This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on April 18 - 24, 2016.
Improving our students’ proficiency in English is one of the key initiatives outlined in the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025. It is also one of the challenges identified under the National Key Results Areas of the Government Transformation Programme to ensure quality education — a task undertaken by the Performance Management Delivery Unit (Pemandu).
Malaysia is a trading nation, unlike countries like Germany, Japan, South Korea and even Indonesia, which have strong domestic markets. According to statistics provided by Pemandu, our country’s trade percentage of GDP is ranked fourth, after Hong Kong, Singapore and Vietnam. Malaysia is highly dependent on trade, with its ratio of trade to overall economic activity among the highest in the world.
The Asean bloc, of which Malaysia is a part, is the third largest economy in Asia after China and Japan. Needless to say, the official language in Asean is English. So, we know that we need English, without which we will not be able to converse with our trading partners, apart from Indonesia, Brunei and south Thailand. And yet, our students are facing challenges in mastering the language, falling short of fulfilling the nation’s aspiration to be at least bilingually competent.
Among all the subjects in the national examinations, English language sees the weakest performance. More than 20% fail English in UPSR, PMR and SPM. The problem escalates into another grim situation where 62% of university candidates fail to meet the minimum English proficiency requirement for entry into public universities, and worse, 48% of job-seekers are turned down by employers solely because of their weak English. Our students are exposed to English as a subject for at least 11 years but evidently, this is not enough.
In 2010, the policy of MBMMBI — the upholding of the national language and the strengthening of the English language — was introduced. Its aim is to increase exposure to English language through various initiatives at a gradual pace.
The three main programmes under MBMMBI are: Linus (literacy and numeracy screening), an intervention programme aimed at ensuring that lower primary school students possess basic literacy and numeracy skills before entering Standard 4; Pro-Elt (Professional Upskilling of English Language Teachers), a development programme catering for teachers who need to improve their English teaching skills; and HIP (Highly Immersive Programme)/DLP (Dual Language Programme).
HIP/DLP are practical approaches, encouraging the application of the English language outside the classroom. These programmes are done in progressive stages to ensure that the students are prepared at every level, so that they gradually advance to the next level.
There has been much emphasis on DLP, the pilot programme that enables 300 schools that fulfil certain criteria, and the parents, to choose to have science, mathematics, ICT and design technology to be taught in English.
But HIP deserves attention too. It is about using English in and around the school. Ideally, every school should be encouraged to run HIP, not just the pilot schools. School leaders and administrators should take a proactive approach to get the HIP toolkit, which should already be available. District and state education offices should be accountable for monitoring their performance and progress.
As a concept, HIP is not new. In fact, in 1999, the then Minister of Education, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, issued a circular to schools to run a similar programme. Improving and increasing the contact time of English, its usage on bulletin boards, school corridors, display materials and artwork, choral speaking, drama, jazz chants, poetry recitals, story-telling, quizzes, games and debates were some of the recommended activities.
In addition, there was to be English day/week/month programmes, the use of English at school assemblies and in announcements, and the encouragement of school-wide reading habits, including among teachers. These were just some of the suggestions made to encourage the students and teachers to embrace, practise, apply and, most importantly, not shy away from using English outside the classroom.
The success of such programmes depends largely on the school principals and key teachers. Not many schools are privy to such leadership. It is therefore not surprising that the programme did not take off like it should have, like many other ideas that have been generated throughout the years.
There is an obvious and glaring gap between what is planned and what is implemented. It is evident that these plans fail because there are ineffective resources, and a lack of checks and balances to ensure that the activities are implemented properly and that problems are dealt with promptly.
The difference between the HIP of 1999 and the current one is that there is PADU (Education Performance and Delivery Unit) and Pemandu. PADU is tasked with ensuring that these programmes are closely monitored and implemented properly, and that schools are given support and guidance to meet their performance indexes.
We cannot afford to waste any more time where English proficiency among our students is concerned. Everyone needs to be on board in this effort, whether or not one agrees with the method being used. One should be positive and look at the potential.
This is about the economy and ensuring that the people are given a chance to reap the economic gain. And yet, there are some of us who refuse to see the real issue. Instead, they turn it into another polemic based on misrepresentations that the national language would lose out in our attempt to improve English proficiency and overcome the predicament that our people are caught in.
English proficiency may not be the measure of one’s intelligence but it builds confidence, apart from giving one a better chance to prosper economically in this region. Like Einstein said, the measure of intelligence is one’s ability to change.
Tunku Munawirah Putra is honorary secretary of the Parent Action Group for Education (PAGE) Malaysia — an educational lobby that serves as a channel between concerned parents, the Ministry of Education and other stakeholders