For the past six years, Malaysian state schools have taught math and science in English, the international language of science and business. But that experiment has recently come to an abrupt halt: in 2012, teachers will return to using the national Malay language, Bahasa Malaysia, in the classroom.
The announcement comes after months of demonstrations by the ethnic Malay majority, who were demanding a return to Malaysia’s traditional language. They say the use of English in schools undermines their struggle to modernize Bahasa Malaysia and develop a domestic scientific lexicon.
Despite the timing of his decision to drop English, Malaysian Education Minister Muhyiddin Yassin denies bowing to political pressure. He says the change was made because teaching in English hurt school performance, causing Malaysia’s ranking in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study to fall from 10th to 20th for math, and from 20th to 21st for science.“Our decision was based on facts and reality,” he told the New Straits Times. “We did not look at only one or two schools, but more than 10,000 schools nationwide, particularly in the rural areas where English to the students is a second and foreign language.”
While the move is supported by ethnic Malay, many parents, along with the National Union of the Teaching Profession, believe the decision is a lost opportunity for Malaysia to emulate the economic success of English-speaking Singapore. Ratna Rueban Balasubramaniam, assistant professor of law at Carleton University in Ottawa, says that many feel English is imperative to Malaysia’s international competitiveness, “especially given the importance of being able to participate in a globalized economy where English remains the primary language for business transactions.”
The Education Ministry acknowledges that with the return to using Bahasa Malaysia in class, more needs to be done to improve English standards. To that end, it has committed to hiring 14,000 English teachers by 2012.