Friday, 18 November 2011

Pardon My English

So it's final: PPSMI or its Malay-language mouthful Pengajaran dan Pembelajaran Sains dan Matematik Dalam Bahasa Inggeris (the teaching and learning of science and mathematics in English) will be discontinued.

The policy was considered a failure in its goal to foster use of wider, better mastery of the English language among students. Fingers were pointed everywhere, but it's generally agreed that it failed because the education system was just not capable of furthering the vision of former Malaysian strongman Dr M.

I don't really think the policy would've helped much with regards to learning English. Language skills are often best picked up and sharpened with every day use. Learning English within such a narrow scope would inevitably narrow down students' mastery of the language within the realm of science and math.

Today's schoolkids are more slacktastic than they used to be, lacking initiative to better themselves in fields they're not interested in. That said, try asking them meanings of English words used in World of Warcraft or Counterstrike. You might be surprised.

So, yes. Only the constant, everyday use of English will ensure you'll be a natural at ordering fish 'n' chips in downtown London or getting onto a bus in rural Montana - if either manages to happen. For a more relevant scenario close to home, there's the Lat cartoon of a full-bladdered foreigner and the cleaning lady with the English phrasebook who kept going, "Yes?"

Of course, prime minister-in-waiting Muhyiddin Yassin argued that English isn't important. Out of the G7 countries: France, West Germany, Italy, Japan, United Kingdom, and United States and Canada, only the latter three are English-speaking, and that all of them became successful without neglecting their national languages.

Which is a valid point. Whatever languages we can speak and write in (barely) would not make a difference when we can't grasp the fundamentals of justice, fairness, equality and rationality.

Mastery in English would not have prevented massive government spending that's becoming the norm.

Remembering the "a"s and "the"s would not have saved Teoh Beng Hock, A Kugan and all those in detention from their mysterious ends.

Avoiding the use of the double negative would not help us from voiding the temptation to break speed limits, cut lanes indiscriminately and double- or triple-park our vehicles at our convenience.

Getting your subject-verb agreement right doesn't guarantee we can also agree to disagree with grace, politeness and maturity when it comes to race, religion, sexual identity.

All the above - and more (I could go on and on) - can be taught in any language. So if we can't master all that in our own mother tongues or the national language, good luck learning all that in English - if we ever learn it at all.


  1. Good points, Alan.

    If, in the case of Japan, you happen to be a creative powerhouse that produces products that outsiders desire greatly, then yes, they will go the extra mile to learn your language in order to do business with you.

    But is this the case with Malaysia? Will everyone adopt 'Bahasa Melayu' in order to do business with Malaysia? Does the world crave what Malaysia has to offer that badly?

  2. Well, John, I guess you just answered your own question.

    Talking about Japan... my goodness. It's not just the language. People learn the culture to better consume some of their products.

  3. I agree with you, Alan.

    Since the days of Mahathir's 'think big' policies, it's been customary to compare Malaysia to Japan. But, to be frank, Malaysians have never been willing to make similar sacrifices. And, to be fair, Japan's turnaround from a feudal, fascist state to a modern, progressive nation has always been a tough act to follow.

    It's a good case study, actually.

    After the Second World War, Allied Supreme Commander Douglas MacArthur acted as a benevolent dictator and forcibly instituted wide-sweeping reforms.

    Here are several highlights:

    Prior the war, boys and girls intending to get married had to secure the agreement of their parents. If their parents did not agree, their marriage could not be legalised. MacArthur overturned this rule, putting the freedom of choice in the hands of the young generation. Psychologically speaking, this was immensely empowering, and the spillover effect was positive. The young entrepreneurial spirit is what drove Japanese innovation during the post-war period.

    Also, prior to the war, 90% of the land in Japan was owned by prominent families living afar in Tokyo. The people actually living on the land had no motivation to develop it since they didn't own it. MacArthur found this status quo unsatisfactory, so he seized the land and distributed it to the workers, thereby making them landowners and homeowners overnight. With pride of ownership came increased productivity.

    But the most significant development had to be in the way that MacArthur dismantled and dissolved the old family-owned corporate zaibatsu. He replaced it with the modern keiretsu companies that we know today -- where citizens and shareholders own their companies and decide their direction.

    So, let's put aside the argument of whether learning this language or that language will improve our chances of success. What's hindering Malaysia is not language, but feudalism. Sadly, it's the nature of liberal democracy that has caused both Barisan and Pakatan to drag their feet in dealing with this issue.


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