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The education language barrier

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Why are foreign students able to study in institutions of higher learning in Malaysia, when locals, like John Inbaraj, who do not have a credit in Bahasa find themselves unable to register as on-campus students.


I don’t think anybody in Malaysia would deny that the quality of pre-independence education in the country was far, far better than what we have today. The rot actually began after the School Certificate (SC) Examinations for Form Five students was replaced by the Malaysian Certificate of Education (MCE) in 1970.

The SC was conducted by the University of Cambridge Overseas Local Examinations Syndicate while the MCE was conducted by the Ministry of Education, Malaysia.

The main difference between the two exams was the SC required a credit in English for a candidate to obtain Grade One. There was no requirement for even a pass in Bahasa Malaysia. The MCE, on the other hand, required candidates to obtain a credit in Bahasa Malaysia (BM) to obtain a Grade One while English was less important.

Thousands of students failed their exams despite getting straight A’s in many subjects. Many, many Malaysian students then fell by the wayside. Those who dared, hitch-hiked to overseas countries to try their luck abroad for higher studies. (Hitch-hiking was popular in those days). For many, it almost seemed as if the Ministry was used BM as a tool to “keep back” the non-Malays. Why? I will never understand.

Malaysian English was second to none in the world. We had a tremendous advantage over other Asean countries especially after Dr Lim Chong Eu, the then Chief Minister of Penang, lured foreign investments into the country.

READ MORE:  Malaysia Madani, One Malaysia, Malaysian Malaysia!

We had a solid foundation in English. Couldn’t our planners have worked to bring Bahasa Malaysia on par with English?

Consider this: Malay-medium schools existed all this time. So did Chinese-medium, Tamil-medium and English-medium schools, then. While the other three non-English-medium school systems remained, and they do so even now, why were English medium schools taken off by the Ministry? I find this puzzle impossible to solve. In the meantime, the elite Malays continued their education in English in the Mara college of higher education while elites also sent their children abroad to English-schools and colleges.

Was BM used as a tool to restrict the non-Malays? Is it a tool still to restrict non-Malays? Why is it that I am unable to register as an on-campus student – whether for an A level or degree – at any accredited institution of study (including private colleges) – just because I do not have a credit in Bahasa (even though I have a pass in Bahasa)?

What if someone in his 60s – say a doctor – now decides to study law in a local university, for whatever reason. Would he be unable to register in any certified local educational institution if he does not have a credit in BM? Can you imagine that?

So the question in my mind is: Who the hell cares what the heck anyone studies in whatever language, so long as it is not something banned by the government (like terrorism)? How does it affect anyone in government or bother the government if the private sector recognises their qualifications and employs them? By all means don’t employ them in the civil service or crony companies!

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Why sabotage them just because they have no credit in Bahasa Malaysia? By the way, aren’t there lecturers in these tertiary institutions who do not have a credit in BM?

A counsellor whom I approached for advice told me of her daughter who obtained straight A’s but failed to obtain a credit in Bahasa Malaysia. Attempts to move upwards proved futile, so overseas education was the recourse. She graduated with flying colours as a doctor and after some specialist education opted to come to Malaysia to serve the country. She was rejected for lack of a credit in BM. A neighbouring country happily absorbed her. She is lost forever to Malaysia for lack of a credit in BM. Well, Talent Corp, over to you!

Chua Soi Lek talks too much! MCA has professed lifelong learning. Do they even know the existence of such a policy? So how does the doctor study law in Malaysia without a credit in Bahasa?

The biggest irony is that thousands of foreigners – from China, Korea, Japan, Russia, Nigeria and Arab countries, to mention a few – are able to study at our so-called education hub without a credit in Bahasa Malaysia. So why this discrimination against Malaysians?

John Inbaraj is an Aliran member based in Penang.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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C. Alfred
C. Alfred
25 Feb 2013 3.10pm

I agree with James HK Chew’s comments without any reservations. What our country should realize is that not to penalize students just because they did not obtain a credit in Bahasa Malaysia. Just like foreign students who gain entry into our varsities without any knowledge of Bahasa. All Malaysians should have a level playing and education up to tertiary level is a fundamental human right.

James Hk Chew
25 Feb 2013 2.19pm

Ahmad Kamar Ahmad’s story on the bumi non-bumi confrontation in the ivy-league university some 40 years ago, smacks of racism on his part. It is this very racism that has brought about the current state of affairs in our country. He belongs to the minority racists that has infiltrated into the fabric of our society, everyready to scream and foam injustice for his inadequacies on other races. He keeps hyping on we and they, bumiputra and non bumiputra, Malays and Chinese. What lazy and stupid? I grew up in schools in the fifties and sixties. My best friends were/are Malays. The top student was Roslan. What bumi or non bumi? All this talk of BM and SPM is irrelevant. He keeps reminding us of his Fullbright scholarship, he rise to the top Management and his setback because he is Malay. It is always Chinese versus Malay. Ahmad’s parting comments are exactly what he preached and harangued on. He should purify his thinking. He should get rid of his prejudices, racial hatred and arrogance. The lot of us Malaysians, Malays, Chinese, Indians, Ibans, Kadazans do not share… Read more »

najib manaukau
11 Feb 2013 7.35am

Why do the Malatsuan students need to study BM when the watchdog themselves do not make use of the language. Just look at all the Malaysian embassies all around the world, they make use of Jawi and English to depict their presence and not BM. … Is the use of Jawi is to pretend to show the world that they are an Arab country ? Or is it an admission by the regime that very few people, including Malaysians, do not know BM ? Don’t (pander to) the Arab just because some of them are rich, for now, with black gold ? What is going to happen when the black gold has run out ? It is further proof of what Umno is. Why is the 40% percentage of the (minorities) in Malaysia not reflected in the appointment of the High Commissioners and Embassadors or in the civil services ? This is the kind of prospect and equal employment opportunities in Malaysia ? Now everybody should know why millions of the (minority ethic group) professionals have immigrated and millions more will surely follow. Can you immagine… Read more »

Follower of Cheng's place
Follower of Cheng's place
14 Feb 2013 12.55am
Reply to  najib manaukau

As a non-Malaysian, but socially conscious world citizen, one cannot help wondering if the catchy slogan of 1 Malaysia is just that..an empty slogan!

Ahmad Kamar Ahmad
Ahmad Kamar Ahmad
10 Feb 2013 1.29pm

C. Alfred do not base your comment on what u heard. Pl investigate and get the facts straight. Let me relate an incident when I was studying an Ivy League University in the states in 1974.. In that University there were 9 students from Malaysia 5 bumiputera and 4 non bumiputera. The 4 non bumiputera were lecturers from IPTA and were receiving scholarship and salaries from the universities they were employed.and of the 5 bumiputera 4 received scholarships from Malaysian government, MARA and other government agencies. I was a Fullbright scholar. Among the 4 non bumiputera students 2 were inciting hatred towards our government and 5 bumiputera students by making false accusation that they were oppressed by the Malaysian government and they had to pay their way to study there and the 5 bumiputera were not fit to be there because they are stupid and lazy. Because of the intensity of their campaign there were getting followings. We decided to act . We secured letters from their employers to prove their lies and showed them to their supporters . They lost their credibility. As regard to… Read more »

C. Alfred
C. Alfred
10 Feb 2013 7.50am

The trouble with this nation called Malaysia is that the executors of the government policies have strange and weird ways of interpreting policies just to discriminate and disadvantage the non-Malays. I recently heard that at Airrod which conducts training in aircraft engineering the majority of the students are the Bumis and a handful of non-Malays. The non-Malays are not allowed to use the transport provided to get to and from the school but have to find their own transport. This is what one calls institutionalized discrimination in 1Malaysia. What a … shame that discrimination is practiced in the 21st century. I fully agree with the articulations of the author of this article and all boils down to the marginalization of the non-Bumis.

Ahmad Kamar Ahmad
Ahmad Kamar Ahmad
10 Feb 2013 7.45am

In most other countries there is only one national language. To be a citizen of that country u need to pass the national language test. Why should a Malaysian be exempted? We are the only the country which have allowed vernacular school to operate and we should be thankful to the government. Securing a credit in Bahasa Malaysia to enter a public or private university applies to all races not to a particular race. There are also Malays who fail to score a credit in Bahasa Malaysia and denied an entry to the university. My brother failed Bahasa Malaysia and secured distinctions and credits in other subject , as a result he failed his SPM. So John do not sulk. Malaysians who aspire to enter university must meet this requirement. The only way is to take positive action to improve their Bahasa Malaysia results and stop this racist inuendoes. I am a US graduate securing my MBA in 1976. Although I secured a distinction in English in my senior cambridge I am still required by the university to take English. Similar applies to the Foreign students… Read more »

tsng ng
tsng ng
9 Feb 2013 11.20pm

Most of Malaysian elite study in international schools. Since they do not have the ‘credential’ to study in local universities, naturally these elite will continue their education in private or overseas. Given graduates tend to have certain emotional attachment to their alma mater and affiliation with students from the same schools, our school system will exacerbate the social divide between the have and have not.

If our schools continue to churn out unemployable graduate and the elite continue to receive better quality of education at lower level and at tertiary, then what should be worrisome is not whether A level students may be allowed study in local schools but rather what will become of our local schools.

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