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  • Datin Noor Azimah Abd Rahim, The Edge

Proficiency in English is not a zero-sum game

I wish to dedicate this column to my father, my No 1 fan, who breathed his last on June 2 at the ripe old age of 95. He was a Malay College Old Boy (MCOB), enrolling in 1947 after World War II, completing the Cambridge School Certificate the following year and emerging the top student with Grade 1 and scoring three distinctions, in a setting where science and mathematics had long been taught in the English language. He then went on to become one of the first British-trained civil engineers who fashioned Malaya’s infrastructure post-Merdeka.


Another MCOB, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, had spoken at the APEX Leadership Conference 2019 (as Parti Keadilan Rakyat president) about how linguistic chauvinism is unsustainable. He said, “If the promotion of Bahasa Melayu (BM) as a national language is at the expense or trifling the growth of other languages … we know that we are in a competitive world, and without English, not that we love the British, and it is imperative that we grow and compete, therefore the level of proficiency of English must be further enhanced through our formal schooling system.”


He repeated this call in June last year when he launched A Samad Said’s book 65 Years of Independence.


Therefore, in essence, the Dual Language Programme (DLP), which enables students to learn science, mathematics, information technology and communication, and design and technology in either English or Malay, is actually stifling the English language because of the insistence that schools must uphold BM first. Thus, it is urgent that the BM criterion for schools to conduct DLP be reviewed or, rather, dropped. We have always suspected that the condition was included in deference to Malay chauvinists.


I have sought out past students of the Pengajaran dan Pembelajaran Sains dan Matematik Dalam Bahasa Inggeris (PPSMI) programme to complete this column. Now that the PPSMI has been abolished, students still have the option to pursue the two subjects in English and thus follow in the footsteps of the following past students.


Sabrina Sani has a BEng (Hons) in civil engineering from the University of Bath and is now working on an MSc in Advanced Materials for Sustainable Infrastructure at Imperial College London. “PPSMI made my transition into higher education quite seamless. Some of my course mates who do not come from an English-taught education background reported having to take a gap year just to learn the English language and I am grateful I did not have to do that. I did not have to worry about any language barriers during presentations and could focus solely on the material whereas some of my groupmates needed to prepare full scripts to read from just to avoid mixing [up] their words. Overall, PPSMI has given me a solid foundation regarding fundamental engineering concepts and has made my higher education experience all the more enjoyable.”


Joel Choo, who is pursuing a BSc in Economics at University College London, has this to say: “PPSMI was very helpful in my transition to higher education. From the foundational concepts being taught in the same language used internationally, it made it a lot easier to understand more complex concepts, as my thoughts in English were first nature, rather than having to translate everything in my head. Compared to course mates who did not undergo PPSMI, I better understood and could also explain what I had learnt more aptly.”


Letisya Sulaiman, who is about to graduate with a BSc in Accounting and Finance from the London School of Economics and Political Science, writes: “PPSMI helped [me] a lot in achieving both academic and non-academic criteria, which led to my admission into university. Throughout [my] A-Levels and degree studies, I was able to focus more on content rather than struggling with language barriers, as some of my peers did, which ultimately paved the way for me to achieve a better understanding and grades in comparison. It also allowed me to confidently write and communicate my ideas whenever I needed to throughout my studies.”


Tamara Rizal, who is studying biochemistry at the University of Liverpool, says: “PPSMI definitely helped in my educational journey. Personally, I only see benefits to such a policy, as it allowed for the mastery and dual utilisation of both languages from a young age. This ensures that the students who had undergone PPSMI are not bound to one language and instead have higher capabilities and better future prospects within the industry. I felt that the policy helped to set a foundation on key scientific concepts in primary school. It allowed for seamless knowledge transfer and easier refinery of the subject as a whole, all the way from primary to university.”


Perhaps DLP is not looked upon seriously enough by the education minister and Ministry of Education because they have elected to treat it, as the minister herself puts it, as only a “programme” rather than a proper alternative curriculum. It is no wonder then that insufficient resources and political will was invested into the “programme”.


The minister needs to understand the rationale behind the “programme”. The BM criteria has to go.


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