By a guest writer, John Baptist*.
"Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education.” The late President John F. Kennedy uttered these prescient words. I would only hasten to add the word “quality” before education in that phrase acknowledging though that JFK probably saw no need to do so, assuming quality to be a given. In the current context of our country however, I see the necessity to emphasise the word quality. Not the number of degrees or the variety available but the quality!
Education should be formulated to ensure that our nation’s competitiveness in the context of a borderless global economy is never compromised, at any cost.
It is with this mind that I would like to address this area of significant concern - should it be English or Bahasa Melayu/Malaysia for Science and Mathematics? This question must be examined in the context of the long-term objectives of our nation, chief amongst which is our nation’s sustained competitiveness. It must also be borne in mind that this question concerns only two subjects out of a possible ten subjects (based on the restrictions the Government is planning to impose).
Science, based on my limited understanding, is the bedrock of knowledge in many fields and professions involving engineering, medicine and biotechnology, to name a few. Similarly, mathematics provides the foundation for accountancy, engineering, architecture and other vital professions. A mastery of both subjects will provide a reservoir of knowledge. So in what language should these subjects be mastered? In a language used only at home or perhaps in two or three neighbouring countries, each with their own variation or in a language that is universal? Let us assume an example though extreme, of a situation where all our doctors were trained in Bahasa Melayu and had little or no knowledge of English. How would they handle the H1N1 pandemic that has hit this world considering the bulk of the research on this is in English? I was told of a doctor who did not understand the meaning of the phrase “my wife is expecting” until he was told the word “hamil”.
An argument in favour of teaching these subjects in Bahasa Melayu is that rural Malays in particular would lose out. I am not unappreciative of this. However, will teaching these rural folks in Bahasa Melayu protect them from the realities of globalisation when they eventually graduate? I humbly think not. But this is not a problem that can be ignored for it is very real and must be addressed. An idea that comes to my mind is for immediate arrangements to be made to conduct these subjects in both languages concurrently. For example, the textbooks should be written in English with Bahasa Melayu translations within. Classes should be conducted in both English and Bahasa Melayu. Examinations should be conducted bilingually perhaps will a small section entirely in English, increasing gradually over the years. Re-hire the retired English teachers and rope them in to help with the process of improving the grasp of the language. The move to make it compulsory to pass English at SPM level may be implemented in say three to five years, to prevent any injustice on those lacking proficiency in the subject.
I am not advocating that Bahasa Melayu be abandoned. This language will continue to be used for the remaining eight subjects. The language as a subject should also be taken to greater heights. With respect, I find it difficult to believe that the use of a common language by itself is capable of uniting a nation. The process of uniting a nation calls for much more, including the end of discrimination and the championing of meritocracy.
If the teaching of Science and Mathematics in English is considered a betrayal of Bahasa Melayu, I humbly suggest that teaching the subjects in Bahasa Melayu is a greater betrayal of the future of the students who will find themselves incapacitated in later years when faced with global competition. Myopic obfuscation, often political, should not blind our hearts from pursuing an educational strategy that is beneficial to the nation in the long run.
* John Baptist is a dear friend of mine. John is perhaps the most devout believer in God and His grace that I will ever know in this lifetime. Blessed with a purity of conscience that is rare, John carries his own paper bags to supermarket, travel by train to work and does anything within his ability to build a better world. My many thanks to him for this contribution.