Wednesday, April 23, 2014
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Math and Science: The case for BM (2)



We have completed one cycle of PPSMI. In 2008, the pioneer batch that was taught Math and Science entirely in English finished their Year Six.  

Yet last year, only 31.1% of Year Six pupils elected to answer the UPSR Science paper fully in English, while 68.9% opted to use Malay, or vernacular (Chinese/Tamil) or a combination of three languages (English-Malay-vernacular). Good grief! We’ve formally brought the Malaysian rojak culture into the classroom.

An unintended consequence of PPSMI is that of turning the UPSR haywire – its rojak language feature unheard of anywhere else in the world. A parallel would be, say, a 12-year-old in England submitting his Science answer script in a jumble of English-French-Urdu.  

Close to 70 percent of Malaysian Year Sixers were not confident enough to sit the exam in English. In absolute numbers, 352,641 pupils.  

Taiwan and Korea topped the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS)* in 2007. Taiwanese and Korean children don’t learn Math and Science in English.   

Hong Kong children taught in spoken-Cantonese and written-Chinese also ace Math and Science. On the other hand, Filipinos are fine in English. Do you ever hear that the Philippines is tops in Math and Science?

Two countries usually considered technological powerhouses are Germany and Japan. Imagine if German and Japanese children were to be taught Math and Science in English in order to improve their English as well as performance in both subjects.  

I should hope that a Japanese Education Minister treating his country to such flawed reasoning would have the decency to commit harakiri.  

Mother tongue is best  

It is mother tongue instruction that’s most effective for children as countless studies have shown. Unesco endorses this formulation. The European Union similarly adopts a mother tongue education policy.

The majority of Malaysians speak Malay at home. Malay is more familiar to the Orang Asli and other indigenous peoples even if it is not their dialect, whereas English is alien. Our teachers’ language of competency is Malay. Our pupils are most conversant in Malay. (In vernacular schools, Chinese and Tamil.)

Is it so incomprehensible to urbanites that the majority of rural children don’t speak English at home? That the people around them don’t speak English? That even their older brothers and sisters who are college-age speak little or poor English?  

The poor are unfamiliar with English, period. And education is the means of upward social mobility for the poor – their lifeline.

Furthermore, Math and Science teachers who are themselves deficient in English will not help improve their pupils’ language command. In fact, a likely scenario given the reality of Malaysia is that kids will pick up English grammar mistakes from Cikgu during Math and Science periods.  

The most oft-cited argument in favour of PPSMI is that the bulk of reference material is in English.  

But we’re talking about 7 year olds and 11 year olds. They don’t need to refer to advanced textbooks and academic papers which admittedly are in English. They’re not required to write a thesis using English jargon. Foundation level Math and Science deals with basic concepts that can be explained just as well in BM or vernacular.

Even at ages 13 to 15, schoolgoers don’t specialise in Math and Science. Not everybody aspires to be a scientist. Some kids when they grow up want to be a pet groomer or a landscape design consultant.

Not addressing the root cause

Three Japanese scientists shared the 2008 Nobel Prize for their work in subatomic physics. Two are nationals of Japan and the third an American citizen; the Japanese duo obtained their PhDs from Nagoya University while the Japanese-American from University of Tokyo. They learned their Math and Science in Japanese … I’m sure.  

Let’s say that a science magazine discusses the field of their Nobel prize-winning research and uses descriptions like ‘particle accelerator/Large Hadron Collider’, ‘weak nuclear force’, ‘CP violation’ and ‘Higgs boson’.  

Even though it’s generally true that in the international arena, scientific breakthroughs and cutting edge theories are articulated to the public at large through English, mastery of English doesn’t necessarily help a Form Five student comprehend the contributions of the Japanese trio.  

Only by being very good in Physics will the 17-year-old Malaysian find the article illuminating. English is not a magic key to unlocking scientific aptitude. Making BM the scapegoat is grabbing hold of the wrong end of the stick.

The language of Math and Science is technical and precise. Following are the sort of sentences you would come across in a Chemistry lesson: “Fill test tube with ethanol??? or “Immerse cotton wool ball in hydrochloric acid solution???. Biology and Physics are just as replete with glossary.

Not even those enamoured with English’s utility would claim that kids doing PPSMI are acquiring communication English useful in real life situations.  

Emotional quotient (EQ) which reflects maturity is expressed through the richness of thought and nuances of language. The latter aspect (e.g. vocabulary, discursive skills) is better gleaned from the nature of the humanities subjects such as History, Literature, etc., and not from the terminology and formulae of Science and Math.

One way to lift academic standards in Math and Science is by fostering methodical and rational thinking, and promoting academic rigour.  

The problem with Malaysians doesn’t lie with the language of delivery. It lies with the rigid, passive education system, the teachers’ dull, dispiriting approach and the by-rote exam structure (practise, practise, practise past year test papers, spot questions). These methods do not inculcate in children such traits that are the attributes of a scientific mindset.  

What’s the real issue?

What is it that we really desire out of PPSMI? Impressive Math and Science scores in domestic exams do not automatically make Malaysia a great science and technology country.  

In fact, the GMP (movement to abolish PPSMI) has alleged that in order to cover up the failure of the policy, the Education Ministry has resorted to lowering the passing mark in Math and Science to 30 percent and thus beefing up the pass rate.  

Not only that, the revamped syllabus for Math and Science has been dumbed down to accommodate the stragglers. Consequently, the bright students are not stretched or challenged.

Well, Malaysia produced an SPM student who scored 21As and a clutch of others with almost as many distinctions. What’s the value of Malaysia-calibrated stratospheric achievements? It’s only jaguh kampung, akin to ‘Wira Angkasawan’ but ‘Malaysian space tourist’ to the rest of the world.

Even if we self-arbitrate that our Math and Science students are prodigies par excellence, does the country have the requisite technology base (except in the automotive industry thanks to Proton), flourishing R&D sector as well as incentives to absorb those future graduates who intend to do original research?  

Registered patents are one indicator of technology advancement, i.e. which countries are inventing new things. In Japan, 27,230 patents were filed in 2007. In the corresponding year, Malaysia recorded 93 (see table).  

For further comparison, Singapore: 443, USA: 52,969. Singapore places an emphasis on English medium education but it’s the intellectual climate in the States that makes Americans far more inventive than Singaporeans.  

So looking mistily ahead, we might dream about creating a breed of Malaysian scientists and mathematicians taught in English. In the here-and-now, we’re losing hordes of children who don’t even have a passable grounding in Math and Science due to PPSMI. Yang dikejar tak dapat, yang dikendong berciciran.

The law on this  

Under the provisions of Article 152 of the Federal Constitution, Malay is the national language.  

It is also the language for ‘official purpose’, i.e. “any purpose of the Government, whether Federal or State, and includes any purpose of a public authority???. Hence, English has no official purpose in schools.  

The Education Act says that the national language shall be the main medium of instruction in all educational institutions except a national-type school, that is, except Chinese and Tamil schools.

Following are the UPSR subjects: Bahasa Malaysia Pemahaman (comprehension) & Penulisan (writing), Bahasa Inggeris, Kajian Tempatan, Matematik, Sains. The latter two taught in English, plus English itself as a language paper, add up to three subjects in English.  

Apart from Islam and BM as language subject, there is only one other subject in Malay. In Chinese schools, Math and Science in English will sharply curtail the amount of time immersing in the mother tongue.  

What then becomes of the Chinese character of national-type schools? Don’t forget that the Education Act allows for Chinese school; it does not permit the existence of English school.  

These Chinese primary schools are feeders to the 60-plus independent Chinese high schools whose students take the UEC. This exam is recognised as the entrance qualification for universities in Taiwan, China, Singapore, Australia and some European countries. Math and Science in English will kill the UEC, and seal off alternative avenues to higher education if students are incompetent in Chinese language.

Also, the PPSMI format practically negates Malay as the medium of instruction gazetted in the Education Act while to all intents and purposes English has become the medium of instruction for the core subjects. This development turns the accepted notion of our cherished nationhood – which national language is the chief marker – on its head.

If the government still insists on continuing with PPSMI, it should amend the Constitution and change the law first.  

So what’s my beef?

The sorts of accusation levelled against those opposed to PPSMI are ‘Malay ultra’, ‘language chauvinist’, ‘knowledge-shy’ or ‘anti-English’. These labels do not apply to me, and I was a Science student who sat Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Additional Mathematics in the SPM.  

I’m against Math and Science in English because of the way it is being done. It hurts the majority of children. Pupils at national-type school ‘double’, wasting precious time on Math and Science in overlapping timetables both English and Chinese.  

PPSMI is an ill-conceived policy ill-suited to Malaysia’s realpolitik conditions. Its implementation is helter-skelter. Bottomline: Simply not viable.

I see the issue in class terms: PPSMI benefits the ‘haves’ and disadvantages the ‘have-nots’. The smart ones get smarter, the ones already backward fall further behind. How else to view the RM3.2 billion worth ICT equipment purchased under the PPSMI project when some schools don’t have enough classrooms or even electricity?

With English, a small segment that might later pursue tertiary studies requiring Math and Science expertise will have an easier path. But English impedes a greater number of youngsters who find the language barrier hampering their fundamental understanding and interest in Math and Science.

The trade-off in cost is extracted from those with a poorer socio-economic background.  

Their parents lack the resources for private tuition, not that there are tuition centres anyway in the rural and remote areas. Nor are these parents capable of giving home tutoring as they themselves are not well-educated. And in settlements and long houses, children do not have access to facilities, computers and laboratories.  

The question, thus, is one of the greater good. With PPSMI, children whose parents are vocally pro-English will naturally do better. But PPSMI is at the expense of the majority losing out in Math and Science, in addition to their English not getting any better. Local studies have shown that PPSMI is damaging. (See box below).

If the worry is about English, then the upper middle-class and professional strata should improve their children’s English after school hours rather than inadvertently punish the majority of Malay and vernacular speakers. If the concern is about Math and Science, then privileged kids will just have to make an extra effort at matriculation and tertiary level.

Retrogressive to nationbuilding

Since 1982, all first degree courses have generally been taught in Malay at our public universities. For close to three decades, these tertiary institutions have been producing graduands who obtained their qualifications in Malay.

Under PSSMI, the burden is emphatically placed on young children, not on the late teens who may wish to specialise in Math and Science. Not only is this unfair and unconscionable, it makes no sense.

Finally, the standard of BM has risen in inverse correlation to the decline in the standard of English. Even the UPSR BM paper for 12 year olds is of a high degree of difficulty.

If we belong to the minority groups, we have to remember that we’re residing in the Malay archipelago. Our socio-political milieu is undeniably Malay. Unless we’re willing to alienate ourselves in ethnic enclaves, it’s untenable to continue living in Malaysia if we do not encourage our children to be adept in Malay or at the very least, keep up.

Malay culture steeped in the Malay language expresses the soul of our country. Bahasa Jiwa Bangsa.

GMP chairman, former director of Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka Dr Hassan Ahmad, sums up best: “What we know is that there is no race in the world that has shaped its culture and civilization, art, literature, philosophy of life, myth, worldview and corpus of knowledge through the language of another people???.  

As Anak Bangsa Malaysia, we have no choice but to respect Article 152.

Part 1 of this article appeared yesterday.


*Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS)*

TIMSS was conducted by Boston College and surveyed 14-15 year olds – Grade 8 overseas or Malaysia’s Form Two – in 59 countries. It is a study done every four years, and below is a comparison of 1999, 2003 and 2007 results.  

Note: By 2007, Malaysia’s Form Two cohort had gone through five years of PPSMI.  

Malaysia’s scorecard (Year and Ranking)  

Malaysia sits in the 400-plus points region, and is benchmarked ‘Intermediate’ falling short of ‘Advanced’ (625 points) and ‘High’ (550)














11 points compared to 1999


  34 points compared to 2003






18 points compared to 1999


40 points compared to 2003

Other countries indicated slight movements up and down the 2007 chart but Malaysia’s ranking plummeted the most significantly. 
Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) Filings in 2007

Patent filings in the international phase of the PCT System, by patent office and country of origin (selected countries)

  At receiving Office
 By country of Origin
 China 5,456 5,470
 Germany   2,329 17,889
  India 607 880
 Indonesia 5 9
 Japan 27,230 27,732
 Malaysia 93 105
 Korea 7,138 7,066
 Singapore 443 533
 UK 5,605 5,610
 USA 52,969 53,147

Source: World Patent Report: A Statistical Review (2008)

 Results of Studies on PPSMI

A team of 50 lecturers from seven universities (UPM, UiTM, UPSI, USM, UUM, UMS and UTM) together with Pembina (Permuafakatan Badan Ilmiah Nasional) conducted a nationwide study of Fourth Formers in 70 secondary schools and Year Fivers in 90 primary schools. They concluded from their study that PPSMI has been deleterious to students, especially the Malay in rural areas. In a few states, for instance Perlis, Kelantan, Sabah and Sarawak, students who failed Math and Science, getting D and E, exceeded 50 percent. The SPM 2007 results showed deterioration in the performance of Malay students in residential schools and Mara Junior Science Colleges, especially in Chemistry and Math.

Two other studies were conducted (a) by UPSI’s Prof. Emeritus Isahak Haron in January 2008 on 1,703 Year Five pupils at 28 primary schools and 1,692 teachers, and (b) by UKM’s Prof. Juriah Long in 2004 on 7,236 Form Two students at 242 secondary schools nationwide, and 707 Math teachers and 701 Science teachers. Both studies approximate the conclusions arrived at by Pembina.

 Source: GMP


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