#Opinion* Ho Kay Tat: Bring back English medium to fix our schools

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WE HAVE spent billions on education, but have fallen very short in producing internationally competitive students and bringing young Malaysians of various races together.That was my take from reading the three-quarter-inch-thick Education Blueprint report. The two main highlights were:>> We have spent more on education than most countries but the quality of our students, according to two international benchmarks, is ranked in the bottom half and below that of countries that have spent less or the same as us. >> The school system has not fostered unity among young Malaysians of various races as well as we had hoped for, and in fact, one race makes up 97% of the enrolment in our national primary schools while the others opt for vernacular schools. Low quality education "Malaysia's consistently high levels of expenditure on education have resulted in almost universal access to primary education. However, there remains room for improvement on the dimensions of quality," the report says. Room for improvement is an understatement if you look at some of key findings of the report. >> According to the World Bank, in 2011, Malaysia's education expenditure (operating and development), at 3.81% of GDP, was twice the Asean average (1.8%) and also higher than that of the Asian Tiger economies of South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore, which averaged 2.2% of GDP. >> As a percentage of the government budget, Malaysia's 16% was almost double the OECD average. In 2012, that 16% worked out to RM36 billion (operating and development). Among our neighbours, only Thailand's was higher at 18% of GDP. Government figures show that from 2000 to 2012, Malaysia used RM106 billion for education development. Clearly, we are not stingy when it comes to spending on education. But what have we obtained for all the money spent? In the 2009 PISA International Assessment, which is coordinated by the OECD and evaluates the proficiency of 15-year-olds in reading, mathematics and science in 74 countries, Malaysia was ranked 54th in reading, 57th in mathematics and 52nd in science. We are in the bottom 30% of the class. Among our regional peers, we are above only Indonesia and well below China, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan. What is more damaging is that only 0.1% of our students made it to the "advanced" level of reading while 44% were categorised in the "below minimum" standard. In countries like South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore, the number of students at the advanced level was up to 150 times more than ours. "Malaysia's performance lags behind other countries making similar or lower levels of expenditure. Education systems that are making lower investments per pupil, such as those of Thailand and Chile, are nonetheless achieving student outcomes that are either comparable to or better than Malaysia's. This suggests that while a certain threshold of expenditure is required, it is more important that money is put towards the right factors in order to ensure success," the report points out. It also says that given Malaysia's wealth, our performance in education is lower than what it should be. We are underperforming other countries with a similar GDP per capita. Divided from young Two NEPs were launched in 1971. One was the New Economic Policy and the other the New Education Policy. Both were linked and were the post-1969 race riot tools used by Umno to restructure Malaysia's socio-economic fabric. In Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah, English ceased to be the medium of instruction at primary school level in 1975, at secondary school level in 1982 and at tertiary level in 1983. In Sarawak, the conversion took place later and at a slower pace, starting in 1977 with Primary 1. In 1980, Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (the Form 5 examination) was conducted fully in Malaysia for the first time. The reason for dropping English as the medium of instruction was to achieve unity among young Malaysians through the use of the national language in schools. But 30 years on, what do we have to show for it? A school system that is even more fractured than before with non-Malays shunning the national primary schools where the medium of instruction is Bahasa Malaysia. To quote the report once again, "In recent years, ethnic stratification in schools has increased". The proportion of Chinese students enrolled in SJKCs (primary schools where Chinese is the medium of instruction) rose to 96% in 2011 from 92% in 2000. This means that only 4% of young Chinese go to national primary schools where Malay is the medium of instruction. In these schools, 97% of the students are bumiputeras. In the case of the Indian community, 56% of the children attend Tamil primary schools. It is interesting to note that Chinese primary schools outperform the other schools in a comparison of UPSR scores achieved between 2005 and 2011. Such statistics serve only to reinforce the view that our national schools lag behind Chinese medium schools and now, private schools as well, which, although accounting for only 1% of the total student population, are rising fast. Young Malaysians are divided at the important formative stage of their lives - between seven and 12 years old - when they start interacting with people outside their homes and families. They have been divided by race since the early 1990s as more and more non-Malays enrolled in vernacular schools. And in the last 10 years, the division has increasingly been in terms of socio-economic status as children from well-to-do families attended the many private and international schools now available. Our school system has failed to bring young Malaysians together like it did 40 or more years ago. I attended St John's Institution from 1966 to 1976 when boys of various races from the poor working class neighbourhoods of Kampung Baru, Ampang, Pudu and Chinatown studied and played alongside sons of tycoons, lawyers, doctors, top civil servants and Cabinet ministers. Today, there is no chance of that happening. On the diversity of teachers, the report states: "It is important for students to have role models who are of different ethnicities to properly reflect Malaysia's diverse population and to bridge the gaps between the ethnicities." But it added: "However, the teacher population in SKs (national schools) is becoming less diverse and less representative of the national population." In 2011, 81% of teachers in all national schools were bumiputeras while 14% were Chinese and 5% Indians. There was virtually none from the "others". Restore English-medium schools If we can give parents the option of sending their children to Malay, Chinese or Tamil medium primary schools, why can't we offer them a fourth option of English medium schools?  Doing so will not deprive those who want their children to learn in their mother tongue, so the champions of vernacular schools need not complain. Restoring English-medium schools, even if only at primary school level, will help the country build a reasonably big pool of young Malaysians with a good command of the language - a vital economic asset to the country. On top of that, these schools will bring together young Malaysians from all races and socio-economic classes who, through studying and playing together, can become the unifying force we need to build a Malaysia that is one. That is what we had in the Sixties and Seventies. It is time to bring it back. Start with 30 to 40 schools across the country and increase the number as teaching resources improve and according to demand. Citing a lack of resources for not doing it is a lame excuse.

World Bank ED Stats; IMF; Unesco; Pisa 2009+, Timss 2007; Pirls 2006; Global Insight; McKinsey & Company 2010

Pisa 2009+

Pisa 2009+; Global Insight

Examination Syndicate

Ho Kay Tat is group CEO and publisher of The Edge Media Group. This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on Oct 21-27, 2013.