Tributes to Tan Sri Adenan Satem, the late Sarawak chief minister, are still pouring in. The Parent Action Group for Education (PAGE) is saddened yet humbled to be adding to the outpouring of grief as not only the people of Sarawak but the whole nation mourn a great and trusted elder. No leader has had such an impressionable impact, even if only briefly, on our lives in a long time.
Selfless parents who are proponents of the importance of the English language heaved a sigh of relief every time Adenan (call me CM) spoke of education, our ethnic and religious diversity as our strength and the essence and spirit of what being, living and breathing as a Malaysian was all about. If only every one of our rulers, leaders and heads of state was on the same page, firmly emulating and internalising the ideals of Sarawak, we would live in peace and harmony.
There were several areas of education that CM was passionate about and fiercely committed to. He remarked how “stupid” it was for the government to have switched to Bahasa Malaysia as the
medium of instruction in national schools “30 years ago” and allowed the quality of the English language to deteriorate. After the riots of May 13, 1969, the second prime minister Tun Abdul Razak decided that Malaysia was sorely in need of a national identity and directed that Bahasa Malaysia be gradually introduced to the education system.
At that point, Malaysia enjoyed a quality of education that was equal to Singapore’s but sadly no more. CM opined that graduates these days could not get a job because they could not speak proper English. He blamed the national education policy, which purportedly does not prioritise the teaching and learning of English, causing the unemployability of between 15,000 and 20,000 graduates. He felt that the country should have emphasised both languages equally.
CM revived and revisited the long-forgotten Malaysia Agreement that Sarawak had endorsed in 1963 to form the country as it is today. For Sarawak, it was the 18-point agreement that its youth needed to be reminded of. It stated that, among others, English should be the official language of Borneo (Sabah and Sarawak) for all purposes, state or federal, without a limitation of time (Point 2C) and that the existing educational system of Borneo should be maintained, and for this reason it should be under state control (Point 15).
Taking his cue from the 18-point agreement, CM declared that English would be the second official language of Sarawak after Bahasa Malaysia. Prior to this, if correspondence with the government was not in Bahasa Malaysia, it was not entertained. He insisted that official correspondence should be in both Bahasa Malaysia and English and opined that the “country risked being left behind and looking stupid if it didn’t join the world in using the language”. He also believed that as foreign direct investment flowed into the state, contracts would be signed and sealed, and more often than not, these would be drafted and conducted in English. The state could not possibly be a party to contracts that it did not understand, he said.
CM also stressed that science and mathematics should be taught in English, which is the “language of science, learning, literature, technology, business, research, communication and international relations”. The sheer volume of books on science and mathematics are published in English. CM doubted that the country’s authority on Bahasa Malaysia — Dewan Bahasa & Pustaka — could cope with the volume of new material daily. He asked if DBP had the capacity and capability to translate everything and questioned why science and mathematics could not be learnt in English.
As English is the language of international trade, CM advised that we take a practical approach to gaining knowledge. Give more attention to English and do not flip-flop on the education policy, he said, referring to the abolition of the teaching and learning of
science and mathematics in English. He was criticised by Yayasan Karyawan, Perkasa and former cabinet minister Tan Sri Rais Yatim for that statement.
CM also urged the universities and colleges to
prioritise science, technology and engineering courses so as to produce a professional and skilled workforce that is required by industries, especially in the Samalaju Industrial Park in Bintulu. He said vocational and technical schools should be given importance for the same reason.
Nevertheless, he was against the government’s plan to convert two institutes of teacher education into vocational schools because this would endanger the objective of a 90:10 ratio of Sarawak and non-
Sarawak teachers serving in the state. He wanted additional resources, not replacements.
CM also promised that the Sarawak government would support the formation of English-medium mission and private schools that prioritised education in the world’s lingua franca.
We sincerely hope to see CM’s successor continue his fight for quality English education as the way to enhance Sarawak’s economy.
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