This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on May 16, 2022 - May 22, 2022
Schools have now opened fully without physical distancing but students still have to don face masks, a reminder to our “warga sekolah” that all is not yet well with the pandemic. Even unvaccinated teachers are allowed to teach face-to-face despite protests from parents. Yet, not a squeak has been heard from the education ministry on protecting students from these anti-vaxxers.
We had even suggested that teachers who are medically unfit to be vaccinated should be offered a voluntary separation scheme (VSS) to weed out those who are sickly and most likely underperforming. The teaching regimen requires that teachers are healthy, fit and able to withstand the demands of the profession. Any shortfall on these points will reverberate multi-fold throughout the system, resulting in untold long-term damage to our children.
For high-need communities, the school closures and lack of connectivity during the pandemic will in turn translate into 6.4 years of compounded learning loss as these students fall further and further behind. According to the World Bank, this works out to an average lifetime income loss of a staggering RM767 billion for our five million students. But as teachers come together to bridge the learning loss from the closure of school for a shocking 310 days, or 62 weeks, it is not surprising that the education ministry is now faced with an overwhelming number of teachers opting for early retirement at 50 years of age. This is contributing to a shortage of English language and Pendidikan Islam teachers.
We had for many years now advocated for the creation of English-medium schools (EMS) at secondary level. Begin with one EMS in every state to meet the state’s demand for English-language teachers and teaching assistants. The aim is not to quicken the brain drain but instead enhance the labour force in order to attract much-needed foreign direct investments. The number of periods for the English language in the current timetable is far from adequate to produce proficient learners. Many states will welcome them with open arms if it means better jobs for everyone. Even the rural folk have now realised the importance of the English language in achieving a better quality of life for their children. The sultans too, who benefited from British education, and now, their royal successors, will surely and wholeheartedly welcome them.
The public outcry against such schools from ultra-nationalists has been so intense in the past that the proposal gets shot down at every turn and never sees the light of day. The situation has worsened over the years to a point where some English-language teachers even fail to inculcate basic proficiency in this universal and critical language of knowledge that is required to engage effectively in the rapidly growing digital world.
While the introduction of EMS is perhaps perceived as risking the relegation of the national language to a secondary status, on the other hand, it is guaranteed to ensure that these schools will produce a constant stream of competent English-language teachers.
The English language is not in any way a tool of colonialism anymore. Such thinking and mentality is extremely archaic, especially coming from school leaders.
The criteria for enrolment in these EMS should be that they must cater to students from B40 (bottom 40%) families. They must be residential schools to ensure complete immersion in an English-language environment. Entice these students to pursue an English language degree abroad to reinforce their proficiency and simultaneously, to enable the adoption of a broad world view of socioeconomic affairs.
It goes without saying that all Malaysians know, understand and realise the importance of our national language, Bahasa Melayu (BM). We also believe that BM is not under any form of threat. The threat is perhaps from Bahasa Indonesia if at all there is one. Thus learning and mastering one’s mother tongue in school, whether it is English, Mandarin or Tamil or a foreign language such as Japanese, French or German, is not relegating BM to a lower position but instead complementing it.
The government, in its selection of cabinet ministers who are required to represent the country at global forums, should have an array of qualified people to pick from. They should not have to resort to speaking in BM and not be heard because there is no competent translator available. After all, ministers go through the same education system as the people.
While the education ministry plods on with the High Immersion Programme (HIP) and Dual Language Programme (DLP), parents would like to know the outcomes and sustainability of these programmes. Talking to a teacher of a Subang Jaya school where 40% of the enrolment consists of Indonesian immigrants, and where six of eight classes are under the DLP, we are told that the students are enjoying learning science and mathematics in the English language. The challenge remains with some teachers who are lacklustre and do not have enthusiasm. The option is not to revert to BM but to ramp up the HIP and DLP and seriously consider EMS to produce future-ready English language teachers. The education ministry should not be complacent and pretend that all is well when it is not.
Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim is chairman of Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia, an educational lobby group that serves as a channel between concerned parents, the Ministry of Education and other educational stakeholders
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