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Back to PPSMI? One size cannot fit all

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Keep the Dual Language Programme (DLP) and do not go back to the teaching and learning of science and maths in English (PPSMI). Better yet, decentralise the educational system, says Francis Loh.

On 20 February, Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad will meet some 600 principals and head teachers from throughout Malaysia. He is expected to use the opportunity to clarify his plans for bringing back the PPSMI to schools. Organised by the Ministry of Education (MoE), the meeting in Putrajaya will probably showcase top ministry officers too. 

Mahathir himself had introduced Pengajaran dan Pembelajaran Sains dan Matematik dalam Bahasa Ingggeris (PPSMI) in 1996. Alarmed by the poor command of English among young Malaysians, he thought the PPSMI – which allowed the teaching of science and maths in English, beginning first in the primary schools, then in the secondary schools and finally, at the tertiary level – would be the way to improve Malaysian youth’s command of the English language. He also felt it would enable them to pick up on the global discourse on science and technology, largely conducted in the English language.

In adopting the PPSMI, Mahathir was, in effect, reversing a policy to convert all teaching in schools and universities from English to Malay, which had been introduced in the early 1970s. 

Most parents welcomed this reversal although it meant much work for the MoE and the state education departments. Teachers needed to be retrained, and new books and other teaching aids had to be prepared in English. Most parents will recall the controversies that arose such as teachers incapable of teaching in English (and not only in the rural areas) and the late delivery of textbooks in English. After much sweat and tears for about a decade, the conversion exercise was completed.

However, protests against this programme picked up especially after Mahathir’s retirement. Such pressure did not just come from the national-type schools, which preferred to teach science and maths in the Chinese and Tamil languages, especially at the primary school level. Protests also re-emerged from Pas and from within Umno itself. Why, national laureates like Pak Samad Ismail even came out to protest. Thus, the then new Education Minister, ironically Muhyiddin Yassin (currently Mahathir’s deputy in Bersatu), did away with the PPSMI in July 2009.

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In its place, the MoE introduced the Pelaksanaan Dasar Mermatabatkan Bahasa Malaysia, Merperkukuhkan Bahasa Inggeris (Upholding the Malay Language, Strengthening the English Language or MBMMBI), which would be implemented stage-by-stage beginning from 2010. English could continue to be used during the transition period. 

In a subsequent MoE circular dated 4 November 2011, the terms for implementing the MBMMBI were even further relaxed. All students who had already been exposed to the PPSMI (ie before 2010) could continue to learn their science and maths until they finished Form Five. In the event, the conversion into teaching in Malay would only be completed in the primary schools by 2016. The deadline for conversion for the secondary schools was 2021!

Meanwhile, the national-type schools began to convert the teaching of science and maths from English to Chinese and Tamil (not Malay) in their primary schools. The MBMMBI would not be introduced into Form Six classes either. And medicine, engineering, IT and other science-based courses would continue to be taught in English at the tertiary level.

Middle-class parents in urban areas, who were themselves largely English-educated, had welcomed and supported the PPSMI. It was their turn to protest. They set up a nation-wide pressure group called Parent Action Group for Education (Page), organised forums up and down the country, and lobbied the MoE. They were relatively effective, and so the MoE introduced the Dual Language Programme (DLP) in 2015.

Under the DLP, a school could apply to have its science, maths and IT courses taught in English instead of Malay – provided it got the support of the parent-teacher association, the board of governors and the academic staff of the school. The school also had to show evidence that it was performing well in both Malay and English in the national exams. No doubt, this requirement was to stave off criticism that the teaching of Malay was being compromised by the DLP.

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In the event, it was the older and previously elite schools like Penang Free School, St George’s Girls School, St Xavier’s Institution and Methodist Boys School in Penang; Victoria Institution, St John’s Institution, La Salle, Assunta and Sri Puteri in Petaling Jaya and Kuala Lumpur; Tunku Kurshiah College, Malay College Kuala Kangsar, Sekolah Tunku Abdul Rahman, Sekolah Dato’ Abdul Razak (SDAR) and so forth that have opted for the DLP. So too, top schools like Sri Petaling, Bukit Gelugor and Minden though they are relatively newer schools.

In effect, the PPSMI was being brought back through the side door! Nonetheless, the retraining of teachers had to be done, and new books and teaching aids had to be prepared again.

(I remember the head teachers of several schools I knew requested that I raise the problem of the books for the DLP not being delivered on time, when a group of us associated with the academic movement Gerak had the opportunity to meet Maszlee Malik, shortly after his appointment as the new Education Minister.)

Meanwhile, hardly any of the rural schools, whether in the Peninsula, Sabah or Sarawak opted for the DLP. Neither did the Tamil estate schools nor the Chinese New Village primary schools. They had found it challenging to implement the PPSMI in the past. They had welcomed the change to MBMMBI, which allowed them to go back to teaching those subjects in the vernacular. In fact, the PPSMI was alienating and discriminatory against the rural majority. 

Note also that most national-type Chinese secondary schools (SMJK), whether in the urban or rural areas, have opted for the DLP. In Penang, all 12 such schools, including Chung Ling, Penang Chinese Girls High School, Heng Ee and Jit Sin, have opted for the DLP.

However, the national-type primary (SRJK) schools have not. They believe that all subjects at this level ought to be taught in the mother tongue and that English and Malay should only be taught as additional language subjects. Pedagogically, this argument is sound. Teaching science and maths in English under the PPSMI or now the DLP would mean fewer hours for teaching in the Chinese and Tamil languages and would contradict the pedagogical principle cited earlier.

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Confusing enough for readers? It is probably worse for the students, teachers, tuition teachers and parents. This flip-flop in policy is definitely not on the grounds of pedagogy. It has to do with political posturing as general elections approached and as the competing parties and politicians vie against each other for popular support.

That said, Mahathir appears to have a vision for regularising, standardising and yes, controlling things. No doubt he has a soft spot for the PPSMI, which was his own policy. He was extremely annoyed when his policy was reversed by first Abdullah Badawi and then Najib Razak.

But we hope that Mahathir will be magnanimous and act the senior statesman. Do not bring back the PPSMI. Instead, support the DLP. Support also the existing MMBMBI, which allows the rural schools to learn their science and maths in Malay until such time when the students, teachers, parents and the community prefer it to be done in English. And let the national-type schools have their increased hours of teaching in their mother tongue. In other words, no one size fits all.

Above all, Mahathir should adopt most of the recommendations contained in the Malaysian Education Blueprint 2013-2025 prepared by the Ministry of Education. It is a document where policy recommendations are empirically based.

That blueprint also calls for decentralisation of the educational system. Let the parents, school boards, community and local industry get involved. The central government can then focus on the needs of schools in the poorer regions. Or promote technical and vocational education and training (TVET) and special needs education throughout the country.

And do not, under any circumstances, indulge in another flip-flop. 

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