English for a world-class education

HERE we go again with another round of discussions in the media on English-medium schools. It's like seeing a repeat of old movies on TV and at the end of the day or at the end of a long tunnel, nothing really happens.

The days of our nation being among those with a high level of proficiency in English are long gone and a fading memory, albeit a nostalgic one, for people of my generation who were schooled with English as the medium of instruction.

It's well over 40 years now that English-medium schools became non-existent with the switch to Bahasa Malaysia and the outcomes are all too obvious as English, once the language of the masses, has turned into an elitist one.

Almost two generations of the majority of Malaysians are weak in English as they go through the system that sidelines the language that's so vital for any nation which wants to have a human capital that can compete on the global stage.

Interestingly this time around, Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Datuk Seri Abdul Rahman Dahlan kicked off a fresh debate on English by giving his full support for the reinstatement of English-medium schools that once were commonplace especially in his home state of Sabah and Sarawak.

"If we can have Chinese, Tamil and religious-based schools and others such as national and private schools, there is no reason we cannot have English-medium schools," he said last month.

This minister really talks sense. Why not? He went one step further in reigniting public momentum on the issue by saying Sabah will be more than willing to be the first state to have such schools.

Abdul Rahman wants all those who want English-medium schools to speak up as only with a consensus can the government start working on setting up such schools.

And as he rightly points out, any plan to see the return of English-medium schools must go beyond politicians with the views of parents to be given premium consideration.

Logically speaking, which parent doesn't want his or her child to be competent in English especially in this highly-competitive era with the digital age sweeping the world?

If a referendum were to be held, the outcome would be a foregone conclusion with the high-paying job market expected to shrink in coming years due to phenomenon such as artificial intelligence and what not.

It's absolutely important that decisions on bringing back English-medium schools be made purely based on how vital it is for Malaysians to have a world-class education eco-system. Period.

As the minister insists, stakeholders like parents, teachers and parent-teacher associations must speak up and his main worry is that it will be turned into a political issue.

To be fair, they have spoken up over the years as have many non-governmental organisations calling for, at the very least, much greater efforts to be seen to be done to arrest the serious decline in English proficiency.

There are certainly groups that are not in favour purely looking through their narrow political lenses but the time has come for this issue to be depoliticised to move the country forward.

When Abdul Rahman talks about Sabah being ready for such a move, I can't help adding Sarawak, too.

Its former chief minister, the late Tan Sri Adenan Satem, was a strong advocate of English competency and he made it one of the official languages in the state to improve the level of proficiency among Sarawakians especially in meeting the demands of the job market.

Adenan even described as "stupid" any education system that doesn't give enough emphasis to English. He died in January before he could make further plans on this.

His successor, Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg, is pursuing Adenan's English agenda and we can expect some major moves on this in the future.

Abang Johari is taking a closer look at the Malaysia Agreement on the state's rights. Under the agreement when Malaysia was formed in 1963, Sabah and Sarawak have the right to use English as their official language, too.

Veteran journalist P. Gunasegaran in a column last week said he wants to see Sabah and Sarawak leading the charge for English-medium schools.

Johor, the state closest to Singapore, has also set the stage for more discussions on English-medium schools.

A survey by Singapore's Yusof Ishak Institute revealed that eight out of 10 Johoreans want the return of such schools in the state.

This indeed is in line with the consistent stand taken by the Sultan of Johor, Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar, for Malaysia to revive such schools much like those in Singapore, the island nation that has all the while retained English in its school system.

"Let's be honest with ourselves. Singapore has done well as a country. The prominent use of English has set them ahead of us," said the Sultan.

The latest rankings by the OECD on the global education system had Singapore as No. 1 with Malaysia way down at 52.
Need we say more?

For any progress to be made on this, we need to look at English purely from the standpoint of delivering world-class education.
And we need to end the deep-rooted denial syndrome that has been a major obstacle.

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