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Malaysia Ends Use of English in Science and Math Teaching
08-July-2009, The New York Times
By LIZ GOOCH
KUALA LUMPUR — Malaysia will revert to using its national language, Bahasa Malaysia, to teach science and math starting in 2012, abandoning a six-year English policy that the government said had failed to improve student grades.
The long-awaited decision, announced Wednesday, came after months of lobbying by Malay nationalists and was largely viewed as a political decision by local commentators.
Malaysia has taught science and math in English since 2003, when former Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad implemented the English-language policy in an attempt to help graduates improve their English and employability.
However, the government has found that academic grades in science and math have fallen since English was introduced.
Students in rural districts, who are mainly Malay, suffered the most because their English proficiency was low, The Associated Press quoted Education Minister Muhyiddin Yassin as saying. He said the government would recruit more teachers and increase English classes in an effort to improve English levels in schools.
Professor James Chin, head of the school of arts and social sciences at Monash University in Malaysia, said the decision had also become a political issue.
“They decided to buckle under the pressure from the Malay nationalists who argue that by teaching students in English you are neglecting the position of the national language,” said Mr. Chin, a political commentator.
“I think what it shows is that the Malay nationalists feel that U.M.N.O. is very weak so that they can force U.M.N.O. to do a lot of things,” he added, referring to the United Malays National Organization.
Many parents and employers had called for English to be retained as the language of instruction.
Concerns have risen in recent years that students’ English skills have declined, with employers citing this as a major weakness among graduates. A 2005 government survey found that there were almost 60,000 unemployed university graduates.
The government is also investigating whether students should have to pass English in order to obtain the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia, the compulsory certificate of education for 16-year-olds.
A recent poll by the independent Merdeka Center showed that 58 percent of Malaysians wanted English to remain the language of instruction for science and math, the Malaysia Insider Web site reported this week.
Some 69 percent of respondents believed students should have to pass English in order to receive their Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia certificate.
The Malaysian Employers Federation had lobbied strongly for English to be retained as the medium of instruction.
“This is a setback for the efforts to enhance the command of English for the students,” said Shamsuddin Bardan, the federation’s executive director.
While Mr. Shamsuddin welcomed the government’s decision to improve students’ English proficiency by increasing the number of English teachers, he maintained that poor English skills remained a major weakness in the local workforce.
Mr. Chin said that English was the language used in Malaysia’s private sector.
“A lot of Malaysian parents are very worried about the standard of English,” he said. “A lot of parents realize that for their children, without English they can’t survive, not in the private sector.”