Sarawak shows the way, but Putrajaya not following

A Chinese high school in East Malaysia. © CEphoto, Uwe Aranas / CC-BY-SA-3.0

By Vanitha Nadaraj

The Chinese independent high schools in Malaysia have their own curriculum and their students sit for an independent examination called the Unified Examinations Certificate (UEC).

It is such a pity that the Malaysian government does not recognise this qualification, and students with the UEC can neither enter public universities, nor be eligible for government scholarships, nor be employed in the civil service. The irony is that this qualification is recognised by private colleges in Malaysia and also in Singapore, Taiwan, Australia, the UK, the US, France, Ireland and a host of other countries.

In September last year, the Sarawak state government made the bold move to recognise the UEC. Sarawakians with the UEC qualification are now eligible for the state’s civil service, and also for Sarawak Foundation education loans.

Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Adenan Satem used harsh words when making this announcement, calling the federal government “stupid” for not recognising the UEC, and for allowing local talent to be poached by other countries, primarily Singapore and Taiwan.

‘Bad policies’

Recently, Adenan said he would push for the UEC to be recognised by the federal government. He was reported to have said: “UEC is accepted by other universities in the world but not in our own public universities, and because of this, we have lost many talents.”

If that was not enough, he made scathing remarks about the federal government, saying it has “very bad policies” – the sort of policies that have caused a high number of graduates to be unemployed because they do not meet industry needs.

He has every reason to be furious. There are now 15,000 to 20,000 graduates in Sarawak who are unable to get jobs, because they do not have the technical skills the state badly needs for its development projects – the biggest of which is the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE), a new development corridor in central part of the state.

Mind your English

Adenan is also on a mission to push for English proficiency. In November last year, Adenan had English adopted as the state’s second official language. “I do not know who made the decision not to use English in the past, but it has adversely affected other people now,” he was reported to have said.

This was an obvious hit at the policy to drastically reduce the exposure of students to English. After years of being the medium of all instruction, English was relegated to just another subject in schools in 1970, and Bahasa Malaysia became the medium of instruction. There was a policy change in 2003, and science and mathematics were taught in English, but this policy was reversed in 2012.

Adenan is now pushing for the schools in Sarawak to adopt the Dual Language Programme (DLP), a recently introduced programme that gives students the option to study science, mathematics, information and communication technology, and design and technology in either English or Malay, the national language.

Fierce opposition to English

It is much more lax elsewhere in Malaysia. The education ministry is giving schools the option to decide, and there is no compulsion. Schools that want to teach these subjects in English must first ensure they have adequate resources to teach in English, must have the consent of the school and the support of the parents, and must have achieved above-national-average grades in Malay.

Making English a medium of instruction is a highly volatile issue, as past experiences show. It was pressure from the public that made the government scrap the English policy in 2012.

It looks like the same fate may follow the DLP. From 26 March, a coalition made up of activists, national laureates, politicians from both sides of the divide, and groups opposed to the DLP, will hold protest rallies in every state to force the government to scrap this policy.

The fear is that Malay as a language may be sidelined and will lose its importance. Some feel students from rural areas would slide even further behind in their academic performance, further widening the urban-rural gap.

This coalition has strong supporters, among them is the family of de facto opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. Anwar has long been known as a strong supporter of the Malay language, and this has obviously trickled down to his children. His daughter, Parti Keadilan Rakyat vice-president Nurul Izzah Anwar, moved her children to a non-DLP participating school.

While Sarawak is taking the problem by the horns to make sure the state will have the right kind of graduates, the rest of the country is still struggling to find a solution to issues like recognition of the UEC, and the role of English, both of which have long been politicised.

Meanwhile, graduates are still struggling to find jobs. As of December, there were 400,000 jobless people in the country and out of this figure 161,000 were graduates. Malaysia has always faced a shortage of skilled workers and the situation is likely to get worse. Lack of graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics will hamper development plans.

Education begets the workforce, which is why education should never be treated as a political tool or an experiment.