MUCH has been said about the need to have English as the medium of instruction in schools. It has been touted as the panacea for the ills in our education system and as a catalyst to forge unity and promote academic excellence.
Thus far, though, there has only been rhetoric and polemics on this issue.
There is no doubt that proficiency in English has drastically declined in our schools and public universities. And there is no political will to revitalise it.
It is common knowledge that English is the lingua franca of the democratic world, at least in the Commonwealth, United States and some European countries. It is a language of intellect and commerce.
It is in these countries that new knowledge are created and disseminated through various print and electronic media. They are the producers of technology while the rest are mere consumers.
The corpus of knowledge in English is enormous, and growing daily. Thousands of books and journal articles are added each year. To access this vast repository of knowledge, we need proficiency in English. Translation of these works into the national language cannot keep pace with development of knowledge in English.
Unlike other nations such as Thailand, Japan and Korea, we already have the educative infrastructure in English courtesy of the British who set up government schools with expatriate and local teachers trained in Brinsford and Kirby, England. The whole structure of governance was conducted in English.
Malay was, however, the medium of instruction in the Malay and religious school system.
It was in the late 60s and early 70s that the Government decided to switch to Malay as the main medium of instruction in the school system. Crash courses in Bahasa Malaysia were conducted to phase in teachers into this new system.
From that point, the usage of English in schools and government departments deteriorated.
There was even a time when to speak in English was deemed unpatriotic.
As the character of the national schools began to change, Chinese and Indian parents gravitated towards their respective vernacular schools. Then the two streams, national and vernacular, calcified with a racial bias, thus perpetuating the segregation of ethnic communities. Attempts at restructuring the school system into a single stream are met with fierce political resistance.
The public universities fared worse. Students from both the national and vernacular school streams lacked the facility of English to access the reference books in the library, where almost 90% of the titles are in English.
The students began to depend on lecture notes in Malay that lecturers prepared and handed out. This affected the reading culture and thus the quality of the graduates.
The university Band One to Four English language tests only provide basic acquaintance with the language. It is not like they could read and understand Shakespeare, poems by Milton or the Socratic dialogues after passing Band Four. They would be hard pressed to write a job application letter in English, not to mention writing a simple cogent essay.
Another enigmatic problem in universities is that lecturers are expected to teach in Malay but publish in English if they want to be considered for promotion.
The universities put a premium on articles written for indexed English journals that would enhance their ranking. Likewise, papers for international conferences organised locally or abroad have to be written in English.
Writing for local journals in Malay published by, for example, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka does not carry the same kind of impact and integrity as those indexed journals in English.
This situation motivated those who could afford to send their children to study in educational facilities with English as the main medium of instruction.
As a result, foreign entrepreneurs and academics saw a ready market for English medium education in Malaysia, thus the mushrooming of international schools, private colleges and establishment on Malaysian soil of reputable universities such as University of Newcastle, Curtin University, Heriot-Watt, and others.
Another point to consider is the compatibility of university education with the requirements of industry, especially in English proficiency. It is a known fact that the private sector prefers graduates proficient in English and that some corporations insist on this because their dealings are mainly international in nature.
Even some of our government ministries, especially Foreign Affairs, International Trade, and Tourism stipulate proficiency in English as a basic requirement. And the Education Ministry also puts a premium on graduates proficient in English.
As such, those government-sponsored and private students with foreign degrees have a vast advantage over local graduates in employment opportunities.
It is crystal clear that English is an integral part of governance, corporate enterprises, the entertainment and creative industries as well as in the majority our daily lives.
At the same time, we must not neglect the national language, which should have pride of place in our educative and administrative systems as well as our daily interactions. Sadly, even after almost 60 years of independence, half of the population is still deficient in Malay.
To uphold the sanctity of the national language, promote unity and ensure the development of a knowledge-based society whose people can interact with ease internationally, there is a need to equip our present young and future generations with proficiency in both the national and English languages. To this effect, the authorities must seriously consider a bilingual single-stream national education system. Mohamed Ghouse Nasuruddin Universiti Sains Malaysia The STAR Home News Opinion Letters 1 July 2015