Many will also agree that there is an urgent need to improve our collective competence in the language. It is on the question of what we should do to rectify the situation that Hassan and I differ.
For Hassan and many others, the solution lies in restoring English-medium schools.
They are of the view that the English-medium school — like the Bahasa Malaysia, Chinese and Tamil-media schools — should become one of the options available to parents.
Such a school, it is true, will attract a segment of the various communities. Depending on where these schools are located, the student populace may well be less mono-ethnic than in some of our national schools today.
This should facilitate a degree of inter-ethnic interaction. But English-medium schools are not going to change the education landscape. National, Chinese and Tamil schools will remain the major players.
Malay parents will continue to send their children to national and Islamic schools. With increasing religious identity consciousness, the latter, in particular, have become more popular among Muslim urbanities in recent years.
For the Chinese, the determination to perpetuate and elevate Chinese schools is greater than before, fuelled, no doubt, by China’s emergence as a global power.
Tamil families will not cease their support for Tamil schools simply because English-medium schools are around. What this means is that separate language and religious streams within the school system, which in some ways, are a bane of our society, will persist.
What is the alternative? We should persevere in developing a truly bilingual education system where Bahasa is the main medium of instruction and English is an effective subsidiary medium of instruction.
This would require teaching some subjects in Bahasa, others in English, and yet others in both languages. Yayasan 1Malaysia had alluded to such an approach in its memorandum on education and unity to the government five years ago.
It is an approach that would be in harmony with the spirit of the Razak Report, the foundation of our education system.
For the Razak Report envisages both Bahasa and English as media of instruction in secondary school and beyond.
It is in line with the current perspective on the two languages encapsulated in the slogan, “To honour the Malay language; to empower the English language.”
This slogan should be translated into concrete measures. Apart from using both languages as the media of instruction in the education system from primary to university level, the government should accelerate and expand its retraining programme for teachers, aimed at making them competent in Bahasa and English.
Only students with a genuine commitment to both languages should be recruited as trainee teachers. To build a bilingual education system, the mindset of everyone involved in this monumental task should undergo a massive transformation. That is the real challenge before us. Dr Chandra Muzaffar, Chairman, Board of Trustees, Yayasan 1Malaysia NST Letters 3 July 2015