Revealing the reality of PPSMI

by  Jason Lai & Lai Pik Yien

Photo by [email protected]

Teaching of Mathematics and Science in English (PPSMI), the brainchild of then Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohammad, was implemented in 2003. Try picturing us 30 years on after the abolishment of the PPSMI, what can we imagine Malaysia to be then? Is it a remorse and regretful picture of us of not keeping English for Mathematics and Science? Or would we still be the same, like a good ol’ cup of teh tarik with a piece of butter-kaya toast?

It is of interest to note that the articulation of education policies in Malaysia lacked transparency and hence the lack of objective measures on the efficacy of PPSMI. In light of this, we attempt to evaluate PPSMI critically and objectively and provide a suggestion for the way forward to this issue.

The PPSMI debate has been charged with a lot of different sentiments, both good and bad. Looking back, this policy to teach Science and Mathematics in English has upset a lot of Malaysians – Malay, Chinese and Indian alike – when Mahathir rolled it out in 2002. Today, it has caused a stir again by its abolishment within a short span of a few years. There are groups of people who finally ‘saw the benefits’ and believed that PPSMI improves the English language proficiency among the young people.

It is not surprising that there has always been a lack of transparency of information conferred by the government. When Mahathir introduced the PPSMI in 2002, it was more whimsical than a thorough studied effort of wanting to bring Malaysia’s education into the next phase of development. There were no stages of implementation, policy reviews and continued research to develop this policy. After the initial uproar of different groups in the society opposing this policy, the PPSMI slipped quietly out of people’s thoughts until in 2009, when a national research that was done quietly without the eyes, ears and mouth of the public came to light. Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin (the current Education Minister of Malaysia) used the results of this research and advocated the need to abolish this policy.

This research was conducted by Permuafakatan Badan Ilmiah Nasional (PEMBINA) and the title of the paper was “Tahap Kompetensi Guru dalam PPSMI serta Implikasinya terhadap Pembangunan Modal Insan Murid” (Teacher’s Competency Level in PPSMI and its Implications on Student’s Capital Development). Firstly, based on the research title alone, it is clear that there is always room for improvement in teacher’s competency in English language. Secondly, education cannot be solely measured on a cost-benefit analysis where the success of the policy implemented results in the return on public spending. In this case, the PEMBINA report stated that the PPSMI should to be abolished due to poor returns of only 4% in English language achievement.

Apart from the PEMBINA report, the Education Minister cited the 2007 TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study), whereby Malaysia’s position on Mathematics and Science achievement among students fell when compared to the previous results published in 2003. According to the 2007 study, students showed a higher average score in mathematics and science achievement when students reported always/almost always speaking the language of the test (Malay or English) at home, compared to those who reported speaking it less frequently. Interestingly, students in Malaysia who are not the native speakers of the language of the test managed to produce a higher average achievement score in mathematics (refer to Table 1, compare the “Average Achievement” for “always/almost always” against “never”).

For Science achievement, the results show the opposite.

A similar trend was observed in the 2003 report (Table 2), which also showed a tendency for better score in science for those who never speak the language of the test at home. It is worth noting that in 2003, the test was administered in Malay language only (which obviously points out an indirect relationship of ethnicity here).

The language of instruction that was used in the administration of this test in 2007 is in Malay and English, thus affecting the interpretation of the results. If we look into the logic of it, the percentage of students that always/almost always reported to speak the language of the test (Malay/English) is 64%. There is no further breakdown as to their proficiency levels in the separate language. Therefore, the use of this TIMSS study in 2007 as an evidence for the decrease in Mathematics and Science achievement among school students is inappropriate.

Salient points from two additional dissertations written by Malaysians can be further elaborated. In a policy analysis that was reported by Ismail (2009), a policy analysis tool1 was used and a pilot test was conducted on a small sample of 281 schools in three northern states (Kedah, Penang, Perlis) to measure school performance in Mathematics and Science. He concluded that school performance has increased after PPSMI has been introduced and that there is no statistically significant difference between rural-urban performances. This is based on his policy analysis tool that takes multiple factors into consideration (refer footnote1).

Photo by Jamie [email protected]

Another study by Yue-Yi, Hwa (2011) was conducted to observe if there were any differences in the achievement of Mathematics and Science studies and English proficiency levels on a small sample of students in Methodist schools. The results indicate that the PPSMI had more positive impact on the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) than on the Ujian Pencapaian Sekolah Rendah (UPSR) results. The UPSR estimations yielded significantly higher percentage of students passing English, and a significant drop in percentage scoring As in mathematics. SPM estimations showed increase performance in Additional Mathematics but no significant effect on English and general Mathematics.This suggests that the difference between UPSR and SPM achievements and effects of the PPSMI may indicate pedagogical differences administered for  different age groups of students.

A general conclusion from both these studies by independent students is that there is more to what is claimed of PPSMI effects on students’ achievements on both English and Mathematics subjects and the proficiency level of English. Because of the makeup of our diverse demographics, it is challenging to  obtain  conclusive evidences of the effects of PPSMI.

There are a few other considerations:

Firstly, academic achievement in schools is not solely dependent on the choice of using English or Malay as a medium of instruction, but rather the quality of teachers that schools have today. If teachers are not equipped with pedagogic competency, students’ learning will still be affected regardless of the medium of instruction.

Secondly, the objectives of the PPSMI (due to the lack of in depth study prior to the implementation of policy) are somewhat vague. Consideration needs to be given as to whether this policy is aiming to enable greater access to new development in science and technology in a globalised world or this policy is solely aiming to improve language proficiency. Debates of this policy in various groups has always only challenged on language proficiency alone. This is a poor assumption that teaching these subjects in English leads to better proficiency. No one writes academic language unless one is in academia.

Thirdly, we need to be aware that the ‘threat’ of deprioritising the national language may affect national unity and create greater social exclusion. Depending on the country’s social and historical context, bilingualism is not always considered an asset.  In some parts of the world, bilingualism may be synonymous with poverty and cultural deprivation (De Avila & Duncan, 1981).  This is due to the general makeup of the Malaysian population where the majority ethnic group are Malay and would naturally dictate all distributions across demographics. Hwa’s research indicated that Malay language achievement under the PPSMI seems to have declined in primary schools but improved in secondary schools. Based on existing socioeconomic gaps, if PPSMI were to continue, we may risk creating more social exclusion than it already exists in the multiracial context of Malaysia.

Photo by Richard [email protected]

There is a small but growing group of citizens who are lobbying for the option to pass the choice of language for Science and Mathematics to schools and parents of students. Also, there has been a suggestion to offer choice for schools and families to choose the language adoption for Science and Mathematics. The social construct of Malaysia is unique where wealth distribution and social status is inseparable with ethnicity, language and religion. To give the power of choice to pick a preferred language in education would imply immediate segregation of communities.

On the flip side, in more developed economies, we can see there is more decentralisation of the education system where more autonomy is given to schools and parents to make educational decisions. For example in the UK, there is a  “free-school choice” option for parents to send their children to. These schools could have their own pedagogic teachings but implementing  the national curriculum. It is not necessary that education reforms have to head in the direction of decentralisation. In a Malaysiakini article2, a group of literary scholars (i.e. A. Samad Said, Prof Muhammad Hj. Salleh and Anwar Ridhwan) gave 6 rationales to the opposition of PPSMI:

1) Malaysia should model education systems such as those in Scandinavia, Belgium, Netherlands and Switzerland where the citizens are proficient in English language without abandoning their national language

2) Many Nobel Prize winners in all fields were not necessarily from English-speaking countries

3) The challenges  faced by Malaysians are not because of English proficiency alone

4) The failure to establish Malay as a medium language of instruction for all subjects

5) The use of English in selective professions will create two kinds of nationalities: those who are English-proficient and in the field of Science and Technology, and those who are Malay-proficient and are in the field of arts and humanities

6) The support of a policy that opens up wider knowledge opportunities that are relevant and organised but  does not give the same emphasis on the development of national identity and cultural preservation.

As a concluding statement, there should be greater transparency of policy development initiatives such as establishing independent inquiry groups into policy research and development with fixed policy reviews and follow-ups. The government needs to provide a concrete blue print with proper timeline for reviews and stock taking to track the development of the policy. Adequate resources are also required to ensure that the quality of education is guaranteed and will be enhanced gradually. These would contribute to better student achievements in the future where Malaysians could rank themselves strongly against the performing Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries such as Japan or South Korea. A recent OECD Program of International Student Assement (PISA) 2009 study (ACER, 2011 & Walker, 2011) shows that Malaysia still has a long way to go to reach the standards of OECD’s. Many of the OECD countries possess very strong performance profile in terms of the achievements in science and technology, as well as economic output, and they are non-English speaking countries.


1 Data Envelopment Analaysis (DEA) with Hybrid Return to Scale (HRS) model. His choice for using these models is because it can take into consideration multiple inputs and outputs instead of just looking linearly at students’ examination results alone (which was what Tan Sri Muhyiddin has pointed out that the overall examination results has dropped). Some factors that were taken into consideration affecting student performance: (1) number of teachers (student : teacher ratio, teachers teaching multiple subjects in school), (2) quality of teaching, student learning, etc.

2 Lima Sasterawan Negara Tolak PPSMI (


ACER. (2011, December 16). Girls Outperform boys in PISA 2009+ participant economies. Retrieved February 27, 2012, from

De Avila, E., & Duncan, S. (1981). Bilingualism and the metaset. In R. P. Duran, Latino Language and Communicative Behaviour. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

Hwa, Y. Y. (2011, March 16). Lessons From English-Medium Science and Mathematics Education in Malaysia (PPSMI). A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Degree of Bachelor of Arts with Honors in Political Economy . Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA: Williams College.

Ismail, I. (2009). English in the Teaching of Mathematics and Science Subjects (ETeMS) Policy: Implications for the performance of Malaysian secondary schools in Mathematics and Science subjects. Soreze.

Walker, M. (2011). PISA 2009 Plus Results: Performance of 15-year olds in reading, mathematics and science for 10 additional participants. Victoria: ACER.

About the authors:

A brother-sister team, Jason is in his final year as a full time undergraduate student at the National University of Singapore and has been more actively following up on political movements in Malaysia, contributing his opinions across the Causeway. His sister, Pik Yien is currently finishing her Masters in Lifelong Learning: Policy and Management under the Erasmus Mundus program in London that specialises in education policies and lifelong learning.

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