English and Malay for Malaysians, Mandarin for the Chinese and Malay for the Ultramalay

From The NST 21 Mar 2009
CROSS TALK ‘English must be in the equation’Koh Lay Chin

Ng Chai Heng (left) and Datin Noor Azimah Abd Rahim
Ng Chai Heng (left) and Datin Noor Azimah Abd Rahim

Both want different things when it comes to the teaching of Science and Mathematics in English (PPSMI), but for Datin Noor Azimah Ab Rahim and Ng Chai heng, their arguments lead to some surprising discoveries and agreements. KOH LAY CHIN listens in as they argue for and against the continuation of the controversial policy which began in 2003

Datin Noor Azimah Abd Rahim is the chairman and founding member of the Parent Action Group for Education (PAGE), a group of parents who are strongly for the con tinuation of the policy. She is also the Sekolah Kebangsaan Bukit Damansara parent-teacher association vice chair man.

Ng Chai Heng is Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan Cina Yoke Nam parent-teacher chairman and a member of Dong Jiao Zong (Education group comprising Dong Zong (United Chinese School Committees Association) and Jiao Zong (United Chinese School Teachers Association). Like Azimah, he was an invited participant to the Education Ministry-initiated roundtables on PPSMI.

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A: What did you think about the protest held recently?

N: I think people are expressing themselves, which is their right. The Chinese people did not get involved, and there is a reason behind it, but it was not that they did not support the protest.


A: What was that reason?

N: There was a miscommunication, they were supposed to deliver the memorandum (to Dong Zong) and it was not handed over for them to read. There was a miscommunication and there was no time.

A: Was that strategy or …?

N: No, it was strictly just miscommunication. Dong Zong decided not to go because they did not see the memo. What happened if the content said ‘I want everything in Bahasa Malaysia’ ? That was the worry. So they didn’t go. People may think this was playing politics but no, it was a simple reason.

A: So if the memorandum was in your favour?

N: If it was mentioned that it was to abolish PPSMI and also (to maintain) the bahasa ibunda (language in the mother tongue) they would have gone. I’m not Dong Zong, by the way.

A: But in your case it would have been Mandarin and not ‘mother tongue’ for SJKC, because you have said that it doesn’t matter that SK’s (Sekolah Kebangsaan) are in En glish.

N: No, because as far as we are concerned, I don’t care about Sekolah Menengah (secondary schools). Because we have our social contract (drawn) before 1957 and in 1966 we talked about the new education act. We have already agreed that there would be a continuation with Chinese and Tamil (primary) schools, using their own language to continue with their education. And for secondary schools they decided there was no need for (them to be) Chinese. So that is why at the time, 60 secondary schools came out and formed in dependent Chinese schools. The rest become SMJK (Sekolah Menengah Jenis Kebangsaan), like Catholic (High) in Petaling Jaya. So they continue following the national education system. So therefore at anytime, the stand of the Chinese people is that they will not discuss secondary schools because (that issue) is already over. We are only concerned about Chinese schools. People ask ‘why mother tongue’, when there is also Hokkien and Cantonese, but one thing good about Chinese is that there is only one written language.

A: Written?

N: Yes, you can be Hokkien or Cantonese but we can understand it when we read and write as well. It is a common mother tongue to us, not like other languages which may be different spoken and written. You know, the dropout of Chinese schools was so high because they studied in Chinese and then they went to secondary schools. The ones from the rural areas could not cope because Bahasa or English is their third language. It is so difficult for them. I was from Labis, a very small town. I remember we had only 12 per cent enter tertiary education.

A: What happened to the rest?

N: They dropped out!

A: What do they do afterwards?

N: Most of them went to Singapore and worked as technicians and all that. Some of them went into business.
Why drop out? During primary school we could see that they could follow (the teachings), but once they had to go to remove classes, 50 per cent of the time it is in Bahasa. So they were all KO (knocked out). They could not follow.

A: So now, wouldn’t it be better then, for primary schools, SJKC, to continue teaching Science and Math in English because in secondary schools it will be taught in that language? Right now you have a mismatch.

N: They can’t even understand English, how could you make them study Science and Mathematics in English? It’s even worse. That is the main point. Another is the independent secondary schools? Today we have 600,000 Chinese school students, Standard 1 to Standard 6 and 10 per cent of them are non-Chinese. There are 60 Chinese independent schools, and the capacity is only 60,000. Meaning to say it’s slightly more than 10 per cent of Chinese primary school students admitted into independent Chinese schools. Some people say that the Chinese choose to go to SK cause they like SK. Not true. They want Chinese schools but we have limited vacancy for enrolment. Government doesn’t allow anymore (schools).
So they admit 60,000 to these schools every year and three- quarters go to tertiary education. Where do they go? To China, Taiwan, Singapore and UK, Australia and the US. These students are very strong in Science and Math. That is why the NUS recognise the exams they sat in the school. Even if I go there with an STPM I still have to sit for an exam in Singapore. But not these schools, the National University of Singapore (NUS) accepts and recognises them.

A: But STPM is in English, right. When you want to enter NUS, STPM is done in English.

N: But I’m talking about Chinese independent schools. All their exams are in Mandarin, but Singapore accepts them, they don’t have to resit any exam. They only have to sit one paper, that is the English test. Many many people go to Singapore.

A: But the NUS is in English.

N: Yes, of course. But it’s easy for them to go in. Science and Mathematics is understanding, comprehension.

A: Don’t you think that if we follow this process, of these SJKCs taking this path, wouldn’t that cause a brain drain?

N: The government does not recognise Chinese inde pendent schools, that is the problem. Dong Zong is asking the government to recognise (them). Students are going to Singapore, Taiwan, and the US. Three quarters
of people go to tertiary education, and they become doctors, lawyers and scientists. And most of them finally
land in Singapore.

A: But in Singapore the medium of instruction is in English.

N: Yes, and they land there.

A: So actually, the main reason for SJKC to have (the two subjects) it in Mandarin is also for cultural and social purposes right? In the end when you learn Mandarin in primary schools and you learn for
the purposes of culture and sociopolitical purposes, aren’t you supposed to be loving Malaysia more?
But instead, you have this brain drain where they see attractive jobs and leave the country. So
your cultural objective is lost.

N: You see, you talk about the mother tongue language. Language is protected by the United Nations. Everyone has the right to learn their own language and all that. When you talk about unity, it should
be based on fairness and peace. Not on the basis of bias. Then you have unity.
Now at this moment, we are asking the country to recog nise the independent schools and their results. Let them come into the local university. But they do not accept this, and the students have no way. They go out of the country. Outsiders like Singapore accept them.

A: There’s always the option of local private colleges. Why must you go abroad, when you can study here and do twinning programmes? Plus the fact is that we are now becoming an international hub.

N: Yes, twinning schools and local, private universities and all that only happened within the last 10 years. We didn’t have this back then. Now yes, it’s more attractive and economical. Some of them are doing that, of course, because it is dollars and cents.

A: Mandarin is an international language, that’s where we are disadvantaged, the Malays.
Because Bahasa is not an international language. That’s why we are fighting and we want PPSMI
to be retained, because it is an advantage to the Malays. I think we agree that you, remaining
with your (teachings in) Mandarin, will not be disad vantaged, but we are going to be disadvantaged.
We have to do something about that, for the sake of the Malays.

N: I have no objection to that. Because what we think is that this country should open up. Globalisation. We should not be very narrow and look at one language. Now some may say Chinese school people are all chauvinists, only concentrating on Chinese. But in actual fact the Chinese in this land deem English so important. Go and ask anybody, even a rubber tapper. They want their own language, and at the same time they will promote and put emphasis on English. The culture has taught the people to understand that we have to be open and accept knowledge. You should learn the second lan guage, therefore you can acquire
knowledge, that is the thought of Chinese people. We don’t have any conflict with this.

A: In fact this is what Malaysians should be thinking about. We must look towards unity and one of the ways to achieve this unity objective is for SK to be the first choice of school. All SK should work towards one Malaysian school. Make it so attractive that parents will move their children to this SK. That
should be the way forward. The way forward is English and Science and Math in English.
What we agree on is that Science and Math should be in an international language.
We support English, you support Mandarin. But whatever it is, it should be in an
international language because that is the language of knowledge.
And I think we are abit concerned because of the Tamils wanting Tamil and the SJKC
wanting Mandarin, and SK’s wanting Bahasa. This is not going to unify people. This is our concern.
Right now you have students in SK, SJKT and SJKC, they are not talking to each other.
So maybe English may be the common language among these three main races.
Maybe, finally, Science and Math in English for all schools will bring all the races together.
For instance if you google ‘Mathematics’ versus ‘Matem atik’, ‘Science’ and ‘Sains’, and other terms as well, we found that 99 per cent of articles are in English and less than one per cent was in Bahasa Malaysia.
Actually not even in Bahasa Malaysia or Bahasa Melayu. Eighty per cent was in Bahasa Nusantara, only 20 per cent BM. How does Mandarin compare?

N: If you google in Mandarin, it’s just like English.

A: Equally?

N: Slightly less. I think maybe less by 30 or 40 per cent. But it’s building up. We have a big web base and search engines in Mandarin. I know how to use any computer now and switch to Chinese anytime.
It’s become standard, and you don’t require any special keyboards. They have already designed in such a way using hanyu pinyin. It has been romanised.

A: So that’s why we are trying to convince the Malays that you cannot rely on Bahasa Malaysia. In fact for the past 30 years there’s not been anything worth reading in Bahasa Malaysia, they have not published any good works in the last 30 years. This was mentioned by (writer) Eddin Khoo the other day when we chatted with him on air. And that is a worry. That is only the cultural aspect, what about Science and Math knowledge?
There is none?

N: It is a pity.

A: Yes, so we are trying to convince the Malays that PPSMI is good for them, you know.
Do you want to continue to lag behind? No, we have to think beyond.

N: We have to open up and acquire knowledge. Even if we can use the Japanese language,
so be it. Language should not be a barrier to acquiring knowledge. If you fix yourself to a spot,
you are dead.

A: The fact is that you cannot even get Kamus Dewan on the Internet, you know.
It is not available, it’s ridiculous. You can get other languages but not Bahasa, Bahasa Ingerris.

N: You see if I enter a Chinese word (into a search engine) today and I want the meaning, I just
write there ‘translate’ and I get the English word. Or vice versa. It’s so easy today. I think Spanish
is there and all. So are Chinese and Japanese. It’s glob alisation, language is not a problem anymore.

A: So the next question is how do we bring the races together? How do you suggest? Because in the end I think that is the ultimate objective. We cannot afford to keep splitting them. This polarisation is very bad. In my secondary school, we have usually about a classful of SJK students coming into the school and because
they only converse in their mother tongue, they have great problems communicating with
the students in their class as well as their teachers. So sometimes the major problem for us is that the lesson is only so many minutes. Half the time the teacher is trying to calm things down. A teacher has told me that she would be talking to this boy, and another would be translating what she would be saying to him. This boy is from SJKC and he doesn’t speak anything else but Mandarin, so it is a great problem. It is a daily problem.

N: This problem is even bigger in rural areas. Because more than half of them can’t speak well
in Bahasa. Or English.

A: So what is the solution, do you think?

N: This country, I think, is gifted. Many Chinese believe so. We go overseas and we say ‘Oh, Malaysia is still the best.’ It is a gift that we have so many races. It is gifted with our basic thinking that we want a peaceful life. But unity is not possible to pull you together. I can be asked to stay with a Malay or Indian boy in a hostel but it does not mean anything. Politicians say these days that when one has a feeling of unfairness, he will say forever that he is a second or third class citizen. But when I go back to my kampung, and see my Malay and Indian friends estate, I don’t have this feeling at all. Although I don’t speak well in Bahasa, but I respect him and he respects me. I know he is Muslim and I would never bring something he cannot eat. If you go to the kampung and smaller places you would never see this problem. But you come to big city you see this. Life is tougher, and people are more inclined to say that this and that is not fair.
Unity should be built on the basis of fairness and peace. Then the feeling will come.
Look at (the Chinese in) Indonesia, they are sharing the same names, speaking the same language.
You think there is unity there? They have millions of Chinese there and they still say they are Chinese even though they don’t speak it. They have Malay names. Difficult to differentiate but they still say they are Chinese. They have difficulty in doing business. It is still not fair. So that makes them feel that way. But if you look at Thailand, they don’t say they are Chinese anymore. I think in Thailand there is at least 5 to 6 million Chinese but they don’t say they are Chinese, they say they are Thai.

A: So why is this?

N: It’s fair? They voluntarily mix into the culture. They mix into the name, they forgo all their language and
culture.

A: So how can we achieve that?

N: It’s not possible today. You want Chinese to forget about that in Malaysia today?
It’s not possible.

A: Is it because it is laid down in the Federal Constitution.

N: That was the social contract they made. You can keep your own race, culture and education.

A: If unity can be seen and practised in the kampung why can’t it happen in the cities. Is it all because of money, and power?

N: I think so. I guess it’s the way they politicise the whole issue. One person could be sincere, but from another’s eye this could be seen as ‘not protecting his own race’. One person could not be sincere and try to politicise the thing. Some like it, some don’t. Everyday we have these things. Since March last year until today, it’s been nonstop political issues. And everytime, somehow, there will be a race issue brought
up. Also about PPSMI. if you see on the websites, people are saying things like ‘Jikalau ini tidak dimansuhkan,
Orang Melayu akan hilang.’ (If this is not abolished, the Malays will perish) I look at it and I think ‘No, man’. I went to the Chinese blogs and they don’t say things to that extent. They just say we have to be globalised, and why Chinese is important, but they don’t say it that way.

A: We see PPSMI as helping the rural children come out of the rut they are in now. A means for what the NEP had primarily wanted to achieve. PPSMI is an extension of the NEP actually, it is a way of bringing the poor out, by learning Science and Math in English.

N: It is quite dangerous here. We must have our foundation and all the tools ready. Or PPSMI will fail in rural areas. It will fail because firstly, English is alien to them. This objective is achievable, I think but it needs some time. How can the Education Ministry improve the teaching profession? We have lost two generations of English-speaking teachers. Now they are not able to speak so they have to put in a lot of effort. They spent RM5 billion and I tell you, it’s just thrown down the drain.

A: I think the ministry has acknowledged that 70 per cent of the problem is implementation and the way forward is actually to address the problem of teachers. So I think they have even put so much resources into
the rural schools, a lot. So much has been done. They actually detailed this in the fourth roundtable. And
we are very pleased that the ministry has put in so much effort to help the rural children. At the same
time it is an ongoing process. There are teachers who are still being trained abroad
and they still haven’t come into the classrooms yet, so it is an ongoing process.
We have to give it time, it is too premature to say it is a failure.
I think as far as the ultra Malay nationalists are concerned, we are talking about Science and Math, we are not talking about ‘Hilang Melayu’ (Malays Perish) and all that. It is ridiculous. You are comparing apples with oranges. It is about knowledge, one way to bring the Malays up to the next level. And in fact for the SJKT and SJKC if we continue in English and reinforce what we have, continue working at it, maybe we will even see some students from SJKT and KC moving on to these SKs because so much capital been invested in them.
Give it time, and we have been saying that the time for assessing should be in 2013 to 2016. Then we could assess the pioneer group, who are now only in Form One. You can’t assess it now.
We are here for the Malays. We understand why the Chinese want Mandarin, because they know it is
an international language. We want English because it is the lingua franca of Science and Math. It is
about time Malays come out of the rut and go global.

N: I always agree with what you say. But I want to point out one special thing. PPSMI was implemented seven years ago, and the first UPSR results came out and they reported that for Math, 98.3 per cent of SJKC students used Chinese to answer. It was 96.2 per cent for Science. What does this figure tell? That means, the majority, including the non-Chinese who sat for the exams, used Chinese to answer.

A: About these figures, for SJKC, they continued to teach in Mandarin and the teachers continued to encourage the children to answer in Mandarin.

N: The point is that the Chinese shcools also feel that the government should improve the English Language. We acept ed that English is so important. In fact most of the parents send their children to English tuition.
And you know the standard of English in UPSR (for SJKC) is lower than in the SK.

A: For SK we feel is lower?

N: Ours is even lower! I send my children for English tuition and they follow the Singapore syllabus.

A: Yes but can every SJKC parent afford it or not?

N: Cannot.

A: Then isn’t you know, the continuation of Science and Math in English an economic
source of learning English for them?

N: No. You see, because now we are teaching Science and Math in two languages – Chinese and English.
Therefore we sacrifice our English periods. There’s only two periods in one week. That means only one hour. Where is that enough? We are asking for six hours.

A: What about things like Kajian Tempatan, Kemahiran Hidup, Moral…

N: We have Moral, we don’t have Kemahiran Hidup and that, because we sacrificed that. We are learning
Mandarin, we have one extra subject. We sacrifice that because of the Chinese language.

A: So for subject hours, what is the percentage of the syllabus in Mandarin
and how much is it English and then Bahasa?

N: Bahasa is six, English is two, so that makes eight. The rest is Chinese. I think maybe 80 per cent is in Mandarin.

A: Because one of the things that the pejuang bahasa (Malay linguists) has been saying is that PPSMI will
relegate the national language. We are telling them ‘What are you talking about?’ Because 60 per cent of the syllabus is in Bahasa. So I think the argument has been settled long time ago and they are still talking about it.

N: I feel that many people think that your tone is not right, you being a Malay. And THAT is not right.

A: Is this is the opinion of the nationalist Malay or the ultra nationalist Malay, because I
am a nationalist Malay but not the latter. Not like the GMP (Movement Against PPSMI) lah. Because they
think … well, what do they think?

N: They think you are a betrayer.

A: Betrayer? I have heard that before. (Laughs) Betrayer to the Malay race.

N: I think it was you or somebody else, who said at the roundtable that ‘Although I speak for PPSMI, it doesn’t mean
I am selling my bangsa. Doesn’t mean I am not Melayu. Somebody said that.

A: That was Dr Zaidee Laidin, who represented the Akademi Sains, who supported PPSMI.

N: Yes he was in support. And after he said that, it was all quiet. Remember? Those people sitting near me, they were from Gapena and all. I was looking at them. They were quiet. They were caught by surprise, I think.

A: They should not be surprised.

N: They did not say anything. They could not say ‘You are a betrayer’ and all that.

A: We feel they have lost all arguments on PPSMI, and now they are just playing on emotional issues now.

N: Even for Dong Ziao Jong , the tone was not chauvinist. They were talking about globalisation as well, they were saying language should not be a barrier. They always stress on social contract, and not to go against it. And of course we benefit from the advantages of learning Mandarin. If let’s say an international company wants to hire a CEO in China, the prerequisite is language. You must know Mandarin! That is why Singapore is at an advantage.

A: And we must also look at the employability aspect for it. There is a high rate of Malay university graduates who are not being employed, we are very concerned about that. We hope that you would distance from the GMP. Because actually your side and their side is different, you know. You are talking about something else, about globalising, they are talking about culture and disappearance of the race. It’s not.

N: My personal opinion is that it was a blessing that DJZ did not join the protest. was a blessing. It was an accident, a communication breakdown but to me, it was a blessing. Because otherwise DJZ
would be branded the same way, and whatever they do would be viewed as chauvinist.
Officially if you look at the memorandum, it did not mention at all about wanting Bahasa, or being very fanatic.
They just wanted to abolish PPSMI. It looked very nice.

A: Politics must not mix with education, we have said from the start. But unfortunately in
this country it has been and it’s detrimental to the future generation. Are you supportive of
the street protest? Is that what we want to inculcate to the children, that you don’t like something,
then go on the street and protest. That’s the picture GMP is giving, and we don’t like it.
It will set a precedent, that if they don’t get what they want, protest and threaten government.

N: I always think it is better to protest in a confined area, with petitions, signing it, and debating …

A: Intellectually…

N: …Open forum, yes. The Chinese community has been doing that for years. They don’t really go
out to streets. They always go to the Chinese town hall, assemble together.

A: Legally, right?

N: Legally and very orderly. They do not shout. Maybe they have banners or a speaker. They
debate it. You will reduce the violence. People go crazy sometimes.

A: Even the minister has said many times that whatever recommended to the Cabinet
will be based on facts, figures, and not emotions and sentiments. Basically what GMP
is doing now is using emotion and sentiments. We are using facts and figures.
The anak nelayan (daughter of a fisherman) who scored 20As in the SPM recently, I think this is a great achieve ment
for the rural kids. I think PPSMI has somewhat helped this, and she studied
Science and Math in English from Form 1 to Form 5. Although she did primary education
in Malay, I think it’s progress made. I think if you look at the results details
you can see achievements across the board, no matter where you are. It is a great
success story. And when this final cohort start to do SPM from 2013 to 2016,
over three cycles, you will see the results improve. They would have done Science
and Math totally in English.

N: We should not look at language from a race point of view, we should look at it from a knowledge
point of view. So happens that in this country, we have a social contract. And we have a lot of people opting to study in this language. We should open up and encourage the teach ing of Science and Math in English in other schools and all that. People have a choice, they should not put into a well.
As far as we are concerned we want PPSMI for Chinese schools to be abolished and we want to use
our own language, and that is what is our stand. We have our valid reasons. With our stats, records, and results, those people who study in Chinese schools are not inferior at all. It’s competitive, so it proves that
(learning) in Mandarin is okay. But of course the freedom is with the parents, if they want to study in Chinese schools, or in SK, they go ahead. We do not try to hold people back and ask them to do things.

A: I think the answer is right now, as far as the SK is concerned, is that they have to address the weaknesses
in the curriculum, and obviously the weakness is English and the teaching of Science and Math in English.
Like everything else when you see weakness you trou bleshoot and work on it. You don’t U-turn
and start from scratch. So much has been spent. I think the fact that MOE would want to continue
is because they are trustees to the public’s money and they want to ensure that money
is well spent. That is a very reasonable decision to take. Again the Malays have to realise that if you
go back to Bahasa you will end up talking Bahasa only, and you are not going to go very far with
just one language nowadays. In fact, let’s put aside Science and Math, I had a very shocking incident the other day. My daughter had a project for tarian zapin for Kajian Tempatan. We googled zapin (the malay traditional dance)
and can you imagine, we got half a page written in bahasa, and five pages written in English.
Which is really shocking! It is very specific to the Malay culture, I was shocked, you know.

N: So the people studied it in Malay but then wrote it in English?

A: Yes, so our common stand here is actually that Science and Math should be taught in
the language of knowledge. In your case it’s Mandarin, in our case it’s English.
And employability. We would both be equally competitive and attractive to future employers.
We hope that SKs will continue with English.

N: And we hope that Chinese schools continue with Man darin. Look at the statistics,
these are very important figures.

A: I hope whatever the decision is, it will be based on the figures. SJKC will do fine
with their Mandarin, but the SKs and Tamil schools, the latter especially, should go to English.
It is so obvious. We hope for SKs English remains because it will be a very positive move for the Malays,
in fact it would be one of the better things Umno would have done for the Malays.
If they don’t then the politicians would have failed the Malays. We will always
be second-class citizens in our country. That would be very sad for the Malays.

N: As far as SJKC is concerned, if the ministry reverts to Mandarin, we would kill two birds with one stone.
If we learn using our language, this is also a knowledge language. Number two, we will
have extra time to learn English as a subject. We would have extra two hours in a week
to learn English as an English subject. This decision, if in our favour, would be fantastic.
The parents would be very very happy.

A: Actually for the SJKC, I think you have already been running things the way you wanted it. I think the only thing you want is textbooks in mandarin. So you don’t want the textbooks in English, you want them in Mandarin. Basically that’s all the change you want, right? But we SKs must maintain.

N: I want it abolished, you want it maintained. But if we take away PPSMI, and we talk
about the obejctive of the schools, of knowledge, then we are meeting each other.

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