Malaysia’s problem isn’t Bahasa Malaysia but English, and it is incredible that so many of us have refused to acknowledge this or even want to address it.
There is a saying: “There are people who are only good at making the news but cannot make a difference to the wellbeing of society.”
Well, in Malaysia, there are certainly many of them.
Last week, Johor state assemblyman Datuk Dr Shahruddin Salleh suggested that students who fail to master the national language be stripped of their citizenship. Yes, revoke, lucut, tarik balik, batal!
The Barisan Nasional representative for Jorak alleged that many students were not able to master the language, and this was even prevalent among the Malays. He didn’t say how many. Like one, 10, 20, hundreds or thousands, but was quoted as saying “many”.
“Even my own neighbour, whose father and mother are Malays, but because their child goes to international school, the child is unable to converse in Malay,” he said, adding that students were now more interested in mastering English and do not take the learning of Malay seriously.
The situation was prevalent in the vernacular schools, he added, because the use of Mandarin and Tamil made the students weak in the Malay language, which was further compounded by the fact that many of the teachers there are also not well-versed in Malay.
We’d like to think that Dr Shahruddin has a sense of humour but, seriously, what does he really mean when he said students who do not master the Malay language should be stripped of their citizenship?
How does one define mastery at the school level? Is it by the grades they score at the public examinations, like the UPSR, PMR or SPM? We know that these are just examination grades. A student can score a distinction or even fail miserably, but that in itself does not reflect his language proficiency in the real world.
To take an extreme example, some foreign workers who are in the country for just a few months can speak like a Malay, but do you think they will be able to pass the BM paper at SPM level? Or that they should therefore be accorded citizenship because they have mastered our national language?
We are not sure if Dr Shahruddin is having a bad patch with his neighbours because I do not think that his neighbours, who would have read his remarks by now, would be amused.
The reality is that there are many Malay households where English is prominently used because of a variety of reasons.
The children of diplomats, for example, because they are schooled in international schools, will definitely be more comfortable in English.
What about the children of politicians, especially those who send their children for better education overseas and then make a lot of noise about our local education system?
The assemblyman may want to project his nationalistic credentials ahead of his party general assembly, and he has conveniently used his whip at English and, of course, vernacular schools, the current flavour of the month.
There are enough statistics to show that many of our students and teachers are struggling with English in schools, especially those in the rural areas. Just Google.
The Malaysian Employers Federation secretary Datuk Shamsudin Bardan reportedly said that a survey a few years ago among its members found that 60% of them identified low English proficiency as the main problem with young recruits.
A similar survey in September last year by online recruitment agency
JobStreet.com found that 55% of senior managers and companies considered poor command of the English language among graduates to be the main reason for their difficulty in finding employment.
Sabah Tourism, Environment and Culture Minister Datuk Masidi Manjun had said that 70% of Malaysian graduates are having a hard time finding jobs in the private sector due to poor command of English.
Citing his past work experience with a multinational company in peninsular Malaysia, Masidi said 70% of those interviewed did not make it through to the second round as they could not converse well in English.
Second Education Minister Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh had said that about two-thirds of English Language teachers in the country have been classified as “incapable” or “unfit” to teach the subject in schools. These teachers, he said, have been sent for courses to improve their proficiency in the language.
It has also been reported that about 70% of the 60,000 English Language teachers who sat for the English Language Cambridge Placement Test performed poorly.
Granted that there are students who fare badly in Bahasa Malaysia, but we do not think the numbers are big. Instead of making such a generalisation, we expect the Jorak assemblyman to back up his claim with more substantial findings and figures.
Neither has he been able to support this pathetic claim that “the use of Mandarin and Tamil by teachers in vernacular schools is another reason for students being weak in Malay, adding that the teachers are also not well-versed in Malay.”
Our real problem isn’t Bahasa Malaysia but English. It is incredible that so many of us have refused to acknowledge this problem or even want to address it, lacking the political will, unfortunately.
There is no point in deceiving ourselves by allowing our children to easily pass the English tests in schools and in public examinations.
There may be a huge number of students scoring distinctions in English at the SPM level but their real ability is revealed when they enter tertiary education and, later, the working world.
The MEF’s Shamsudin told a news portal in April that there are those with As and Bs in English at the SPM level who cannot even hold a conversation in English.
“Which is why we were excited when the government decided to teach Mathematics and Science in English (PPSMI), as we felt this could boost their command of English. Unfortunately, it was cancelled after seven years when we should have allowed it to continue for 14 to 15 years to see the results.
“The inability to converse and understand English (among young school-leavers) is a constant complaint among our members,” said Shamsudin. The MEF has 4,800 direct members and 21 affiliated trade associations.
In the end, it will be the rural students who will suffer the most. These are the very people that our elected representatives claim to represent and fight for their rights and interests.
Do we need to check how many of our Honourable Members are sending their children to private and international schools even as they wax eloquence about the importance of the national schools?
Actually, we should all be concerned about proficiency in English, an issue that has also been recently taken up by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, who can see the value of the English language without undermining the stature of the national language.
As Dr Mahathir rightly pointed out, the rich go to private schools while the poor go to national schools at home, adding that “I must confess that although my children all went to national schools, my grandchildren all go to private schools in the country and abroad. They do speak the national language but their kind of schooling widens the gap between races as well as between the rich and the poor.”
Well, it looks like the only thing that we have fared consistently well in is the comic relief provided by some of our politicians. And we can be sure the curtains will never come down on these comedians as they continue to seek out non-issues to put themselves in the spotlight.
The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.
Wong Chun Wai began his career as a journalist in Penang, and has served The Star for over 27 years in various capacities and roles. He is now the group’s managing director/chief executive officer and formerly the group chief editor.
On The Beat made its debut on Feb 23 1997 and Chun Wai has penned the column weekly without a break, except for the occasional press holiday when the paper was not published. In May 2011, a compilation of selected articles of On The Beat was published as a book and launched in conjunction with his 50th birthday. Chun Wai also comments on current issues in The Star.
Malaysian Chinese National-type Schools
DON’T bark up the wrong tree. That is the message many would like to convey to Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Razali Ibrahim who has opposed the approval for building new Chinese national-type schools (SJKC).
The deputy minister was quoted as saying, “As long as approval is given, the relationship between the different races shall be further deteriorate, and shall be like throwing a spanner into the works of nurturing national harmony.”
This is clearly a statement made without having researched the functions of SJKCs in fostering mutual understanding between the races. For the record, Chinese national-type primary schools (SRJK) have more non-Chinese students than boarding schools and religious schools have non-Malay students.
There are at present approximately 80,000 Malay students in the so-called “unity-harming” SJKCs. Thus, I humbly ask Datuk Razali if the opinions of parents of these Malay students have been sought.
These parents appear to be sending their children to Chinese national-type schools not to “de-Malaysian-ise” them but to Malaysian-ise them.
In Malaysia, it common knowledge that most Malays are fluent in just two languages, namely English and Bahasa Malaysia while, most Chinese and Indians know at least three languages. Knowing one more language certainly gives children a cutting edge.
There is also, at present, growing pessimism over the way education in national schools is handled. Teaching science and mathematics in English which reverted to the teaching science and mathematics in Bahasa Malaysia as well as the ever-changing format of national level examinations are just a few areas of concern.
There is also the perception that certain races are favoured by the national school system. It is due to this perception that many, who want a level-playing field, choose the Chinese national-type school system.
Furthermore, perhaps China’s emergence as a world political and economic power has persuaded pragmatic Malay and Indian parents to try to get their children to learn Mandarin, the second most widely spoken language in the world after English.
How exactly do Chinese national-type schools affect national unity?
Children in Chinese schools still sing Negaraku. Bahasa Malaysia is still being taught there. There is no difference in syllabus taught in national schools. In fact, all children in Chinese schools are taught to love and respect Malaysia.
So Datuk Razali, I humbly ask just what are the problems which affect national unity?
SJKCs schools have been around for decades, so why is the question of unity being brought up?
In my opinion, educators who use words like “pendatang” and tell students to “balik Cina” and “balik India’ are the real threats racial harmony.
I believe that racial harmony has actually been disrupted due to political figures who’ve made use of race as propaganda to score political points and win votes. The exaggeration of petty issues and the manipulation of these issues via social media have made these politicians heroes in the eyes of supporters. However, what it has really done is instil hatred among the races.
If, and it’s a big if, Chinese national-type schools do contribute to disharmony, the better option would be for the Education Ministry to form a special taskforce, and conduct periodic audits of the schools and their syllabuses. That would be better than denying parents an option with regard where they wish to educate their children.
Mike Chong Yew Chuan is Press Secretary to Minister in the Prime
Minister’s Department YB Datuk Dr. Ir. Wee Ka Siong. He is also
currently MCA National Youth BN Youth Affairs Bureau Deputy Chairman.