Education in Malaysia: Much ado over language

Looi Sue-Chern

National schools, with their more than 90% Malay population, are now the least-favoured option for non-Bumiputera parents. – The Malaysian Insight file pic, September 4, 2017.

A LOOK at developments in Malaysia’s education system over the past six decades show how the Malay language has largely dictated national education policies.

However, hopes that it would be a unifying language to achieve nation-building through the education system have not materialised, and in terms of academic performance, Malaysia has not yet scored above the global average in baseline assessments for pupils in mathematics, science and reading.

“There has always been contestation over language since the British,” Bukit Bendera MP Zairil Khir Johari said.

In the years leading to Merdeka, proposals were made to “unify” the Malay, English, Chinese and Tamil schools, which were using different syllabuses and languages.

But every proposal, Zairil said, attracted objections as each community felt it was at the losing end.

The Razak Report – named after then education minister Abdul Razak Hussein – marked the beginning of Malaya’s standardised national education system. It integrated all schools, classifying them as “national” and “national-type” schools.

“The Chinese and Indian communities were upset with their loss of vernacular secondary education. The Malays were unhappy with the prominence of English-medium schools, feeling that they were ‘too English and not enough Malay (language)’,” he said.

When the May 1969 post-general election racial riots happened, English-medium schools took a direct hit with the change of guards in the government. The then-education minister Mohd Khir Johari – Zairil’s pro-English school father – was removed.

Abdul Rahman Ya’kub from Sarawak, a Razak ally, became education minister and announced in July that English-medium schools would be phased out at all levels, starting from standard one in January 1970. 

DAP spokesman for education Zairil Khir Johari says phasing out of English-medium education and other education policies throughout the years have mainly been political decisions. – The Malaysian Insight file pic, September 4, 2017.

By the end of 1982, the switch was completed at all levels. The policy, including the compulsory pass in Malay language to earn the school-leaving certificate, hit teachers, students and the standard of education hard.

This phasing out of English-medium education and other education policies throughout the years have mainly been political, Zairil said.

“Politicians have too much control over education. Whenever we get a new education minister, who may not even be an education professional, we get a new policy everyone must follow.

“Many were flip-flop decisions. We saw that in PPSMI, school-based assessments and the compulsory pass in SPM English,” said the DAP parliamentary spokesman on education.

PPSMI is the 2003 “Teaching of Mathematics and Science in English” policy introduced by then prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad to help Malaysia catch up with the English-speaking world in the age of globalisation. 

It took off but eventually came to naught in 2012 amid protests, and the teaching of the two subjects reverted to Malay.

A proposal in 2013 by then education minister Muhyiddin Yassin to make English a compulsory pass in SPM by 2016 never materialised after he was sacked from the Cabinet in July 2015.

In recent years, Malaysia’s scores in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), although improved year-on-year, are still below the global average for mathematics, reading and science.

End one-size-fits-all policies

Zairil said long-term education policies often changed every few years before they could deliver results – a problem evident in Malaysia’s highly centralised education system.

Education matters like the syllabus and exams should be left to professional independent bodies to manage and decide, while the ministry should handle funding and making sure the system met the required standards.

“Putrajaya should not control and make one-size-fits-all policies for 10,000 schools, half a million teachers and five million pupils regardless of their different needs and circumstances,” he said.

“In the 1990s, successful education reforms in many Western countries involved decentralising the education system. You need to decentralise for education to flourish.”

In Malaysia, independent Chinese schools with their own governing bodies showed the same success, he said.

“You see better infrastructure there, and it is hard for principals and teachers not to do their best when they have parents and influential community leaders in the school boards to answer to.

“If parents have ownership over education and sit on the school boards, they will make the best decisions for their kids.”

Political and social analyst Dr Wong Chin Huat also supports liberalising the education system. The government should respect the free market in providing education, while actively supporting weaker pupils in all schools and streams by helping them catch up.

“Our education policy so far, including the blueprint, believes in control rather than competition, and makes multilingualism a bogeyman in its reluctance to deal with the class implication of education.

“We must shift from this to embrace competition and diversity, and pursue social inclusion – the real guarantee of national cohesion,” he said.

Rethinking Malay-medium schools

Wong said Malay-medium schools have also not been successful in meeting government goals, such as nation-building, and are rarely the school of choice for parents with the means to send their kids to private schools.

Citing 2013 data, he said Malay national schools, which received the most funds, remained unattractive to non-Malays, compared with vernacular schools that were “deliberately neglected” by the government.

“There was a growing exodus of pupils from Malay-medium schools to vernacular ones, and from national schools to private and international schools, indicating a general decline in the Malaysia education system.”

As new vernacular schools are barred, Wong said, some of the top schools just become overcrowded like Johor’s Kuo Kuang primary school with 5,000 pupils at one time.

He also said vernacular schools in recent years saw more diverse enrolments than the national schools, with their more than 90% Malay population.

As schools became more homogenous, the National Education Blueprint 2006-2010 sought to address racial polarisation in schools.

In 2007, a pilot project to teach Chinese and Tamil in national schools kicked off in 220 schools, as the government hoped to make national schools more appealing to non-Malays.

Wong said the situation has not changed today, so it might be concluded that the dream of nation-building through monolingual schooling via Bahasa Melayu was dead.

“Malaysia should either give up Malay as the sole medium of instruction or allow different education streams to exist and compete.” – September 4, 2017.  

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