By Cheong Suk-Wai, Senior Writer
IT IS hard being a child in Malaysia these days. Take 12-year-old Hazwan Arif, who was among the first students to learn maths and science in English. That was in 2004, after then premier Mahathir Mohamad ordered the switch in medium of instruction from the Malay language.
This September, Hazwan will take the Primary School Evaluation Test's (UPSR) maths and science papers in English. By 2014, however, he will have to take the school-leaving examinations in Malay. He will also have to cope with more English classes as the government wants to improve the people's fluency in it.
That is the quandary Malaysia's five million schoolchildren find themselves in, after the government reversed last week the six-year-old teaching policy which had cost RM40 million (S$16.2 million) a year to run.
Deputy Premier Muhyiddin Yassin, who is also Education Minister, said the switch was necessary now that the latest Trends In International Mathematics And Science report showed that between 2003 and 2007, Malaysia's proficiency in maths plunged from 10th to 26th place. Among the 59 countries studied, its science placing slid from 20th to 28th. Singapore was No. 3 in maths and No. 1 in science.
Dr Mahathir has since responded to the government's volte face by polling Malaysians on whether they agreed with the change. So far, 86 per cent of the 86,000 or so who voted were against the switch.
But language hindering classroom learning is not really the crux of the issue. Many Malaysians, even those in kampungs, have ample access to the Internet and satellite TV channels with English-language programming, science shows included.
It is not even about playing politics in the schoolyard by debating whether Malay or English is more effective in uniting Malaysia. Its education system is already fragmented into four different types of public schools: national (Malay), Chinese, Tamil and religious.
The real issue is the poor quality of its teachers. But this is a politically prickly poser since the 300,000 or so teachers who make up the bulk of its civil service are mostly ethnic Malays.
Madam Cheong Chin Yoke, 62, who trained maths and science teachers to teach in English in anticipation of the 2003 change, said the training programme consisted of intensive cramming of all that the teachers had to learn into all of three weeks.
Madam Cheong, who taught in a teachers' training college between 1983 and 2003, added: 'Teaching involves impromptu interaction. So it is very taxing on teachers who are weak in English because they are not sure if they are getting their message across with the words they may be using. They've to search for the right words in English all the time.'
Dr Hannah Pillay, a Malaysian educationist, once pointed out that teachers learnt best from fellow teachers. For many Malaysians, however, having to ask for help is seen as humiliating, and being made to feel small is anathema.
'It's a vicious circle,' Madam Cheong agreed.
Teaching used to be a well-respected profession in a country where teachers shaped political thought and political parties. But in the boom years between 1990 and 1997, the country's brightest graduates eschewed teaching for banking and law.
To stem the exodus, the government lowered the bar for entry into teaching to the lowest credit one can get in school-leaving exams. Then came the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which left more than 600,000 graduates jobless, most of them of Malay ethnicity. The government then aggressively recruited them for teaching.
Today, the profession has become a job of last resort. Teachers are still poorly paid and often given short shrift by parents of the children they teach when things do not go well. On their part, some teachers have been known to not be above hurling racist slurs at students.
Things got to such a head that, late last month, the ministry finally made a move to tighten the screws on the quality of teachers. It will soon issue a blueprint for professionalism called, well, Malaysian Teacher Standards.
To be sure, attitude is not a blueprint or budget consideration, especially not when the government already spends 25 per cent of its yearly budget (up from 6.6 per cent in 1999) on education now, to little effect.
As Madam Cheong pointed out, non-Malay teachers like her who were made to teach in Malay from 1970 just dove into the deep end as it was a matter of putting food on the table. She mused: 'Maybe teachers today are just not trying hard enough.'
They will need to try harder.
As Dr Pillay once noted, it is pointless to talk about the Malay language as a means of uniting the various racial groups when they are already riven apart anyway by unequal career opportunities - simply because some were taught well and most were not.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.