[First posted under SEEING IT MY WAYÂ in Malaysiakini.comÂ August 2, 2007]
I fully support the call by the Tanjong Malim UMNO Division to bring back English schools.Â This is one quick and effective way to increase the English proficiency of our students, especially those in rural areas.Â It would also better prepare them for our increasingly competitive globalized world.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â It is significant that this UMNO division should be making this resolution.Â Tanjong Malim is home to Sultan Idris Training College(now a university), long the hotbed of Malay nationalism and breeding ground for ardent advocates of Malay language.
The Division would have these schools teach in English all subjects except Malay language.Â It would however, be a great mistake simply to bring back those English schools of yore.Â While they served the nation well then, such schools would be totally inappropriate in todayâ€™s socio-political reality.Â Such schools would unnecessarily provoke backlash
For one, the curriculum had little local relevance.Â For another, while those schools were good at imparting English language skills on our young, it was at the expense of our national language.Â What we need instead are schools that would make our students effectively bilingual in Malay and English, and have a curriculum that would emphasize science and mathematics while using teaching materials and subject matters relevant to the studentsâ€™ every day life and surroundings.
In the old English schools we learned more about the beauty of the English Lakeside district in springtime through Wordsworthâ€™s poems but remained woefully ignorant of the enchantment and utility of our own mangrove swamps, or the bountiful biodiversity of our vibrant rainforests.
Brought up under the old English school I admit to being ill informed about our talented writers like Hamka and Shahnon Ahmad, as well as poets like Chairil Anwar and Usman Awang.Â Fortunately â€“ and this may seem perverse â€“ because of my Western liberal education and exposure to the humanities and liberal arts, I developed an appreciation of our own native literature later in life.Â Only then did I feel the void of my earlier education.
These are the mistakes we must avoid in our enthusiasm in bringing back English schools.
English Schools only in Rural Areas
There is a huge gap between good ideas and their successful implementations.Â Failure to appreciate this important caveat dooms many good ideas and policies.Â It would then make their subsequent resurrection that much more difficult. Â Thus it is important to proceed carefully, with precise planning and effective execution in order to minimize the risk of failure.
In my book Towards A Competitive Malaysia, I proposed setting up English schools initially only in rural areas.Â With the high background of Malay proficiency, it would be unlikely for the students to â€œforgetâ€ their native tongue as it is widely and regularly used at home and in the community.Â Besides, the need for greater English proficiency is most acute with our rural students.
If English schools were to be set up in the cities where the national language is not widely and regularly used, there is the danger of our students not being proficient in Malay.Â Were it to happen, there would then be another and more severe backlash from the language nationalists.
While these schools would be located in rural areas, they should be open to all.Â Urban parents who wish to enroll their children in such schools should be allowed to do so.Â We would then have a situation that is the reverse of colonial times.Â At that time rural parents who wished their children to attend English schools had to fork out additional expenses for transportation, extra costs they could hardly afford.
Having English schools in rural areas would not unduly burden those city parents who wish to enroll their children, as these more affluent parents could afford the added costs of transporting their children.Â Being generally better educated, they would also demand more from these rural English schools and their teachers.Â That would ensure quality education.
English No Panacea
English proficiency alone is not enough; India and the Philippines would disabuse us of such a misguided notion.Â While these two countries emphasize English, their schools and students are not worthy of our emulation; nor for that matter their economy or leadership.
In addition to bringing back English schools, what is also needed is a curriculum that emphasizes the sciences and quantitative skills, as well as critical thinking.Â Using English as the medium of instruction would facilitate the acquisition of these skills and knowledge.
English is now the de facto language of science and technology.Â There is no way for our scientists and students to keep abreast in these fields by depending only on translations.Â The rapid expansion of knowledge is such that even if the entire intellectual endeavors of Malays were devoted solely to translating, that would still be inadequate.
The teaching of science is important not only for the acquisition of the specific knowledge and skills but also for mastering the scientific method, an approach to solving problems that has proven effective and productive.Â The remarkable advances of the West in the last couple of centuries are attributable to their adoption of science and technology, together with the accompanying mindset.
For Malay students, the teaching of Islamic Studies in English would go a long way towards modernizing our approach to that important subject.Â Currently, Islamic Studies is being taught in Malay or Arabic, using archaic pedagogical techniques and assumptions more suitable for ancient Bedouins.Â The emphasis is more on rote memory and blind adherence to traditions and rituals.Â This philosophy of teaching has long been proven less effective through the insights of modern psychology of learning and child development.
If Islamic Studies were taught in English, our students could be exposed to more modern texts.Â Increasingly these are written in English; it is now the most important language in Islam, next to Arabic.
I see many merits to bringing back English schools, suitably modified to meet our times and needs.Â While the Tanjong Malim Division may encounter huge obstacles in having their resolution adopted nationally, the much greater challenge is to ensure that the policy, if adopted, be imaginatively and effectively executed.