Make no mistake, the movement to bring back English-medium government schools is gaining momentum day by day. All these years, this has been a politically sensitive issue, especially for Malay politicians, but early this month, a Cabinet minister broke the taboo.
Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Abdul Rahman Dahlan openly urged all stakeholders, especially parents, teachers and parent-teacher associations, to support the government in reinstating English-medium schools in the country.
True, the re-establishment of English-medium schools has received the backing of various parties but for a politician to take the bull by the horns is really remarkable.
It should also be noted that some Malay rulers, notably of Johor and Negeri Sembilan, have repeatedly advocated the idea in the past.
It is common knowledge that by virtue of their stature, the Malay rulers traditionally command widespread respect and have instinctive influence in the Malay society. Therefore, their entry into the fray, into this rather divisive and emotional language debate, has far-reaching implications.
Yet, it would be idealistic to expect a sweeping fundamental change of policy in the near future, given the formidable opposition it faces from various groups with vested interest. Besides the usual suspects — the nationalists who vow to defend and uphold Malay as the national language in all fields — there are also deep concerns that the revival of English-medium schools might wipe out the vernacular schools that use Mandarin and Tamil as the medium of instruction.
Suspicions also abound over whether the reintroduction of English in schools will really improve the overall quality of education that our schoolgoing children receive, considering the varying degrees of disparity in the standard of the schools in the various states due to the diverse socioeconomic and geographic backgrounds.
Realistically, the use of English as the medium of instruction in schools is not a magic bullet for the problems our education system has accumulated over the years. That is why the call made by Abdul Rahman for all parties, including political leaders, non-governmental organisations, PTAs, teachers and academics, to tackle the issue holistically and not make it polemical, is timely and welcome.
In this regard, it is most instructive to note the findings of a recent survey, published by ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, that the move to bring back English-medium schools is also gaining ground at grassroots level, thus dispelling the notion that only the elite are supportive of it.
According to the survey entitled “Johor Survey 2017: Views on Identity, Education and the Johor Royal Family”, 82% of the respondents supported the move to bring back English-medium schools.
The survey also showed strong support across all demographic segments, even among the Malay and rural respondents who, in the past, were not supportive of the policy to teach Mathematics and Science in English.
Another critical dimension of the debate is national unity. The greatest and saddest irony of the issue is that English was dropped as the medium of instruction to achieve unity among young Malaysians via the use of the national language in schools.
But almost 40 years on, ethnic stratification is worse in schools. The proportion of Chinese students enrolled in SJKC (primary schools where Mandarin is the medium of instruction) rose to 96% in 2011 from 92% in 2000. This means only 4% of young Chinese go to national primary schools where Malay is the medium of instruction. In these schools, 97% of the students are bumiputeras. In the case of the Indian community, 56% of the children attend Tamil primary schools.
It is this sad state of affairs in our schools that must have prompted the Sultan of Johor to appeal to the people and the government to be “open-minded” and to emulate Singapore’s single-stream education system, which uses English as the medium of instruction, to achieve greater national unity among children from different ethnic backgrounds.
Interestingly, the survey showed that the Chinese and Indian respondents strongly supported this “One School for All” unity concept.
Yes, we must be open-minded, especially if we care to remember that many of the English schools were established long before this nation was founded in 1957. For example, Penang Free School was established in 1816, almost 200 years ago.
Indeed, all these old English-medium schools are part of our nation’s education heritage. They should rightly be cherished and celebrated by all, considering their immense contribution to the nation over the years.
It is really sad to see Malaysian parents forking out thousands of ringgit a year to send their children to international schools to ensure that their children are proficient in spoken and written English.
Records show that as at March this year, there were more than 60,000 students in the over 100 international schools in the country. A whopping 60% of these students were Malaysians. In short, the right to a quality education in English has become too costly and too elitist for the overwhelming majority of ordinary Malaysians.
What then would be more meaningful than to see the return of English-medium schools so that all Malaysians have access to an affordable, inclusive and quality education in English?
In the final analysis, it is time for us to get serious about having a rational and objective national conversation on the need to bring back English-medium schools to Malaysia.
Khaw Veon Szu, a former executive director of a local think tank, is a practising lawyer. The opinions expressed in this article are his own.