This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on October 19 - October 25, 2015.
In 1990, Dr Loga Mahesan Baskaran, an academic expert and long-time advocate of English as a second language (ESL) who was then attached to Universiti Malaya, presented a paper at a Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) seminar.
This seminar was the crossroads from which we looked at strategies to improve ESL teacher training in Malaysia and the need to admit as ESL students those who were sufficiently proficient in English. Fast forward to 2015 and we are still frozen at the crossroads, waiting to cross some 25 years on.
A recent Johor English Language Teaching Association conference saw Dr Loga talk about the same dilemma. How can we improve our command of the English language? Why is there a need to be proficient in it?
So, what happened? The target of the Malaysia Education Blueprint (2013-2025) (MEB) is for 70% of SPM students to obtain a credit in the Cambridge English 1119 paper in 10 years’ time. As it stands now, only 28% achieve the desired results.
The Malaysian University English Test (MUET), meanwhile, requires that candidates obtain band 3 results to be admitted to local public universities to do STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects and band 4 results for law and medicine.
The results of a sample of MUET candidates show that 27.5% qualified for STEM and only 5% made the cut for law and medicine. About 66.8% with low English proficiency will be placed in the arts and social sciences. But the MEB states that “Malaysia places great importance on education as a means of becoming a developed nation to meet the challenges and demands of a STEM-driven economy by 2020”.
The government aims to have a 60:40 science/technical:arts ratio, a policy that has been instituted since 1970. Forty-five years on, we are still talking about it and wishing that we could produce 493,830 scientists and engineers in five years’ time. Yet, we know we can’t.
We know that once we leave secondary school, we need to have a good command of the English language to advance to the next level, be it tertiary education, employment or even running a business beyond the local market.
This is why we are unlike Japan, South Korea or Germany. Not only is our economic gain dependent on English for a better livelihood but living in a diverse racial society, we need to see things with greater dimension and depth to maintain harmony and understanding and to see the big picture.
Knowledge in English provides that window of enlightenment because we can read more, see more, experience more and be more understanding and open-minded in the way we engage information. Employers are looking for people with such qualities.
We can’t do these things if we see only one dimension. Of late, we have seen too many prejudicial examples of the skewed single-track thinking in this country. Social media has shown evidence that this type of mentality is one of the nation’s roadblocks.
How can someone who has done the country proud by achieving the best sports honours in the region be judged on her sports attire or a scholar who has achieved academic excellence be frowned upon for not donning the hijab? What’s worse, a daughter’s plea for help to recover her cancer-stricken father’s medical records stolen from their car was criticised because she wrote on her Facebook wall in English.
What has become of our society, which is so obsessed with moral policing and shallow judgement? This is why education and attitude play a major role in uplifting people, so that they become involved in constructive development. Eleanor Roosevelt was right when she said: “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”
As far as STEM is concerned, we need it to drive the country’s development forward and lift us from the middle-income trap. People should be given every opportunity to be inspired and to dream big, so they can discuss ideas, work together to solve problems and help make other people’s lives better. One of the ways is through quality STEM education.
The declining enrolment in the sciences is due to many external factors beyond the scope of education. But many of these factors can be mitigated by mentorship, nurturing, proper guidance and provision to inspire the students to learn from young.
Future teachers of science and mathematics should be assessed on the same criteria as the students who get admitted to do STEM at public universities. English should be the medium of instruction at teacher training colleges and universities for STEM subjects. There should be no exception for potential teachers of science and mathematics. As STEM is fluid, the teachers would be able to learn so much more from the internet if they are proficient in English. Then, they can be the movers and shakers who spark a love for learning.
Currently, the Ministry of Education’s curriculum at kindergarten or pre-school level is bilingual. There should be a programme to continue this bilingualism in primary school and beyond with the transition at every level being seamless.
We need to take a giant leap to move out of the crossroads that we have been warming up to cross. Proficiency in English is necessary to function and thrive in this day and age, and it is very clear that this language is the way forward for STEM.
Something needs to happen now so that we can really get on with developing our human capital and the much-needed scientists.
Tunku Munawirah Putra is honorary secretary of 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