The unfounded belief that is holding back Malaysia’s education system

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MP Hasan Arifin’s comments fuel the debate of English-medium schools. The government must protect the future competitiveness of the Malaysian workforce.

By Oliver Ward

Malaysian Member of Parliament (MP) Hasan Arifin publicly declared that using English as a teaching medium in schools does not lead to success. He made the comments during a debate on Malaysia’s 2018 budget in Dewan Rakyat. He asked those in attendance, “has any country in Asia that had adopted the English-medium [been] successful in its development?”

For Hasan Arifin Singapore does not count

Hasan Arifin needs to look no further than neighbouring Singapore for an answer to his question. Singapore uses English as the medium for instruction in schools. Singapore topped the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) education rankings in 2016 for maths, science and reading teaching.

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) researchers also named Singapore as the highest ranked maths and science education system in the world. Researchers compared the academic performance of 600,000 children in 57 countries.

Part of this success came from using English in Singapore’s schools. English-medium schools gradually opened throughout the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Singapore was able to establish itself as an attractive investment destination through the widespread adoption of the English language. Former Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew wrote, “Singaporeans would have increased opportunities if they had a strong mastery of English.”

The policy became a cornerstone of the Singaporean education system. English-medium schools boomed in popularity. Parents saw that English was the language of international business and commerce and wanted their children to learn it at a young age. In 1987, English became the medium of instruction in all Singaporean schools.

It allowed Singapore’s trade to surge. A workforce educated in English became masters at international commerce. Today the tiny island of Singapore is the 14th largest trading nation. Singaporean workers are sought-after abroad.

Hasan Arifin claimed Singapore does not count because it is “not a country but a city-state.” City-state or country, the fact is the use of English in Singapore’s education system has set them ahead of Malaysia.

Singapore has a higher quality system with less spending

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) ranked Malaysia in 52nd place out of 72 countries. Singapore came in first place. However, Malaysia has committed a higher funding in education than Singapore in recent years. With access to a healthy stream of funding, the Malaysian system should perform better.

Many in the country want to return to using English in schools

In November 2017, ISEAS Yosof Ishak Institute surveyed registered voters in Johor. The researchers found 82% of residents would welcome bringing back English-medium schools.

In 2016, Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar urged politicians to restore English as the medium of instruction in schools. The G25 group also called on the government to make the transition. It said, “Malaysia is a trading nation, having a workforce with a high proficiency in English is a sure way to increase our global competitiveness… and bring foreign investments into the country.”

Reinstating English could foster ethnic harmony

United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) dropped English in schools in the 1970s. Today the school system in Malaysia fosters division among ethnic lines. The student population in national primary schools is 97% Bumiputera. In Chinese schools, 99.9% of the students are ethnically Chinese. In Tamil schools, the student population is 100% Indian. These schools all use their respective languages as the medium of instruction.

By restoring English-medium schools, Najib would not only create a workforce with a strong command of English, he would also bring Malaysians together. All races and economic classes could study together, as they did in the 50s and 60s.

By choosing to avoid English as the medium of instruction, the Malaysian government is limiting future growth by failing to provide the country with an internationally qualified workforce. It also robs young Malaysians of a brighter and more unified future with improved international job prospects. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak owes it to the next generation to ignore the ill-thought out and unfounded beliefs of MPs like Hasan Arifan.