Opinion

English in the school system

Zaid Ibrahim

Datuk Zaid Ibrahim founded Malaysia's largest law partnership before focusing on politics. He was a minister in the Abdullah administration, was in Umno, PKR and last in KITA as its president.

The 2011 Programme for International Assessment (PISA), coordinated by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), showed that Malaysian 15-year-olds fared badly compared with students in Singapore, Hong Kong and Korea, not just in English proficiency but also in Science and Mathematics.

We ranked in the bottom third among countries that participated in the survey, and to reach the equivalent competence of Korea and Hong Kong, we would have needed three more years of schooling under the current standard. This is unacceptable and a terrible loss of human capital resources.

Our teachers who have been tasked to teach English in schools have fared badly too in their levels of competence. Thus, the focus on improving the quality of teachers under the National Education Blueprint could not have come at a better time. 

The old argument that we need more teachers to be ready before making English compulsory in schools is untenable. It is another excuse for not doing what we must.

We do have teachers who are competent and ready; we just need more and to retrain those who have not the necessary skills.

As such, the plan to recruit teachers from among the best graduates is part of a long-term plan to improve education in our country. Our students have been given a bad deal for many years and that is why it is such a great relief that Education Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin has come forward with a radical plan to stop the rot. He has made a pass in English compulsory for all secondary school graduates by 2016.

The reaction from most people has been positive and I applaud the commitment of both the Minister and the Government in reversing the trend.

Although some will cry that this means the "death" of the Malay language or even the demise of the Malay race, do not believe them. These false champions of the Malay race have never done anything themselves to help our students to improve their education except to holler nationalistic slogans.

Other ethnic groups all over the world have benefited from the use of English in schools and so should we. The improvement to overall educational standards must be the ultimate objective if we want to be a modern successful economy.

There are those who will say that the Malays, especially in the rural areas, will be severely disadvantaged. Some go so far as to claim that making a pass in English mandatory is an act of "punishment".

My short answer is this: if the Minister were to allow more "flexibility" in the policy, or if he were to make the use of English optional, then we would be back at square one.

Students and the parents who do not realise the importance of the language will not put in the required effort. Here, the Government is willing even to extend the number of hours dedicated to the teaching of the subject. It is willing to retrain teachers so they can do their job well. There are no more excuses.

We have heard many times before that the Malays will not be "ready" for a lot of things. These statements are made purportedly to show support for Malay interests. But those who make these statements are actually doing a great disservice to the Malays.

It is the usual lack of confidence in the ability of their own people: if other communities can do it, why not the Malays? As for being rural, there are many Malays from the kampungs who have made it good in their command of the English language. This is not a great revelation. It is a proven fact.

What the Malays need now is encouragement and all the help necessary to master English. When the Minister says all the help will be given to them, every parent should seize the opportunity to help their children get a leg up in the increasingly globalised economic and social world.

There are many benefits to being proficient in English, not least of which is the enhancement to one's job prospects. The private sector, and even government service, will employ those who are proficient in several languages. The global economy is not merely a future possibility, it is already a reality; and the global village uses English more than any other language.

It is impossible for Malaysians to maximise their opportunities in commerce, trade, and even the comprehension of basic ideas today without English-language proficiency. The influx of foreigner workers is already taking place in tandem with the influx of foreign investment. Malaysia must be ready for this change.

Another advantage for Malay students is that they will be able to read many more books, articles on the Internet, and other scholarly materials to widen their knowledge.

If they now only read romance novels and ghost stories, and perhaps the many religious books by Azhar Idrus, then with better English they will be able to read a variety of subjects beginning with pop science and mathematics. Poetry and philosophy from all over the world will be available to them. No one needs to point out the dangers of being a katak di bawah tempurung.

My only concern with the new policy is that someone else will come and change it after a few years. We have had a bad record of letting our policies be susceptible to political pressure. Policies that are hard to implement, but crucial for the country's wellbeing, have often fallen victim to expedience.

Every time we have a new Education Minister, a new policy comes along too, which requires the reversal of the existing one. How will we know that the new paradigm shift will not suffer the same fate?

One solution is to safeguard our education system and to make sure that a future Education Minister is someone who broadly shares the thinking of the present one. This person need not be a future Umno Deputy President or other aspiring politician.

Another option is to join the Education portfolio to that of the Prime Minister. I know it is fashionable now to have the Prime Minister hold on to the Finance portfolio as well, but education is as critical to the nation's future and deserves the full support of everyone, at every level. - September 10, 2013.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.

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