Internationalising the national education system via the teaching and learning of Science and Mathematics in English (PPSMI)
by Tunku Munawirah Putra
It is apparent that English is the way forward as far as science and technology is concerned. It has become the dominant language and the lingua franca of scientific communication since the 20th century1.
Technological advancement and intellectual property are the focal points for the creation of wealth of a nation. Technologically advanced non-English speaking countries such as Japan and Korea are paying increasing attention to internationalising their research and development (R&D) capabilities,and allowing wider access to knowledge. The internationalisation of Japan’s R&D effort has been associated with the establishment of major R&D centres in Western countries. Even these economic power houses of the East need to collaborate with the West on their scientific and technology efforts2.
Malaysia too has embarked on various technological developments. One of the strategic reform initiatives recommended under the Ninth Malaysia Plan is to promote innovation and technology by strengthening the delivery of high quality education3.
The teaching of Science and Mathematics in English (PPSMIa) in national schools was designed primarily to enable the acquirement of scientific and technological knowledge in its lingua franca, with the intention that it will propel the nation forward as a country of innovators and inventors instead of just consumers. It is to ensure that we have access to the latest and the state-of-the-art scientific knowledge, which is widely available in English4. PPSMI was also tasked with bringing the various ethnic groups together under the national school system.
In 2011, approximately 12% of the student population proceed to sixth form, of which merely 16% of them were in the Science stream5. Note that this data excludes students who further their studies in other equivalent pre-university programmes. This forms one of the reasons for the shortage of scientists in the country. The Ninth Malaysia Plan (2006 -2010) targets 60 researchers, scientists and engineers for every 10,000 people in the workforce, but in October 2009, only 18% of the target was achieved6. We are currently in the period covered by the Tenth Malaysia Plan (2011-2015), tasked to nurture and retain first world talent base. The human capital we need must be highly skilled7 . PPSMI will aid a smooth and seamless transition into tertiary education. Allowing this option, and giving it a chance to run its course, could address this shortfall.
Since the announcement to abolish the policy in 2009, students have abandoned the national school system for alternatives. Top alternatives for national schools are international schools and private schools, followed by church-based schools, tuition centres offering O-levels and Chinese/Tamil vernacular schools. Chinese vernacular schools, for example, have been experiencing a record number of intakes for Malay students highlighting this phenomenon5.Incidentally, the national school is the only type of school which upholds the Malaysian language (Bahasa Malaysia) as the national language, while all the others are excused.
Isn’t this an indicator that the abolition of the policy has failed the national school system? The abolition has not helped integration either, seeing that there are more fortunate Malaysians opting for international schools with the liberalisation of the private school education sector8.
Liberalisation in education must not be limited to that of the private and international school sector. PPSMI should not be a privilege made available only to the few who can afford international schools. If this is so, then liberalisation in education stands only to benefit the elite at the expense of the struggling masses. Everyone deserves to receive quality education regardless of their socioeconomic status.
The decision to abolish PPSMI was made just months after the new cabinet was formed, when the government did not have a blueprint nor a motion set in mind9 . Thankfully, with some lobbying and pressure by certain quarters, the abolishment date of PPSMI was extended to the year 2020 10, which means that those who started with PPSMI will be able to complete their primary and secondary education in its entirety with PPSMI. However, not all welcome with the implementation of the policy. Some students have been short-changed and are not able to continue with PPSMI, especially when they were keen to learn the two subjects in English previously.
To be able to speak English as a second language and maintain a high level of English competency takes more than learning English as a subject in school. Clearly, too little emphasis on English has resulted in substandard achievements that we see happening today.
The concept of PPSMI is a clever idea that allows for the Bahasa Malaysia to remain the main medium of instruction in school, while utilising the English language for the teaching of Science and Mathematics. English is the universal language of science, so the teaching of these subjects in English will benefit the students in the future, while at the will benefit the students in same time, increasing the exposure of this language to the student. Although PPSMI is a science policy and not a language policy (i.e. it is not intended to improve English per se), the positive effect of PPSMI can be observed in the marked improvement in the national examination results of English subject.
The PPSMI policy is to be replaced by “Upholding Bahasa Malaysia and strengthening the English language” (MBMMBIc) policy. The irony is that MBMMBI is a language policy and it is made to supersede a science policy. Both policies uphold Bahasa Malaysia as the national language, whereby more than 50% of subject hours are in Bahasa Malaysia. However, without PPSMI, the teaching of science and mathematics subjects in English is eliminated, thus exposure to English in terms of subject hours will be significantly reduced. The context to apply English has been taken away and the students are left with elementary English communication skills.
Brain drain is inevitable but what we can do as a nation is to instil loyalty and patriotism into our young generations. Whether we like it or not, meritocracy has to kick in, better sooner than later, as the crutch mentality that has benefited earlier Bumiputerasb has created an over-dependence on such privileges making them weak and uncompetitive.
The Education Act 1996 has provided a leeway for parents in that “pupils are to be educated in accordance with the wishes of their parents”. We wishes of their parents”. We must remain pragmatic and sensible with the choices we make to gain the most benefit for the economic growth that we aspire to achieve.
For as long as Chinese and Tamil vernacular schools and a whole spectrum of other schools exist, we must also be given a choice to benefit from PPSMI. English as second language requires that we master both Bahasa Malaysia and English language. Needless to say, languages are tools, and the right tools are needed to complete the job in the most effective way.
Notwithstanding, we still need to address the issue of developing Bahasa Malaysia as a language of unity and its usage across all ethnic lines, even to the extent of ‘internationalising’ this beautiful and artistic language. However, in addressing these efforts, the command of the English language as a language of knowledge must never be allowed to decline. A right balance must be struck and neither must be allowed to deteriorate at the expense of the other.
For 50 years we have tried to develop Bahasa Malaysia to be on par with English so that it could be used to impart advanced knowledge. This seems like an ambitious and overzealous move, since the language was not designed to achieve these aims. Bahasa Malaysia has its own edge especially in the arts, but in the field of science and technology, it is trailing far behind.
According to the US patent and trademark office, Indonesia and Brunei recorded the least amount of patents (1963 to 2011) within Southeast Asia, while Singapore being the highest followed by Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand11. Patents create intellectual properties, and they are developed along with new ideas and innovations. The rate of growth of these innovations is dependent on each country’s science and technology strategy. Based on the growth rates recorded in countries adopting similar language to our national (Indonesia and Brunei), their growth rates are among the lowest in the Southeast Asia, compared to Singapore (a country adopting the English language). There are more opportunities to collaborate in the science and technology field in English compared to in Bahasa Malaysia, and this will drive the number of patents being created.
Several countries are also undergoing this tug-of-war between English and their national language. No nation will allow their national language and mother tongue to become extinct, at least not us.
a PPSMI is a Bahasa Malaysia acronym – Pengajaran dan Pembelajaran Sains dan Matematik dalam Bahasa Inggeris.
b Bumiputera is a Bahasa Malaysia term to describe the Malay race and the indigenous people of Southeast Asia.
c MBMMBI is a Bahasa Malaysia acronym – Memartabatkan Bahasa Melayu dan Mengukuhkan Bahasa Inggeris.
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About the Author:
Tunku Munawirah Putra (M. Sc. in Mass Communication, Boston University, USA) is the Honorary Secretary of Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia (PAGE). PAGE is an educational lobbyist that serves as a channel between concerned parents, the Ministry of Education and other educational stakeholders. With PAGE, parents have a platform to voice their opinion and feedback on educational issues collectively as a bigger voice. PAGE is optimistic that Malaysia will be able to produce more first world talents.