Two weeks ago, I was invited to speak at the annual three-day 8th Johor State English Language Conference 2016, titled English Language Classrooms: The 4Cs and Technology. It was held at M Suites Hotel in Johor Baru, which was the anchor and main sponsor for the event, led by its executive director Datin Dr Maimunah Abdul Rahman, an expert on literacy and linguistics.
The event was attended by inspirational English-language teachers of Johor who we, at Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia, truly believe will one day make the Sultan and Permaisuri of Johor, bangsa Johor and the nation proud in taking English-language education to another level.
It was early last year that the Economic Council, which was founded by the prime minister at the start of his term and who continues to chair it, declared its desire and even insistence on a radical approach to English-language proficiency among schoolgoing children.
It is common knowledge that children shy away from speaking the language if the environment does not permit it. They get teased for trying and that persists into adulthood, leaving them frustrated and at a loss in securing their dream job, or any job for that matter. It is no wonder that there are now close to 200,000 unemployed graduates, more often than not due to their poor command of English. It is a bleak situation.
The Sultan of Johor may well be aware of this crippling effect. It is made worse as 200 busloads of schoolchildren leave the state at dawn every day to cross the Causeway into Singapore to enjoy an education, with English as the medium of instruction, at a nominal cost. This small sacrifice, parents believe, will stand their children in good stead, and rightly so.
However, for those who are not in a position to do so or who do not want their children to undergo such a gruelling schedule, all is not lost. We believe national schools can still produce the best with the support, determination and dedication of teachers to help see the students through. Parents are eternally grateful.
The Economic Council has tasked the Performance, Management and Delivery Unit, or Pemandu, to recommend this radical approach in strengthening the English language. Pemandu is part of the Prime Minister’s Department and comprises smart and articulate individuals who have excelled in their own fields and have now come together to create the transformation that we as a nation desire. A poll taken around the same time saw 190,000 respondents in favour of enhancing this second language of ours.
PAGE, among many other stakeholders, were invited to brainstorm and outline the various
areas to be focused on, determine the depth required, and then structure the approach. We took two solid weeks to raise three major proposals: the Highly Immersive Programme or HIP, which has been implemented in all schools; Dual Language Programme or DLP, which began in about 300 pilot schools and has expanded to close to 850 to date and counting; and English-medium schools (EMS), which was not made public.
All three programmes fall under the policy of “upholding bahasa Malaysia, strengthening the English language”, as agreed under the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025. We took another two weeks to fine-tune the proposals before taking it back to the Economic Council.
The Economic Council was presented with the radical proposals as requested, and they were all approved and endorsed. EMS, especially, was a pleasant surprise as it reflected not only serious concern but also commitment on the part of the government to see a marked enhancement of English language skills.
Why we do not see EMS in the making is because the Education Ministry backed out at the last minute. It had wanted to focus on HIP and DLP to achieve a better success rate. Subsequently, a budget of RM38.5 million was allocated for both programmes in 2016, and an additional RM90 million in 2017.
And so, the EMS journey has not even begun. The Economic Council has endorsed it but the timing was not ideal. We believe if push comes to shove, the Education Ministry can and will take a piecemeal approach, such as on a state-by-state basis. While we are always quick to blame the lack of political will on just about anything and everything, we have political will here and now. Trust schools began in Johor and Sarawak, so why not EMS in these states again?
If the Sarawak chief minister persists with the 18-point agreement for its incorporation into
Malaysia, we believe it will strongly pursue EMS. Point 2 of the agreement on language states that “English should be an official language of Borneo (Sarawak and Sabah) for all purposes, state or federal, without limitation of time”. Point 16, on education, states that “the existing educational system of Borneo (Sarawak and Sabah) should be maintained, and for this reason it should be under state control”.
Sarawak is already one up over Johor and I can already see other progressive states becoming nervous and anxious, not wanting to be left behind. In fact, Sabah and Sarawak account for the majority of DLP schools. They are hungry. The question now is, “Is Johor hungry enough?”
Hence, with enhanced proficiency of the English language, coupled with the 4Cs — critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication — effectively supported by technical innovation, wouldn’t that just be so classy?
Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim is the chairman of Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia, an educational lobby group that serves as a channel between concerned parents, the Ministry of Education and other educational stakeholders