I refer to Hassan Talib’s “School system neither here nor there” (NST, June 30).

No one will dispute the fact that the standard of written and spoken English in our country has declined considerably in the last few decades. Most of us will also agree that there is an urgent need to improve our collective competence in the language.

It is on the question of what we should do to rectify the situation that Hassan and I differ. For Hassan and many others, the solution lies in restoring English medium schools. They are of the view that the English medium school — like the Bahasa Malaysia, Chinese and Tamil media schools — should become one of the options available to the Malaysian parent. Such a school, it is true, will attract a segment of the various communities. Depending on where these schools are located, the student populace may well be less mono-ethnic than in some of our national schools today. This should facilitate a degree of inter-ethnic interaction.

But English medium schools are not going to change the entire education landscape. Bahasa, Chinese and Tamil schools will remain major players. A lot of Malay parents will continue to send their children to Bahasa and Islamic schools. With increasing religious identity consciousness, the latter in particular have become more and more popular among Muslim urbanities in recent years. Among the Chinese the determination to perpetuate and elevate Chinese schools is greater than before, fueled no doubt by the emergence of China as a global power.  Tamil families will not cease their support for Tamil schools simply because English medium schools are around. What this means is that separate language and religious streams within the school system which in some ways are a bane upon our society will persist — in spite of English medium schools.

What is the alternative? We should persevere in developing a truly bilingual education system where Bahasa is the main medium of instruction and English is an effective subsidiary medium of instruction. This would require teaching some subjects in Bahasa, others in English and yet others in both languages.   Yayasan 1Malaysia had alluded to such an approach in its memorandum on education and unity to the government five years ago.

It is an approach that would be in harmony with the spirit of the Razak Report, the foundation of our education system. For the Razak Report envisages both Bahasa and English as media of instruction in secondary school and beyond. It is in line with the current perspective on the two languages encapsulated in the slogan, “To honour the Malay language; to empower the English language.”

This slogan should be translated into concrete measures. Apart from using both languages as media of instruction in the education system from primary to university level, the government should accelerate and expand its re-training programme for teachers aimed at making them competent in Bahasa and English. Only students with a genuine commitment to both languages should be recruited as trainee teachers. In this regard, the move to make a pass in English a compulsory requirement for the Malaysian School Certificate from 2016 onwards is laudable.

To build a bilingual education system, the mindset of everyone involved in this monumental task, from policy-makers and teachers to parents and the students should undergo a massive transformation. That is the real challenge before us.


Image source: schoolinsites.com

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