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

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.
Written by Edwin Yapp, Contributor

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.

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