Cautious ‘aye’ to bringing back English-medium schools

File photo taken during the recent BAT7 trip, showing a teacher at SK Sungai Arang giving extra English lessons.

WITH rapid globalisation taking place through the Fourth Industrial Revolution (Industry 4.0), it’s inevitable that nations of the world are now positioning themselves to face the next great challenge.

Industry 4.0, which is started by the German government, is based on high-tech that promotes the computerisation of manufacturing.

The First Industrial Revolution (1.0) was the mechanisation of production, using water and steam power.

The Second Industrial Revolution (2.0) introduced mass production with the help ofelectric power while the Third Industrial Revolution (3.0), often referred to as the Digital Revolution, accentuates the use of electronics and IT to further automate production.

In his regard, the focus of Industry 4.0 will increasingly be on the English language as the lingua franca of the global arena, especially for trade, business, science and technology.

In Malaysia, the government’s transformation programmes are all geared towards inevitable changes Industry 4.0 will bring.

To ensure the country’s ability to adapt to this change, there is a clarion call for the government to re-introduce English-medium schools.

Many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) throughout the country want the government to make a firm policy on the issue so that future generations, with a good command of the English language, can compete — and compete well — with the rest of the world.

These NGOs, including the influential Parent Action Group for Education, the Malaka Action Group for Parents in Education and Education, Welfare and Research Foundation in the peninsula, have all supported the suggestion made by Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Datuk Seri Abdul Rahman Dahlan, to re-introduce English-medium schools.

As for Sarawak, it’s almost an all-round ‘aye’ to the suggestion except for the Sarawak Bumiputera Teachers Union (KGBS) which responded with a cautious ‘nay’.

Taking the lead in supporting the move to bring back English-medium schools is the Sarawak Teachers’ Union (STU).

“In today’s globalised world and the 21st Century, the importance of English cannot be denied and ignored since English is the language most commonly spoken the world over.

“As such, STU proposes that English-medium schools be re-introduced if school boards and parents are open to the idea and the teachers are ready to meet this need,” STU president Jisin Nyud told thesundaypost.

However, in the light of such a possibility, he also cautioned that Bahasa Malaysia must be maintained and strengthened as the National Language.

One interesting point brought up by Jisin is that schools using English in their daily communications and instructions are preferred by most parents, genuinely concerned about the low proficiency level of English among most of our students.

“Even if sending their children to these school costs them more, they don’t really mind. The compelling reason is that parents want to ensure their children are able to do well when they go for tertiary education here or overseas,” he said.

Jisin stressed mastering English is vital as it is a universal language, spoken in many countries and which has become the primary mode of communication in global trade and commerce.

“Many companies today require their employees to be well versed in English so that they can communicate with international clients. Employees with a good command of English are always at an advantage,” he reiterated.

According to Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Joseph Entulu Balaun, mastering languages other than Bahasa Malaysia would be a big plus for civil servants.

“We’re in a global village. The more languages we master, the better we are. We should give the National Language due respect — no question about that — but at the same time, it’s vital for civil servants in the country to master English — and also Mandarin — as that will give them a vital competitive edge, especially when they travel abroad to attend important meetings or seminars conducted in English,” he emphasised.

Outward looking

Assistant Minister of Local Government Datu Dr Penguang Manggil said with the dawn of Industry 4.0, there is a need for a shift towards using and speaking English to enhance the country’s outreach and competitiveness in the world market.

“We should be more outward looking if we want to be more competitive. In promoting the use of English, the issue of downplaying the National Language does not and should not arise. We are proud of our National Language which is our national identity,” Penguang added.

He noted that for Sarawak, the use of English is in line with Article 161(1) and (2) of the Federal Constitution, the Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63) as well as the Inter-Governmental Committee (IGC) Report of 1962 which states Sarawak can still use English in the Legislative Assembly and the courts.

“Moreover, these legally binding guarantees also accord Sarawak the right to decide the kind of education system it wants.”

Penguang stressed the need for all parties to have an open mind in broaching this subject ‘for our collective benefit’, adding that the tendency to become over-sensitive and emotional or to resort to emotive remarks during discussions should be avoided.

A parent in Sibu, Yong King Sung, described the move as a step in the right direction — more so with English as the language of trade and commerce.

“I remember during our time, we studied in English-medium schools, and I believe that’s one of the reasons why most Sarawakians have better proficiency in English than their West Malaysian counterparts  — unless, of course, the students from the peninsula are those outstanding ones or from well-off families who can afford to send their children to international schools to master the language, while those from rural areas lose out,” Yong opined.

He said he was fortunate to have studied under the previous system as it enabled him to master three different languages — Bahasa Melayu, English and Mandarin.

“So, whenever I go overseas, I have no problem with communication as I can converse in these languages.”

He pointed out that placing emphasis on the use of English must not be misconstrued as neglecting Bahasa Malaysia.

Emphasis on English

Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP) Bukit Assek Youth chief Joseph Chieng echoed Yong’s views vis-a-vis the growing importance of English in science, technolgy, commerce and industry.

He also said he agreed Entulu’s suggestion and noted that the state government is placing strong emphasis on the use of English.

Chieng dispelled the notion that the re-introduction of English-medium schools would contradict the adminstration of government schools.

“Personally, to me, there is no contradiction between government schools, Chinese-medium schools and English-medium schools. In fact, they will complement each other by displaying the country’s multi-racial culture. Our children will be able to receive education in different streams,” said Chieng who is also SUPP Bukit Assek publicity secretary.

He pointed out the re-introduction of English-medium schools should not be distorted with extreme views, falsely claiming it could pose a threat to racial unity and a challenge to BM.

“This is not true at all. In fact, we have never doubted the status of BM as the National Language. But we need to master the English Language to connect with the world.”

Adding on, he observed that the level of English now has deteriorated compared to some 30 years ago.

“So, personally, I support the proposal to re-introduce English-medium schools as it can make our country a multi-streamed educational hub to attract those from abroad to study in Malaysia.

“Education can become an industry for us in Southeast Asia. Therefore, I hope the suggestion will materialise soon as what has happened to UEC (Unified Examination Certificate).”

Problems to address

Educationalist Datuk Felician Teo said the current schools have been BM-medium for quite sometime, opining that the present crop of teachers, schooled in BM, would be unable to cope with teaching in English.

“Hence, there would be a serious mismatch if English medium schools were re-introduced without first addressing the level of English language competency among these teachers,” he said, adding that reacting to the proposal in knee-jerk fashion without proper planning would be unwise.

Teo said the present batch of teachers would need time for re-training while the teacher-trainers would also need to adopt a new set of English-based curriculum and approaches to train new teachers.

PBB Bawang Assan branch acting chairman Romeo Christopher Tegong said he did not foresee much problem in Sarawak politicians — either BN or opposition — supporting the move, reasoning that reverting to English-medium schools would be a right step in the long-term strategy to prime the younger generation for the global economy.

As for Sibu Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI) president Dr Hii Sui Cheng, the re-introduction of English-medium schools was a much desired initiative.

“In recent years, the standard of English among our students has been dropping substantially and we need to arrest it to regain our attractiveness as an investment destination,” he said.

“In this connection, I’m very encouraged by the Sarawak government’s pivot towards that objective. And I hope the other states will follow suit.”

However, KGBS president Ahmad Malie cautioned against such as move.

“Given that this issue has long been discussed, KGBS is of the view that since it involves policy, there is no need for drastic action to the extent of wanting to change the policy.

“To KGBS, what is becoming a problem now is how to strengthen the command of English among the students. To us, the mastering the language is not due to policy,” he said.

Ahmad opined there were perhaps other factors that needed to be studied and relooked to overcome such a weakness.

“KGBS asserts that weakness in English among students is not due to the stream factor or BM-medium. If the medium of instruction is the cause factor, then why is the command of English good among pupils in Chinese Aided Schools (SJKC) and Tamil Aided Schools (SJKT)?”

He opined that the medium of instruction was not the main justification for the low command of English among government school (SK) students.

“KGBS is firm in its stand that the policy of BM as the medium of instruction need not be changed because the justification for it is loose. Therefore, to KGBS, to strengthen the command of English among the students, we need to find ways and adopt a holistic approach but not merely changing the existing education policy on the medium of instruction,”

Conclusion

A strong political will is needed to realise the re-introduction of English-medium schools.

There is, undoubtedly, a need to dispel pre-conceived and misconstrued notions that bringing back such schools will render Bahasa Malaysia less important than English.

This has, no doubt, been given prior consideration as the state government adopts measures to encourage mastery of English in an effort to prevent the state from being left behind in the world of knowledge where English is the lingua franca.

“With excellence in the English language, our younger generation will be in an advantageous position to compete in the job market and ensure a brighter future not only for themselves but the state and the nation as well,” noted a Cabinet minister who preferred to remain annonymous.

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