Language flip-flops took toll on students and country, report suggests

This picture taken on September 22, 2011 shows students waiting at their long house for transport to school in Sungai Asap, Sarawak. — AFP pic
This picture taken on September 22, 2011 shows students waiting at their long house for transport to school in Sungai Asap, Sarawak. — AFP pic

KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 11 — Repeated tinkering with the medium of instruction in schools may have hurt both the performance of Malaysian students and race relations in the country, according to a report by the World Bank.

While the switch from English to Bahasa Malaysia in schools 1970 had only a marginally positive effect that was limited to Malay students, it came at the price of racial polarisation and a continued decline in the command of English in the country, it said as part of its “Malaysia Economic Monitor: High Performing Education” report.

“The 1970 change in the medium of instruction from English to Bahasa Malaysia may have improved educational and labour market outcomes for ethnic Malays,” it said in the report.

The policy, it noted, increased the likelihood of students from the community completing education to both secondary and tertiary levels, which in turn raised their wage levels by 5.7 per cent.

“The impact for the other ethnic groups was minimal.”

The switch was largely credited to the Razak Report authored by the country’s second prime minister, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, which had proposed for a more Malaysian-centric national school system.

The World Bank report is also surmised that this change was responsible for the lower number of English-proficient teachers now available, as those born after 1963 would not have benefitted from added exposure to the language in national schools.

“Proficiency in the English language among English-language teachers is very low, and it is particularly low among English-language teachers at primary schools.

“Overall, a mere 25 per cent of these English teachers in primary school were actually proficient in the language, and hence did not need any further training to improve their skills in the English language. At the secondary level, this fraction rose to 51 per cent of teachers,” the reported said.

But another outcome of the Razak Report was the formalisation of the “national” schools that taught in the Malay language, and “national-type” schools that conducted vernacular education.

The report theorised that this policy may be responsible for the “greater ethnic stratification” experience by the country.

Culled from an external study, a chart in the World Bank report asserted that racial composition in English-medium schools prior to the 1970 change-over was more diverse than it is today, with an attendance that was 43.1 per cent Chinese, 34.6 per cent Malay, 16.4 per cent Indian, and with the remaining 5.9 per cent coming from other ethnicities.

“With respect to ethnic diversity, Yong (2013) argues that the change in language of instruction has contributed to the limited diversity in today’s primary schools,” it said, but acknowledged that the composition was not reflective of the country’s overall race profile then.

Controversially, the report also suggested that the Policy of Teaching Science and Mathematics in English (PPSMI), which had been introduced in 2003 and discontinued seven years later, was contributory to Malaysia’s decline in at least one international education benchmark.

The World Bank noted that Malaysia’s learning outcomes in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) were above the international average between 1999 and 2003, but declined sharply in 2007 and further in 2011, coinciding with the policy.

“As implemented, the 2003 change in language of instruction from Bahasa Malaysia to English for Science and Mathematics may have contributed to the decline in learning outcomes as measured in the TIMSS,” read the report.

“Although overall performance may have deteriorated for a number of reasons, a comparison with similar countries suggests that the policy may have played a role.”

English-language lobbyist such as the Parents Action Group for Education (PAGE) continue to push for the return of— or at least the option for parents to choose — the discontinued policy that they contend was needed to improve the mastery of English as well as technical subjects.

The Education Ministry recently made it mandatory for students sitting for the SPM to pass the English language examination beginning 2016.

The World Bank in its report also appeared to caution against further changes to the language policy in schools.

“[Given] that the Government has already made a policy decision in 2012 to revert to teaching Science and Mathematics in Bahasa Malaysia, it would likely be most productive to concentrate efforts on improving the quality of teaching English as a second language.”

Related Articles