Brunei Darussalam: Language Education


Putu Davies

At first glance, opportunities for education in Brunei Darussalam seem almost ideal. The country is wealthy, and ruled by a benign monarch who is committed to supplying good educational facilities for his subjects. He provides generous funds for educational materials, teachers' salaries, school and university buildings, and scholarships. The national university, for example, was recently moved to a brand-new purpose-built campus whose seaside location, extensive landscaped grounds, spacious buildings, library, gymnasium, and dormitories would be the envy of most universities in Southeast Asia, and many elsewhere. Where school systems and universities world-wide suffer from a perennial lack of funds and continual calls to economise, Brunei enjoys relative freedom from such limitations.

Despite these material advantages, the calibre of education in Brunei remains low. Reasons for this include language, mismanagement, and Bruneian cultural characteristics. Language looms unexpectedly large as a problem throughout the Bruneian educational system.

Bruneian policy on language suffers from cultural cringe and vestigial colonial attitudes. English is favoured over the indigenous Malay, and is believed to lead to greater success and power in all fields. It is taught in Bruneian schools from grade one onwards, and by third grade, all core subjects except religion are taught in English. Malay is taught for only two or three hours each week. Many local teachers do not have sufficient command of English to offer effective instruction, and most foreign teachers who come to Brunei know no Malay. As a result, most school children never fully grasp English, and therefore also fail to comprehend their other subjects. In addition, their command of written, grammatical Malay remains poor, as insufficient time is given to instructing students in their native tongue (in Brunei, as elsewhere in the Malay world, a local patois is spoken, which differs from standard Malay).

The results are distressingly obvious. Bruneian teachers and civil servants cannot write or speak correct Malay or English. Malay road signs everywhere are misspelled and/or ungrammatical (despite announced government policy urging the use of Malay in daily life). Students admitted to university arrive with very low marks and test scores (a "D" average is common). Local teachers scrape through university and start work without sufficient knowledge of either language, perpetuating the poor quality of education offered in the schools. Many Bruneians use patois at home and a kind of Malay/English pidgin in public, giving the impression that they are unable to express themselves effectively in either language, orally or in writing.

Language is only one aspect of Brunei's education problem. With a new and respected Vice-Chancellor and a new and powerful Education Minister, change could be on the way. Among the challenges facing them will be resistance from Bruneian culture, and the demands of Islamicisation.

WATCHPOINT: Can better leadership solve Brunei's language education problems?


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