. Embrace the language wholeheartedly for it would open up the rest of Malaysia to you.   

Myself, these days, I’m reading more Pak Sako and Samad Said, and a little less of Roald Dahl and Margaret Atwood. 

For I have a lot of catching up to do.

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.


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