IT was a breath of fresh air when the Sultan of Johor spoke to his subjects at the recent State Legislative Assembly about keeping an open mind to emulating the success of single-stream, English-medium schools in Singapore.
Owing to Johor’s accessibility to Singapore, parents wave off 200 buses daily that take their children across the Causeway to the city state’s schools. The children wake up as early as four in the morning to make that all-important trip.
Indeed, English-medium schools appear to be associated with quality education. Maybe, that explains why only 23% of our children pursue higher education. According to the evaluation of the Programme for International Student Assessment, our post-secondary enrolment is well below what is expected of our income level. To raise tertiary enrolment and close the socioeconomic-related gap, we need to focus on enhancing long-term factors, such as the quality of early childhood education, nutrition, disability and the family environment of the disadvantaged population.
Addressing the short-term credit constraints of poor students is not the answer. The answer is not to suppress students who are excelling, especially in English, but to raise the lower bar rather than push down the higher bar to narrow the gap. Could a handful of English-medium schools in every district be the answer?
A constant complaint of employment agencies and employers is that employees struggle to string together a sentence in English. For all the resources spent on improving English proficiency through tuition after school, at university and at work, there has been very little improvement. As it is, some 160,000 of 400,000 graduates are unemployed. This cannot go on.
In drafting the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025, the Ministry of Education prided itself on being seen in consultation with an international review panel that comprised advisers and past education ministers from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Singapore, South Korea and Canada.
However, it chose to ignore the fact that Singapore benefited tremendously from English-medium schools while South Korea is now discreetly spending half of its education budget on teaching and learning science and mathematics in English, ironically, after taking a leaf from our book.
English-medium schools were abolished after the riots on May 13, 1969, by the then minister of education Abdul Rahman Yaacub on national television. It was believed that such schools intimidated the kampung Malays while the townspeople, specifically the Chinese, benefited at their expense. The then prime minister Tun Abdul Razak also felt that Malaysia needed an identity.
But the situation is much different now. English is spoken in 54 countries and 27 territories while Malay/Indonesia is spoken in merely five. On the internet, English is the top language of 800.6 million or 28.6% of the users while we garner only 75.5 million or 2.7% of the estimated online population of 2.8 billion. In terms of new titles, the US and UK combined lead the way with 490,000 books while Malaysia has a measly 18,000.
While the Sultan of Johor appears to be advocating English-medium schools for all, that will remain a mere idea. To the powers that be, a more workable, palatable, acceptable and less daunting approach would be to transform some national primary and secondary schools into the desired model.
We could begin with a pilot programme. Then the minister of education needs to provide an exemption order as provided by the Education Act, the same way Chinese and Tamil schools were formed.
We only need 20% of 6,200 national primary schools to be turned into English-medium schools followed by their respective secondary schools. Begin with the schools that persevered and will continue to do so with science and mathematics in English to the end.
At the very least, these schools would supply our very own competent English teachers and reduce the hiring of expensive native speakers, some for as much as RM18,000 a month. Hundreds of millions of ringgit are repatriated every year by foreign teachers and we know we can ill-afford such an outflow of funds at present.
Reintroduce at least one class in every national school for the teaching and learning of science and mathematics in English at Primary One and Form One in 2017, so we are aligned with Challenge 6 of Vision 2020.
We also hope the sultans of the other states and chief ministers echo this sentiment and not allow this effort to go unnoticed. While it is a matter of policy, a little moral suasion by the Rulers will go a long way in influencing the political will, particularly in education, which leaves much to be desired.
The path less trodden is the way to go and the future of the nation lies in quality education from early childhood, or we will be left behind, soon even by the likes of Vietnam.
Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim is chairman of PAGE Malaysia. PAGE is an educational lobby that serves as a channel between concerned parents, the Ministry of Education and other stakeholders.
This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on May 18 - 24, 2015.