Chaining The Children of the Poor
The ancient Chinese bound the feet of their baby daughters so they would grow up with deformed tiny feet, thus limiting their mobility and participation in life outside the little world of their homes. These women would then be totally dependent on their men.
In rescinding the policy of teaching science and mathematics in English, the government is likewise binding the intellectual development of our children. They and future generations of Malaysians would grow up with warped intellect. They would then be totally dependent on the government, just as ancient Chinese women with tiny feet were on their men.
My friend and fellow commentator Azly Rahman has a more apt and colorful local metaphor; we are condemning future generations to the Pekan Rabu economy, capable only of selling pirated versions of Michael Jackson albums. That would be the extent of their entrepreneurial prowess and creative flair. They are only subsistence entrepreneurs and ‘copy cat’ creators.
Make no mistake about it. The government’s professed concerns for the poor and those from rural areas notwithstanding, reversing the current policy would adversely and disproportionately impact them. The rich and those in the cities have a ready escape; the rich through private English classes, urban children from the already high levels of English in their community.
The most disadvantaged will be the poor kampong kids. That means Malay children. Thus we have the supreme irony if not perversity of the champions of Ketuanan Melayu actively pursuing a policy that would ensure Malay children be perpetually trapped economically and intellectually. I thank Allah that I grew up at a time when the likes of Muhyyuddin were not in charge of our education system. Otherwise I would have been trapped in my kampong.
The idiocy of the new move is best illustrated by this one startling example. In 2012 when the new plan will be implemented, students in Form IV will be taught science and mathematics in Malay, after learning the two subjects in English for the past nine years. Then two years later when they will be entering Sixth Form or the Matriculation stream, they will again have to revert to English.
Pupils in the vernacular schools would have it worse. They would learn the two subjects in their mother tongue during their primary school years, then switch to Malay for the next five while in secondary school, and then switch again, this time to English, in Sixth Form and university!
Had these policymakers done their homework and diligent downstream analysis, such idiocies would not crop up. Then again this is what we would expect from our civil servants. They have been brought up with their minds bound up; they cannot think. They have depended on others to do the thinking for them.
Najib Razak’s flip-flopping on this major national issue eerily reminds me of similar indecisiveness and lack of resolve of his immediate predecessor, Abdullah Badawi. No wonder he supports Najib in this policy shift. Najib should not take comfort in that, unless he expects a similar fate as Abdullah’s. Abdullah was kicked out by his party; with Najib, it would be the voters who would be kicking him out. Public sentiments are definitely against this policy switch.
Failure of Policy Versus Failure of Implementation
The cabinet reversed course because it deemed the policy did not produce the desired results. However, in arriving at this pivotal decision the cabinet failed to address the fundamental question on whether the original policy was flawed or its implementation ineffective.
It just assumed the policy to be flawed. Muhyyuddin and his senior officers relied heavily on the 2005 UNESCO Report which suggests that “‘mother tongue first’ bilingual education” may (my emphasis) be the solution to the dilemma of members of minority linguistic groups in acquiring knowledge.
Muhyyuddin and his advisers seriously misread the Report. It was concerned primarily with the dilemma at the societal level of members of a linguistic minority having to learn the language of the majority (“national language”) versus the need to maintain linguistic diversity generally and minority languages specifically. UNESCO was rightly concerned with the rapid disappearance of languages spoken by small minority groups. The report was not addressing specifically the learning of science and mathematics.
Malay language is not at risk of disappearing; it is the native tongue of literally hundreds of millions. To extrapolate the UNESCO recommendations for Malay language is a gross oversimplification and misreading of the report.
The UNESCO Report does not address the issue of when and how best to introduce children to bilingual education. Later studies that focused specifically on the pedagogical and psychological aspects instead of the sociological and political have shown that children are quite capable of learning multiple languages at the same time. Even more remarkable is that the earlier they are exposed to a second language the more facile they would be with that language. They would also learn that second language much faster; hence second language even at preschool.
The acquisition of bilingual ability at an early age confers other significant cognitive advantages. These have been documented by clinical studies with functional MRIs (imaging studies of the brain). Malaysia should learn from these more modern studies and the experiences of more advanced societies, not from the UNESCO studies of backward tribes of Asia.
The other basis for the cabinet’s decision was ‘research’ by local half-baked and politically-oriented pseudo academics. They should be embarrassed to append their names to such a sophomoric paper. The quality is such that it will never appear in reputable journals. As for the Ministry’s own internal ‘researchers,’ remember that they came out within months of the policy’s introduction in 2003 documenting the ‘impressive’ improvements in students’ achievements!
The one major entity that would be severely impacted by the cabinet’s decision is our universities. Yet our Vice-Chancellors have remained quiet and detached in this important national debate. They have not advised the cabinet nor lead the public discussions. Again that reflects the caliber of leadership of our major institutions.
Had the cabinet decided that the policy was essentially sound but that the flaws were with its implementations, then measures other than rescinding it would be the appropriate response. This would include recruiting and training more English-speaking teachers and devoting more hours to the subject.
What surprised me is that when Mahathir introduced the policy in 2003, he was supported by his cabinet that included Najib, Muhyyuddin, Hishamuddin, and over a dozen of current ministers who now collectively voted to reverse the policy. Likewise, the policy was fully endorsed too by UMNO’s Supreme Council then. Like the cabinet, many of those earlier members are still in that body today. Yet today the Council also voted to disband the policy. Muhyyuddin, Hishamuddin and the others have yet to share with us why they changed their minds. The conditions that prompted the introduction of the policy back then are still present today. This reversal will do not change that.
Najib, Muhyyuddin and Hishamuddin are “lallang leaders,” they bend with the slightest wind change. Unlike Margaret Thatcher’s famed resolve of “This lady is not for turning,” with Najib, Muhyyuddin, et al., all you have to do to make them undertake a U turn would be to blow slightly in their faces. Blow a bit harder and they would scoot off with their tails between their legs. These leaders will never lead us forward.
This reversal will not solve the widening achievement gap between urban and rural students. The cabinet has yet to put forth new ideas on ameliorating that problem. So, just as ancient Chinese women were physically handicapped because of their bound feet, rural or more specifically Malay children will continue to be intellectually handicapped by their warped and small minds, the consequence of this policy shift. Perhaps that is the real objective of this policy reversal, the shackling of the intellectual development of our young so they will forever be dependent on their ‘leaders.’