THE debate on whether to jettison the policy of teaching Maths and Science in English continues. Some parents have suggested that schools be given the option to teach both the subjects in English. A comparison between the English and the Malay dailies predictably reveals two schools of thought - one for, and the other against. The latter is concerned with how the Malay language has been robbed of its status as a language of Maths and Science, in other words a language of intellectual and scientific discourse.
Those who hold the other view urged the government to continue with the policy so that their children will be able to compete in the job market and on a global level. They have seen how thousands of graduates have remained unemployable because of their poor command of the language. The astonishing thing is that those who wrote in to a daily voicing their support for the continuation of the policy were Malay parents. One would expect vocal support to come from the English educated non-Malays. It wasn't so - a positive indication that Malay attitude towards the English language may have undergone a paradigm shift.
Many have argued that improving the command of the English language should be done by increasing the number of periods alloted to its teaching and not by learning it through Maths and Science. As it is, the timetable is heavily loaded, and increasing it for English would be at the expense of other subjects. The long-term objective of the policy, however, is not only to expose students to the use of English for communication, but also English as a language of Maths and Science. But "Malay nationalists", as one parent wrote, have vehemently opposed the move as one that downgrades the importance of Bahasa Malaysia (BM) as the primary language of instruction.
Further, the present government, under tremendous political pressure, would most likely bend to the populist demand to revert to BM just to appease both the Malay heartland and the vernacular educationists. When political expediency becomes the over-riding concern, the educational system becomes a political football. We do not need to go very far back to know how a switch in the medium of instruction could lead to either success or failure.
The early 80s saw a switch in the medium of instruction from English to BM. Teachers, who in the past received their education in the English medium, were provided with only bilingual textbooks to teach and they did a remarkably successful job for the simple reason that they somehow had to be a role model to their charges. And they worked hard to fulfil the role of a committed teacher, even though initially handicapped by a weak command of the language.
What has happened to that dedication, the drive to do a good job, to provide the best education for their charges? It is this commitment to do a good job that is sadly lacking in the teaching profession. Moreover, how many teachers are really proficient in English to explain mathematical and scientific concepts properly? Was the crash course they had undergone sufficient to equip them to teach effectively? It is not as though these teachers do not know English. They have studied the language for at least 11 years, so they are not exactly strangers to the language.
In the 70s, I saw how admirably quick the American Peace Corp Volunteers picked up BM after one month of study and to this day, some, if not several, can still speak and write the language. I believe that behind their success is a spirit unfettered by prejudice, their desire to learn and their love for things unfamiliar and wonderful. And above all, their willingness to serve and contribute. While we raged and screamed at the former Prime Minister over his "foolish" decision, it would do well to look at the Philippines' bilingual education policy, which uses Filipino as a language of instruction for social studies and English for Science and Mathematics. The country has been doing that for years, and the people are none the worse for it.
An interesting digression here is that a group of some 50 Korean teachers went to the country recently to study how English is taught as a subject and as a language of instruction for Science and Mathematics. Students are no fools; they can spot a phony a mile away. I contend that the failure of the policy lies squarely on the shoulders of teachers who accepted the change with lukewarm enthusiasm and taught with even less enthusiasm. We should seriously do some soul-searching so as not to throw out the baby with the bath water.