Let’s prioritise English as the medium of instruction in Sarawak

LET me make an honest declaration — I’m a promoter of the English language for my fellow Sarawakians and I make no apology for it.

I’m dead set that English should be the priority language as the medium of instruction in Sarawak.

If the younger generations of Sarawakians are able to at least read and speak English, the state will be a step ahead in many endeavours. Make no mistake about that!

But I must also stress that it would be great if we are given the opportunity to learn other languages too. Hey, why not? After all, language, in all its forms — verbal, written, and physical — is not only a way to communicate, but also a way to live the culture where a language is spoken. And Sarawak is a land of many cultures and varied traditions.

While I wish to promote English in my home state, it does not mean that I see Bahasa Malaysia as unimportant. A national language is important in so far as a national identity goes. We want a national anthem, national flag, national flower etc — so why not a national language?

However, in terms of getting through examinations and excelling academically, it must be recognised that we must first excel in a language. Like it or not, academic excellence is something that we all want for ourselves and our children. We are even prepared to spend our life’s savings to get an education, hoping to excel in a subject of choice in the process.

It must also be recognised that not many are gifted linguistically, hence the best option is to excel in a language of your choice. Mastering a language also means that you have to be good in its spoken and written form. Surely, not many are blessed with the ability to speak and write in many languages.

I feel that we, Sarawakians, must be vocal in insisting that English stays as the medium of instruction in our schools. Much has been written and debated over the importance of English and its universal usage. There is no necessity to repeat the superiority of the English language here.

If certain quarters in the country are bent on forcing down on us a language which is not our choice in our education system, then it is within our constitutional right to resist it.

The power of language must never be underestimated. We all know that the power of language is principally to inform so that we will be understood and known.

Language must never be used to establish superiority or dominance. Language used for understanding provides the vehicle for preserving the communication system’s integrity. Language used for abuse violates the integrity of the system and the person, and not only isn’t the point, it should not be allowed.

To give the power of language its rightful place, we should teach the power of articulate speech, which captures the intensity of our feelings, without using them as weapons, and we should not tolerate the abuse of this power that violates us and our system.

If some people insist that Bahasa Malaysia should be the dominant language because a certain race is the majority in the country, then the Ibans in Sarawak also have the right to insist that Iban be the language of instruction because they form the majority in the state. In Sabah, they can also harp on the Kadazan-Dusun lingo. There will be no end to this, but they do have the right too, don’t they?

Therefore, isn’t it only logical and sensible that we settle on a universal language? Or at least, allow our students the option to choose.

This week, I was taken aback by a minister’s remark that proficiency in English does not guarantee a country’s success, pointing out that only three of the eight world economic giants are English-speaking.

“Among the G7 countries and China, only the United States, United Kingdom and Canada are English-speaking countries,” he said.

But the minister conveniently forgets that many Asian countries, including India, Pakistan, Singapore, and the Philippines are English-speaking nations and that English is the language of trade and economy even among European countries although many of them do not consider English as the national language.

I feel inclined to think that the voices of Sarawakians to prioritise English in our education system are loud and clear.

Following my article in this column last week that Sarawak and Sabah should be allowed to formulate their own education policies, several readers wrote in support of the suggestion.

Here are their comments, edited for clarity and brevity.

This first letter is from Madam Lim of Kuching:

“Dear Paul Sir, reading your column, it is indeed sad to have education, such an integral part of one’s life, to be debated and put into such a situation. As a secondary school Maths teacher for 36 years till I retired in Dec 2007, I would like to share with you my experience and views on our flip-flop education system.

“In the early 1970s, I taught Maths in a rural school in Sarawak. The standard of Maths was maintained and the students could converse in fluent English. When the medium of instruction was changed to BM, teachers like me, who never learned BM before, had a hard time switching to the medium. I struggled and managed to learn the language so that I could continue to impart knowledge to my students. There were no bilingual textbooks for reference. English deteriorated for all … both teachers and students.

“The standard of English improved when PPSMI was introduced in 2003 after a lapse of nearly 20 years. I breathed a sigh of relief. Now, at last, those policymakers had finally ‘awakened’ and realised the importance of learning Maths and Science in English. Though a few generations of our children, including my own three children, were deprived of learning Maths and Science in English, there is hope for future generations.

“The new graduates who studied Maths and Science in BM had a hard time when they were expected to teach these subjects in English. Then the government spent millions of ringgit conducting courses and printing bilingual books and even PMR and SPM exam papers were bilingual. How do you expect teachers who are not proficient in English to teach Maths and Science in English? Many such teachers just read from the textbooks! Imagine teaching Maths and Science by reading from the text!

“I was very sad and disappointed to see those teachers doing that. The students lost interest when they could not understand the theories. Maths and Science are living subjects, subjects where reasoning power, logic and common sense are needed and it is supposed to be interesting for students to learn and apply. But these teachers ‘killed’ the subjects with their indifferent attitude towards teaching.

“Teacher-training colleges should take in potential candidates who are really interested in becoming educators, not just any Dick, Tom and Harry.

“I recall one incident (related to me) overheard by a teacher. A parent told his child when he dropped him off at the school.

‘You better study hard and get good grades, otherwise you will end up becoming a teacher!’

“I remember in the past, parents used to say ‘You better study hard or else you end up becoming a night soil collector!’

“Ha! Imagine a noble profession (teaching) nowadays is equivalent to a night soil collector! How hurtful and disappointing to hear that parent’s view about teachers.

“It seems that becoming teachers is the last option for many young people. Why? To young people now, teaching is just a job, whilst back then, only the truly qualified (not just academically) were entitled to be educators. I think it boils down to our education system. Why are we going backwards?

“The future of our children lies in the hands of those idiots (education policymakers). I really hope someone will knock some common sense into those brains before they breed future generations of idiots who will lead our country down the drain!”

This second letter is from Mr Law:

“Dear Paul Sir, I’m writing in to you again after reading your article today and some other debate regarding the PPSMI. It has been extremely frustrating for me to know that our government decided to abolish PPSMI. It is unfair for some ‘quarters’ to say it was a failure and has to be abolished. I personally find it ridiculous to have heard these absurd comments made in the media. It shows how shallow people’s mindsets can be when it comes to perceiving this issue.

“Moreover, I laughed out loud at home when I read the statement made by Datuk Mohamad Ali Hassan, PIBGN president — ‘if their command of English is weak, how will they be able to master Science and Mathematics in English? Students will certainly face additional problems.’ PPSMI was introduced in 2003 and only eight years later then he makes such a statement. Assuming what Datuk Mohamad Ali Hassan said is true, the implementation of MBMMBI would be a useless cause as well.

“Ask yourself this question, ‘How to strengthen English if students’ command of English is weak?’ Please understand this fact, students learn from teachers and if the teachers themselves are not equipped with a sufficient command of English, how can you expect students to be able to have a good command of English? Why bother to implement PPSMI or MBMMBI if the teachers are not fully equipped with the necessary knowledge in English?

“Allow me to enlighten everyone about this issue. Mistakes after mistakes have been made over the years by people who knew nothing about the education system and the consequences that followed when the decision was made. The idea of implementing PPSMI in 2003 was excellent, but there was a problem. How many teachers in Malaysia could actually teach those subjects in English at that time? Students suffered as a result of a bad decision made by people who are supposed to improve the education system, not make it worse. Stop treating these innocent young children as lab rats. Look into the actual source of the problem and rectify it. People can introduce all sorts of ideas but if the root of problem is not solved, all the ideas are basically useless.”

This third letter is from Encik J Abang of Kuching:

“Dear Paul Sir, Thank you very much for your article today. You were very spot on. Hopefully, we Sarawakians can think and create things for ourselves, education-wise.

“What baffles me is that our school principals and headmasters know the issue well.

However, they always argue that government policy matters must be obeyed. The reality is, they are all ‘makan gaji’ civil servants. Two years ago, I proposed a survey on an educational issue for parents to a PTA in Kuching. As expected, my proposal fell on deaf ears.”

Finally, the last mail is from Anne Teo:

“Dear Paul, I salute you for writing the article ‘Let Sarawak and Sabah adopt their own education policies’ in The Borneo Post dated Nov 5, 2011. It is sad to witness Malaysian education policies are ever changing depending on who rules the day. It is also puzzling why the English language is such a threat to some of our political leaders?

“If the English language is such a threat, our nation’s leaders and politicians should refrain from accessing the Internet, taking vacations, sending their children for further studies, attending trade missions etc in English-speaking countries.

“The irony of this issue is that some of our past and present leaders and politicians were educated in English-speaking countries, so what say you? Deciding the future of one’s children is one’s choice but deciding the future of a nation is the people’s choice. Long Live Malaysia and let Malaysians have a voice.”

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