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Friday, July 10, 2009

In Malaysia, English Ban Raises Fears for Future

Published: July 9, 2009

KUALA LUMPUR — P.S. Han, a teacher in Kuala Lumpur, has been using English to teach math and physics to 17-year-olds for the past six years.

From 2012, he will be forced to return to using the national language, Bahasa Malaysia, after the government decided to abandon English for the two subjects in a decision some consider to be motivated by politics rather than education.

“English has been used as the language of science for 300 years,” said Mr. Han, a teacher at St. John’s Institution. “You cannot really convey the scientific concepts to the students in Bahasa Malaysia at avery high level.”

“We have to face the fact that science knowledge is in English.”

The announcement on Wednesday, which came after months of lobbying by Malay nationalists, has raised concerns about whether English standards in the former British colony will slide and whether Malaysia’s competitiveness as a destination for multinational companies may suffer.

English has been the language of instruction for math and science in Malaysia since 2003, when former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad introduced the policy amid concerns that poor English skills were hindering students’ job opportunities.

Mr. Mahathir expressed sadness over the decision to revert to Bahasa Malaysia, saying that the decision would adversely affect children and make it difficult for them to keep abreast of scientific developments, the national news agency Bernama quoted him as saying.

The government cited a decline in students’ math and science grades, particularly in rural areas, as one of the reasons behind the switch.

However, Khoo Kay Kim, emeritus professor of Malaysian history at the University of Malaysia, said that teachers had not been adequately trained before the policy was introduced.

He described Malaysia’s English standards as “pathetic.”

“Fewer and fewer of our professors can now write in English,” he said. “We used to lead Asia in terms of English, and now we have allowed ourselves to slip below other Asian countries.”

Mr. Khoo said it was a “national shame” that the country’s oldest university, the University of Malaysia, had fallen behind other Asian universities in international rankings, a trend he attributed to declining English standards.

He also raised concerns that poor English standards may affect Malaysia’s international competitiveness, saying that multinational companies may struggle to find graduates with good English.

“If less and less Malaysians know English, how are multinational companies going to come into this country?” he said. “If we don’t have the workforce who can fit into multinational companies, how are they going to come here?”

Malaysia’s business community has long been concerned about the reported decline in English standards in schools. “The business community feels that English is imperative for Malaysia’s international competitiveness,” said Michael Yeoh, chief executive the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute, an independent research organization.

Mr. Yeoh said that more needed to be done to improve English standards, but questions remained over whether teaching science and math in English was the best method.

“We don’t really know exactly how this could impede on the study of English,” he said.

The Malaysian International Chamber of Commerce and Industry welcomed the government’s decision to increase the number of English teachers and teaching hours.

Its executive director, Stewart Forbes, said that the need to emphasize English must continue to be part of the government’s policy.

“Private sector companies in Malaysia continue to complain about graduates’ communication skills in general, and English skills in particular, and the government’s efforts to raise the level of English expertise are very worthwhile,” he said.

Some educators from Malaysia’s two largest minority groups, the Chinese and Indian communities, welcomed the decision to revert to using Chinese and Tamil for science and math in vernacular schools, local media reported.

However, many parents and the National Union of the Teaching Profession have expressed concern over the decision to scrap English.

Shazlin Aidani, a mother of three, said she wanted her children to learn math and science in English.

“When they graduate and go to work everything will be in English, not Bahasa,” she said.

1 comment:

  1. I deeply concern about the English standard of local univ students. I once taught a group of unemployed fresh graduates from Malaysia universities. Throughout the course, their eyes just turned "blank" and didn't seem to learn anything. These people will be our future leaders? I sweat...