Malaysia: New Twists For The Old Language Issue


Deborah Johnson

Language has always been a politically sensitive issue in Malaysia. Malay nationalists’ dissatisfaction concerning the rate of progress towards implementing Bahasa Malaysia as the national language was one factor which led, after the racial riots of 1969, to the eventual standing down of Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman. Why then is Dr Mahathir now intent on switching to the teaching of Mathematics and Science in English in national-type schools from 2003 onwards? In doing so, he runs the risk of further alienating segments of the Malay community – the Islamist opposition party PAS remains opposed to the move. Importantly, Dr Mahathir also risks disturbing the support of the non-Malay community upon which his government has depended. (Whether Chinese and Tamil schools will follow suit will depend on a ‘political decision’ made after consultation with National Front coalition parties.)

Though once known as a ‘Malay Ultra’, Dr Mahathir has in fact consistently pushed for attention to be given to the mastery of English. Despite protests from the Malay intellectual community, the Education Act 1995 included provision for greater latitude to be given private educational institutions to teach in English. However, this latest decision by Cabinet is a seeming reversal of the National Education Policy implemented in the early 1970s to phase in the use of Malay as the general medium of education. It raises some interesting issues. First, what is driving the change? It seems that the Malaysian government has been facing the reality that its national language and translation bodies have been unable to keep apace with requirements for the translation of technical literature into Malay. On these grounds Malaysia faces the possibility of falling behind in its race for developed nation status and in the competition for foreign investment. Malaysia is seeking to be a competitive knowledge-based economy with a world-class work force. It is in competition, for example, with Singapore where all students seeking entry to university must be competent in two languages – English plus one other; where English is the main official medium of communication; and where the IT industry is vibrant and human resource-rich attracting talented people from elsewhere, including Malaysia. However, will this proposed move have the desired outcomes? From an educational perspective, will the study of Maths and Science in English arrest the general decline in English competency? Futhermore, will studying technical subjects in a non-mother tongue improve general competency in these subjects?

Interestingly, Chinese schools have traditionally done better than national-type schools in Science and Maths. Chinese educationists oppose a change to the teaching of these subjects in English (which is a third language for Chinese students), but support further teaching hours be given to the study of English. Commentators have suggested that rural Malay students’ existing psychological barriers to learning Maths and Science might be reinforced, if they are required to study these subjects in English. It was reported in August that some 93% of registered unemployed graduates were Malays. They were mostly Arts graduates deemed to be lacking in communication (including English) and IT skills. At a more mundane level, the question must be asked if Malaysia has sufficient teachers fluent in English to teach these subjects as of next year?

Because Bahasa Malaysia’s position as the national language is secure, it may now be less of a political risk to be re-emphasising mastery of the English language. Nonetheless, this does not mean that the way forward will be without its challenges.

WATCHPOINT: What compromises will the government make concerning the policy’s implementation in Chinese and Tamil schools and in Kelantan and Terengganu’s state-run religious schools in order to ensure the political balance.


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