Many people find it surprising that I am against the education policy of teaching maths and science in English (PPSMI). This is considering that I am far more fluent in English than I am in Bahasa Malaysia, and went to Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) where everything was taught in English to students who were largely not proficient in the language.

Throughout law school, I was a maths and advance maths private home tutor to students who were sitting for their SPM and PMR exams. Sometimes, I would teach in two different languages as not all the students could understand English well.

I was once a supporter of PPSMI, but have changed my stand since. I’ve come to learn that there’s a huge difference between making a decision and making an informed decision. I changed my mind about PPSMI when I understood the bigger picture.

It started when I saw a draft copy of a World Bank report that looked into the education sector in Malaysia, which is currently being vetted by the Ministry of Education.

In the country’s GDP, we spend 60% more than comparable countries and twice the Asean average for the expenditure of basic education. This is a pattern that covers at least 30 years. Using international comparison, the report finds little or no evidence of a relationship between spending and learning outcomes.

My take from this information and the report as a whole is best illustrated like this: Our education system is like a factory that is heavily invested, well funded, overstaffed and sufficiently supported by stakeholders from the people to their leaders.

Yet its products, the Malaysian students, are not noteworthy.

There is a fundamental problem here. The core objective of this system, which is to educate Malaysians, is not doing what it is meant to do. To implement PPSMI, assuming you think the policy is a good idea, will not be wise. Why ask for a lightweight tyre, when the core structure of your bicycle is falling apart?

If we are going to work on fixing these problems, then we have to be focused.
Implementing something like PPSMI would mean a dillution of energy, time and money towards making the overall system work.

PPSMI has yet to be proven to have significant correlation towards comprehension or results for tertiary science subjects. According to the World Education Ranking conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that measures competency in “Reading, Maths and Science”, the top scorers are Shanghai (China), Korea, Finland and Hong Kong (China). United States ranked 17th, behind Poland and Switzerland.

Here’s another interesting point, assuming that the idea is to make the transition into English tertiary science-based education easier for Malaysian students: Of the approximate 400,000 students who enter Year 1, only 100,000 of them go on to complete their university education. Of that, number, how many of them are actually in the scientific field of study?

Now imagine having PPSMI across Malaysia of which has relevance to a small segment of students.

Imagine the disparity we’re harvesting between the educated, and the non-educated, the employability between the science students and the non-science students. Considering the disparity, caused by the benefit enjoyed by a “selective” segment of our students, can this be good for Malaysia?

If having better standards of English is good for those studying in university and also the country, then improve English as a whole. Japan is ranked 8th in the OECD study and yet, I’m confident that by percentage our population is more exposed to English and understand the language better than the Japanese. Meanwhile, people in Netherlands, ranked 10th, are fluent in Dutch, English and French, too.

Both countries have their education system in their local language.

Education is a national issue that all Malaysians have equity in it. A small school in a rural area where kids live as far as a three-day walk, will not have enough students to make a separate class specially for PPSMI, assuming they even have a teacher who can manage it (well).

Therefore, even if it’s an option, that option is an illusion. They now don’t have access to a portion of our education system, simply because of where they are born. Is that fair?

We have to understand things by tracing back the philosophy of a national education system. Is it meant to give selective special education where the smart will become smarter, and then figure out what to do with those who lack the exposure and opportunities? Is it meant to enable all Malaysians as much as possible to this basic human right? Or, is it purely to produce a workforce or to build a nation of people who are smart and able to articulate?

There’s been a good amount of intelligent people in this world throughout history, who don’t even know English and yet have their knowledge and work transcend beyond their own borders. Let’s work towards a solution for Malaysia. A smart one.

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