Bahasa or English? One step forward, two steps back?

Bahasa or English? One step forward, two steps back?

Summary: A couple of weeks ago, the Malaysian government ignited a controversy when it reversed a five-year-old government policy that sought to teach Science and Math in the English language at primary and secondary schools, and reverted back to teaching the two subjects in the national language, Bahasa Malaysia.

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A couple of weeks ago, the Malaysian government ignited a controversy when it reversed a five-year-old government policy that sought to teach Science and Math in the English language at primary and secondary schools, and reverted back to teaching the two subjects in the national language, Bahasa Malaysia.

While this may not be strictly a posting on the technology scene in Malaysia, I believe that the reversal in policy is going to impact the technological aspirations this country has for itself in the long run.

For those who are in the dark, allow me to provide some context. For over 25 years, Malaysian students schooling in primary and secondary levels, including yours truly, were taught every subject in Bahasa Malaysia, except the English language. Vernacular schools, on the other hand, enjoyed the privilege of learning Science and Math in their respective mother tongues. But, in 2003, all that changed when then-Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad pushed through a policy that introduced the teaching of Science and Math in the English language.

Dubbed English for Teaching Math and Science (ETeMS), the policy was introduced by Mahathir in a bid to raise the standard of English especially in these two subjects, as he believed that mastering these subjects would help form the cornerstone of technological progress for the country, and ensure that Malaysians were able to face global challenges at the earliest opportunity.

Back when the change was first implemented, few thought it was a good policy and there was a great hue and cry over whether it would really benefit students in the country. Nationalistic quarters and race-based NGOs united in one cause to decry the policy, and many stood together to oppose it vehemently, citing that the teaching of these two subjects in English would do more harm than good.

Last year, the government began reviewing the effectiveness of the ETeMS policy and questioned whether it had achieved its objectives. Two weeks ago, the new government, under the leadership of current Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak, announced the reversal of the ETeMS policy and decided to return to the original policy to teach the two subjects in Bahasa Malaysia and in their respective vernacular languages.

The decision to reverse the policy has split parents, educators, even students right down the middle, with most in the rural area supporting the scraping of the ETeMS, but urbanites saying that it's a bad move. I belong to the latter group, but while I admit this issue can't be discussed extensively in one blog posting, I would like to share my take on the matter.

Coming from a technical background myself, I must say the exposure to English for Science and Maths at an earlier stage of life is certainly more advantageous than disadvantageous to students. As I look back, I never had this advantage as I studied these subjects in Bahasa Malaysia, and it took me some time to get used to switching to English when I entered university. Today, many students who went under the ETeMS scheme have testified that they are reaping the benefits at university, due to their early exposure to English. These students not only come from the Science, but also the Arts faculties.

One of the reasons for this, I believe, is that studying Science and Math in English also helps students grasp abstract concepts, aids in their comprehension ability, and helps them formulate thinking skills as both these subjects are highly based on logic. A student who is able to understand a complex descriptive Science or Maths question, and answers it correctly, must surely owe this ability to his/her exposure to the English language in these subjects. Simply put, learning Science and Math in English will inevitably have spillover benefits for students.

Detractors of the ETeMS policy argue that it has already marginalized the rural and the poor, owing to the inability of these students to learn the two subjects efficiently in English, While this may be true to a certain extent, it begs two questions: Are students any better in their academic performance by teaching Science and Math in their mother tongue? If so, how much better?

Also, it's really only been five years since the ETeMS was first implemented. I believe that in order to ascertain if the policy is successful or not, students must go through a complete educational cycle of at least 11 years before an empirical fact-based measure can be applied to determine its effectiveness.

And perhaps the most important reason of all is, like it or not, the English language has been, is, and will continue to be, the language of technology, commerce, and international relations. If Malaysia is serious in building itself as a recognized leader--especially in a technological landscape--with its supposedly advanced infrastructure, friendly investment policies, and its much-talked about aspiration to be a knowledge-based society by 2020, can the government achieve these goals by marginalizing the use of English in Science and Maths?

No one would doubt that the implementation of ETeMS leaves a lot to be desired, and there is definitely room for improvement. In this respect, the government has plans to do something about it by trying to teach and strengthen the use of English in the classroom.

But, isn't the government myopic in its decision to reverse the ETeMS policy, believing this to be the right way to go when the fact is that greater exposure to the English language can't necessarily be bad for students? Rather than reversing the policy, would it not be better to tackle the weaknesses of the policy, and strive to aid those who are currently marginalized to buck up so that all Malaysians can one day excel in Science, Math, and the English language?

At the end of the day, I believe students can and will adapt, if they know that it's the best option for them. Certainly, the more competitive students and parents in the country welcomed the ETeMS policy when it was first implemented. Despite knowing the difficulties they would have faced, they adapted and many of them are reaping its benefits today.

This is why I believe that the push to learn Science and Math in English should stay.

Topics: Asean, Government Asia, Malaysia, IT Employment

Edwin Yapp

About Edwin Yapp

An engineer by training, Edwin first cut his teeth as a cellular radio frequency optimization engineer in one of Malaysia's largest telcos.
After more than five years, he hung up his radio engineering boots to try his hand at technology reporting at The Star, Malaysia's leading English daily, where he won several awards for Best Online Technology reporting.
He left to start his own editorial consultancy and is now a freelance journalist for several publications, including ZDNet Asia.
A self-confessed gadget geek, Edwin hopes his blog contributions will stir up deeper discussions within the Malaysian technology scene.

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11 comments
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  • Bahasa or English? One step forward, two steps back?

    Not mean to be rude or racists(whatever u like to call), Malaysia government thought that want to be their own Bahasa to conquer/take over the world, so that is why he want to wash all Malaysian student brain into Bahasa. They never think of any further.

    Even now technology or computer stuff are in English, and it never going to be Bahasa. For example, what they call the "hardware" and "software" in Bahasa? Barang Keras? Barang Lembut? or maybe the funniest I read in email. "Plug and Play", you know that mean right? What if convert it into Bahasa? "Cucuk dan Main"? I was totally LOL at it.

    Anyway! Mahathir is the best! I support English stay remain in Science and Math.
    anonymous
  • RE: Bahasa or English? One step forward, two steps back?

    Why can't the government allow for both? Having textbooks written in both English and Bahasa? It's not that hard. And kids, at that age will be able to absorb both languages easily. I know I was able to, 15 years ago.
    anonymous
  • Bahasa or English? One step forward, two steps back?

    I would say English is a suitable language for teaching Math & Science subjects. High-school students eventually will continue their further study on college & university, local or oversea. English is been using as a language for teaching in higher institution around the world. Same, why they didn't introducing to use Bahasa for teaching Math & Science subjects at college/ uni in Malaysia ..or around the world? Early exposure & practical to use English as teaching language, will make them more prepared for facing competitive in a world's market.
    anonymous
  • Bahasa or English? One step forward, two steps back?

    I think you've captured the argument accurately. I especially agree with the point that we can't decide if the ETeMS is working or not if its scrapped before a full educational cycle takes place. Well researched and well thougt out article, Edwin.
    anonymous
  • RE: Bahasa or English? One step forward, two steps back?

    The simple truth; the "colonizer" or one whom spreads "democracy" speak English. To the conqueror go the "spoils". Thus, in economies of scale; English is the business language of the planet. So although Bahasa should have a strong hold in the language arena; English should be pushed a bit harder or at least the two in even par. At any rate you keep fighting amongst your selves. We "foreigners" will keep managing ALL your resources from afar ;) .... Understand the "enemy" even if it's the "enemy from within"...
    anonymous
  • Bahasa or English? One step forward, two steps back?

    You've got a handle on the issue, and I do think parents and policymakers alike should take responsibility over their children's future, and not cast their fates to the whims and fancies of politicians who can't quite see clearly beyond what they can reap from the system. But I do think policies can be reversed or at least modified, as proven many times in Malaysia, so let's hope for the best.

    You're right to say that young minds tend to be more resilient; more so for children struggling to fight the odds to win in their academic pursuits. Being trilingual myself, I can tell you that our system of rout learning necessitates the command of the English language first, especially for the Internet-savvy society of today. Knowing how to read and write Bahasa Malaysia has allowed me to deal with officialdom and to know about the culturally rich Malays, and mastering the Chinese language has allowed me to connect to my roots and other realms of knowledge that would be inaccessible to me, if I have been just mono- or bilingual. Do encourage your kids to learn more languages.
    anonymous
  • RE: Bahasa or English? One step forward, two steps back?

    Hardware is Perkakasan, and Software is Perisian. Now you just proved that Malaysian should also learn IT in Bahasa. Please get someone else to teach you English before posting any comment here. I think the main problem here is that your previous English teacher didn't do well with her job when she taught you those nasty words when converting English to Bahasa.
    anonymous
  • Bahasa or English? One step forward, two steps back?

    As much as we like to think that the government of Malaysia is run by well-meaning public servants, the BN-led government is what it is. Do you honestly think that the social policies drafted up have the objective of driving the overall progress of the country and the betterment of its people? Malaysia is what it is, so let's say it like it is. This recent reversal is so the rural Bumiputras and the less than industrious other Bumiputras of Malaysia don't get left behind. But hell, let them do what they want. You and I come from one of those generations of schoolkids screwed by the government's language policies (re: Bahasa Malaysia as the primary language of instruction), and yet we made our way in this world. You can't keep a good man down. Let's take heart in that.
    anonymous
  • Bahasa or English? One step forward, two steps back?

    Science & Maths to be taught English should be conducted as a pilot project in 2002-5. It should limited to class that have the best english students among Malaysia. The result and track record from 2002 till they graduate and fiinding a job, which comes with pay package should be compared with subjects taught in BM. This pilot project could involve less than 5% of the entire schools in Malaysia. If the policy is to change from BM to Emglish for Maths and Science - the decision should probably take 10-15 years and should only apply to no older than those already in primary 3.

    This is not about playing 'masak, masak'. Changing National Policy back and forth impacts the country and their leaders on decision making because foreign investments is from other countries depends on HR (graduates) who are able to make use of English as medium in their companies unless the government is self sufficient. The question is how long can this last, the world is changing and languages like Mandarin already have a foothold in some parts of the world. Any policy change should take in consideration of between 20 - 50 years down the road.

    Parents are also concern with changes like this - because it impacts their child future prospect and direction. Affordability by each family could be supported and subsidized by government to ensure that this project will succeed. Failure to listen to voices and failure for this project could be due to many reasons, of which not putting enough effort could be one. Another could be planning are not effective, support and resources lacking may be lacking.

    Problems and solutions are not review, discussed & debated leaving gaps for opposition to 'attack'. Understanding market needs and condition is crucial to country's growth. By all means let the 30% who do not agree to changing, continue with Maths and Science in BM within the school compound. Have options of English to be conducted by communal Institutions set up specially to cater to all schools within an area. When these students graduated and got jobs, compare salaries and position to substantiate claims.
    anonymous
  • RE: RE: Bahasa or English? One step forward, two steps back?

    I agree with you joey that he or she should improve his or her english before posting. But, try use perkakasan and perisian in America. I hope some one could understand it. I still agree that learning in two language will be a good way but learning in english is easier. BM is important for a MALAYSIAN. But, we already learned it in bahasa Melayu and other subjects such as Geo and also History, this subject and I think it is sufficient enough as a Malaysian.
    anonymous
  • RE: Bahasa or English? One step forward, two steps back?

    Its a sad thing to see older generations in Malaysia been able to express him/herself in English and this present younger ones not been able to engage their fellow contemporaries who are foreigners in a simple dialogue or debate.
    English is a general negotiating language it will be better for an average Malaysian kid to be able to converse in the language and be able to have his or her say among other people from the world.
    I think this politicians have something to hide, maybe that is why they don't want the nowadays kids to know and understand English Language. There are better ways of preserving our local language than been obnoxious about it. They should be able to compete well with other people in other part of the world.
    A good example is during the bid for the Olympic....it was done in English language, I could see some countries having laudable objective why the Olympic should be held in their country but they lost due to lack of proficiency in English, their objective was not clearly stated and they lost.
    Lets put an end to the statement ''...no English la!''
    anonymous