Raising the dead: The problem with Mahathir’s PPSMI resurrection

Mahathir has quietly resurrected his PPSMI policy which required English to be used as the medium of instruction for maths and science. Some policies are better left dead.

By Oliver Ward

Last month, Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mohamad Mahathir revealed that his PPSMI programme to teach maths and science in English had been reintroduced without fanfare in Malaysian primary schools.

Mahathir introduced the initiative in 2003. However, Muhyiddin Yassin scrapped PPSMI during his stint as education minister in 2012 after encountering public pushback. Under Muhyiddin’s oversight, who now sits on Mahathir’s cabinet as minister for home affairs, the scheme was replaced by the Dual Language Program (DLP), which allowed schools the flexibility to choose if they wanted to use English as a medium of instruction for maths and science subjects. 

Photo Credit: Kremlin

ASEAN is in a race for English proficiency

As ASEAN’s official working language, career and educational opportunities are rooted in securing a proficiency in English. As a result, countries jockey for superior English language teaching to produce leaders in the tech, agriculture and industrial sectors.

Ganakumaran Subramaniam, president of the Malaysian English Language Teaching Association (MELTA), told ASEAN Today, “Malaysia once held alongside Singapore [the] lead position in ASEAN for an English-speaking populace and workforce. Today the push for English education regionally and globally is… eroding this edge from an economic perspective.”

This will be particularly irksome to Mahathir. Malaysia strives to become an educational hub and regional leader in research and innovation. This means conducting higher education in English. For Malaysians to get the most out of these opportunities, they must have a strong command of the English language by the time they leave high school.


Schemes like PPSMI which use English as a medium of instruction (EMI) for other subjects are often employed in developing countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America. They stem from the fundamental belief that more exposure to English leads to a higher level of proficiency.

Malaysia’s Ministry of Education.
Photo Credit: Uwe Aranas/Wikimedia Commons

Education departments typically want to increase exposure to English without eating into time spent on other subjects. Many resort to teaching subjects like maths and science in English to provide both increased exposure to English without compromising the time spent on other subjects.

EMI schemes almost always garner the support of parents, who subscribe to the idea that the earlier their children are introduced to English and the more exposure they receive, the greater likelihood for success in the language. Malaysian parents are no different. In 2015, when the Sultan of Johor publicly promoted making English the medium of instruction in all schools, it was received warmly among parents.

EMI programmes can hold students back in the public system

Gandhi famously lamented that he could have mastered maths and science in half the time if, instead of being taught in English, he had learnt it through his mother tongue of Gujarati. Unesco has also long warned of the dangers of introducing EMI too early.

John Knagg, former global Head of Research for English at the British Council, told ASEAN Today: “When EMI is introduced in a system without the right resources and before children are linguistically ready for it, then educational outcomes will be damaged.”

“Being educated in an unfamiliar language will lead to underachievement and often drop-out for many,” Knagg added.

Failure to understand learning material in the classroom means the pace of learning slows. Students also have higher levels of anxiety, leading to less classroom interaction. Parents who don’t speak English are also unable to help the child with homework, excluding them from the learning and support process.

The 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), carried out after PPSMI had been fully introduced and Malaysian students had been learning maths and science in English for nine years, put Malaysia’s schools in the bottom third of the global rankings. Three years later, after PPSMI had been scrapped, the 2015 rankings saw Malaysia make significant gains.

EMI does not even lead to better English abilities

Using EMI does not even lead to increased English-speaking abilities. Muhyiddin abandoned PPSMI in 2012 after a study revealed it had only increased students command of English by 4%.

In Malaysia, maths and science teaching relies heavily on rote learning. While this could lead to gains in the English listening and reading skills, it is not conducive to developing students’ productive skills like speaking and writing.

The standard of teaching in Malaysian public schools also means that many teachers are struggling to teach in a language they do not have fluency in. In contexts where EMI is employed successfully, it is accompanied by new teacher preparation programs that provide maths and science teachers with the skills and resources to support students linguistically. 

Dr Naashia Mohamed, a lecturer in the School of Curriculum and Pedagogy at the University of Auckland told ASEAN Today: “For effective EMI, there has to be a pedagogical shift. If the language is not adequately supported, students will struggle to make sense of what is being taught, and it can lead to failure.”

Mahathir must stop looking at Singapore and the private sector for inspiration

There are circumstances when EMI yields success. In the private sector, elite schools can be seen introducing English as a medium of instruction from children as young as three. However, John Knagg pointed out, “the high fees mean that the best teachers can be recruited, with excellent pedagogical skills as well as advanced English, and there are support systems for all children.”

“The schools can be selective in accepting children to minimise the risk of failure in individual children. There are funds to purchase materials and equipment to support the teaching staff and the school leadership is fully engaged with the whole process,” he added. The public system in Malaysia does not have these luxuries.

Singapore’s public system enjoys success in educating pupils in English because it is also the most commonly spoken language in Singaporean homes. Instead of looking to replicate the successes of Singapore and the private sector, the Malaysian government must devise the best approach for its pupils’ unique circumstances.

It is worth noting that among the public education systems in Europe, even in countries whose citizens have a high level of English proficiency like Germany, English is rarely the medium of instruction for subjects outside of the language course.

Parents’ opinions are malleable

The silver lining is that parents, often the strongest advocates for EMI, are usually open to alternatives. Steve Walter, associate professor at the Dallas International Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics, told ASEAN Today, “if/when parents see their children doing better in English because they got a good educational foundation in a most accessible language (usually home language), they very quickly make an adjustment in their demands of the educational policy makers.”

Instead of pushing forward with the reintroduction of PPSMI, Mahathir and his government would be better served by channelling efforts to improve the quality of English language teachers in the public system. More English does not necessarily mean better English and just because EMI works elsewhere, doesn’t mean it has a place in the Malaysian public school system.

Some policies are better left to the annals of history. The PPSMI is one such policy. Resurrecting without the necessary support would be a hindrance to the education of Malaysia’s youth.