Praba Ganesan

Praba Ganesan is chief executive at KUASA, a democracy outreach organisation. It's time to be involved. You can contact him at praba.ganesan@mykuasa.org or follow him on Twitter @prabaganesan.

DECEMBER 7 — The language war is over and English has won.

All members of humanity require English to participate and benefit from a globalised borderless world. Farmers and coders, poet laureates and football league goal-scorers.

So, expectedly, the type of parents reading this news portal get excited when anyone of meaning — royalty, ex-senior civil servant, autonomous minded state leaders or researchers — raises again the debate over English medium schools.

Their enthusiasm notwithstanding, it would be calamitous for Malaysian public schools to have English medium schools overnight.

The evil it does to the weakest of our community, who are also the many, outweighs any good which accompanies it. More so, be wary of opportunists, not the least politicians regarding this.

Our public schools must remain Malay medium. If possible, all our schools should be Malay medium.

Our language

At Independence, the identity of Malaysians was tied to Malay. It is a commitment not to be taken lightly. It is in us speaking our language that we become one people. If the language serves a functional purpose without a personal affectation, national unity will remain an illusion.

Only yesterday in a coastal town, a key community organiser told me a few dialects are spoken and in general only bazaar Malay is used. It may be a Malaysian coastal town, but it was made clear to me if I was to connect to my countrymen in that locality effectively, I would have to pick up a dialect.

In her words, “They don’t see Malay as being important.”

2017.

I have consciously made this the first argument. It is a shame it is not the first argument for most of our issues.

The champions

On bringing back English medium schools, those strongest on the issue are those with children. The effect is immediate for them.

Backers are urban parents with higher income and social status with children adept in English by dint of upbringing, community and extended family. A strong base through their primary and secondary education will prep the children better for international — English core — tertiary education steeped in communication technology.

A certain primary school in Damansara gets oversubscribed annually, as it is seen as the next best thing to private education.

It is about self-interest.

Still, public education is about all Malaysians, not just the ones ready for a different type of education.

While the minority can claim that as taxpayers they can demand their pound of flesh, governing is dictated by the principles of large numbers.

This is not limited to education. For instance, while they pay more taxes, because they earn more they prefer private healthcare. 

However, this does not mean they should be upset seeing their tax money financing public hospitals they do not visit.

The public healthcare system, as the public schools, must provide the best value to most without ignoring the needs of the weakest. 

Practical bit

There is a range of teaching quality when contemplating if our medium should be Malay or English.

It is not binary, this range.

It may be teaching well in Malay, teaching not so well in Malay. Or then teaching well in English, or badly, or worst teaching incomprehensibly in English. The last scenario is likely, and was the case when English was the medium for Maths and Science between 2003 and 2009 — thanks to a megalomaniac.

The idea that in the medium-term there’d be teething problems but eventually the rest will catch up was a delusion.

The large number of children from non-English speaking background did not lift their proficiency, and their teachers struggled too.

In a country where the vast majority of public school English teachers would fail international English language written and oral tests, back in 2003 and also now in 2017, it was half-arsed to assume they’d just get there.

That’s the English teachers.

Where will they find the teachers who can teach in English all the other subjects?

There is a reason why there was not a squeak from the teachers developed between 2003 and 2009 to teach maths and science in English. The thousands of them did not scream bloody murder for being trained and urged to teach in English and then overnight asked to revert to Malay.

Instead, they were relieved.

A single public schools system

The intimation that some states can forge ahead with English is a non-starter.

Education is federal and the service would become shambles if everything changes at state borders.

There are almost 3,000 under-subscribed public schools, and it is primarily the fault of serving four different school streams — Chinese, Tamil, religious and national. Adding English medium schools compounds the problem.  

Which is why a single public schools system is imperative and not about threatening multiculturalism, communal interests and history, even if there are those seeking to do it for that very reason.

Public education is about delivering the best level of education for the most number of Malaysians. From those on the plains of Kedah, to those ambling in the city malls this school holidays, to the hillsides of Keningau.

Within those limitations, everyone must have a decent chance to advance and no one should be trapped by prerequisites they have had no chance to meet or offered remedies within the system.

The language divide

If the top senior management of Corporate Malaysia was aggregated, a substantial number of them above 45 would be from old English schools. Even if Malay had supplanted English officially, the sediments of traditions, teachers of a different generation and alumni, kept their graduates long after with better English.

This may not be the case today. But the point that a better English education leads to better opportunities is real.

Having the English medium schools will result in a form of apartheid within the public schools system.

Educationists must be extremely wary about what it will mean, without hoping for the best as a standard approach to policy implementation.

Already there is a distinction between private and public, which is a reluctantly accepted reality because advantaged parents are willing to pay for the former and private education reduces the burden of the public schools system, in theory suggesting fewer students served with the same pot equates to higher per capita spending for students in the public schools and therefore better education.

Should there also be a distinction between public school students by the virtue of them attending Malay or English schools?

Broad-based delivery

Schools are working towards better English in our student population. It is a bearable challenge when it is one language, and not the language to teach all the subjects in schools minus Malay.

Efforts such as English for Technology, foreign teachers and compulsory English subject pass, are limited but important.

It has to be what our wok can cook, and not the feast we have in mind based on the spread laid out on Netflix.

A series of decisions in the past — from the rushed dismantling of English medium schools, relegation of English in daily lives and formalisation of Malay in administration — have forced our hands in the present and reduced the scope of our actions.

Our children must have English in their arsenal, some more than others, but all of them armed.

The doing it has to be circumspect and deeply respectful of the risk of leaving so many behind while intending to liberate.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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