Teaching  maths and science in English from Std. One – is Malaysia to follow the footsteps of Singapore or South Africa, first and last respectively in world schools mathematics tests  in TIMMS 1995 and 1999

Media Statement
by Lim Kit Siang

(PetalingJaya, Wednesday): The Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad  said after the opening of the Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman (Utar) yesterday that  the teaching of mathematics and science in English in schools starting next year is not a political decision to undermine the culture or identity of the different communities in the country but made based on the realization that English was the main language for learning in the world.

He said: “The Government is totally committed towards implementing the teaching of mathematics and science in English.  This is not politics. We cannot keep on translating the thousands of books, articles and reference materials. We have to acknowledge that English is the language of learning today just like Arabic and Latin in the past and we have to accept that reality whether we like it or not.”

I fully agree with Mahathir about the  importance of English as a global language in the era of globalisation and information and communications technology.  English is the dominant language of commerce, of science, of the skies, of the Internet and of opportunity.  

English  is the official language in more than 75 countries. Although 1.2 billion people speak Chinese as their mother tongue, more than 1.5 billion people speak English as their mother-tongue or use it as a second or foreign language.  Plans are afoot for some 300 million people Chinese in China to learn to speak and use English.  

The European Union uses English alongside French at its informal gatherings, even though Europe has more native German and Italian speakers. In Japan, the government had said that the tongue of its onetime enemies should become its second official language to “achieve world-class excellence”.  

Virtually all scientific organizations use English, partly because most relevant literature and terminology is in English and partly because scientists want to spend time on science, not on translation.  

While I fully agree with Mahathir that it is urgent and there must be crash programme for Malaysians to master English if we are not to continue to lose our edge of international competitiveness, this does not mean that one must agree with the proposal to use English to teach mathematics and science in primary schools from Std. One, whether in national, Chinese or Tamil primary schools,  unless the Education Ministry can make out a strong case that this is an educationally sound proposal and would not result in decline in standards  for mathematics, science and the languages as has happened in some countries.

Mahathir is right that Malaysia “cannot keep on translating the thousands of books, articles and reference materials”, but this has no application or relevance to the issue of whether English should be used to teach mathematics and science in primary schools from Std. One – or the whole world should be using English not only to teach mathematics and science, but all subjects,  from the first year in primary schools.

The Information Minister, Tan Sri Khalil Yaakob, said in Kota Kinabalu yesterday that the government has given a thorough explanation on the need, as well as the ways, to improve English proficiency among the people, and that there should no longer be any question of the public not understand why the government had put in so much effort to improve the people's proficiency in the language.

This  is completely  untrue as neither the Education Ministry nor the Cabinet has been able to give a sound educational justification for the use of English to teach mathematics and science in primary school from Std. One in the past three months.  In fact, the Education Minister, Tan Sri Musa Mohamad, the Education Director-General Datuk Abdul Rafei Mamat and all Education Ministry officials had been avoiding dialogues and discussions to convince Malaysians about the educational soundness of the move to teach mathematics and science in English from Std. One -  and my requests for meetings with Musa and Abdul Rafei to solely discuss the educational aspects of the move remain unanswered!

The Minister for Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin said Malaysians cannot turn a “blind eye” to English, as many countries in the world including China, Japan, Korea and France are now turning to English due to the realisation that the language can play a role in bringing them further progress.

He said that the Chinese in China were immersing themselves in English through special programmes while in Singapore all means of communications were done in English.
He said that  “even people in France, who are so proud of their French language which they think is superior than English, are now learning English" and that it would be unwise for Malaysia not to do the same, given that the whole world was now focusing their attention on English.

I believe the majority of Malaysians  fully agree with Muhyiddin but again, this does not mean that such agreement must mean support for the move to use English to teach mathematics and science in primary schools from Std. One – as Muhyiddin cannot be implying that China and France are using English to teach mathematics and science in primary schools from Year One, or that Malaysia should emulate the Singapore example in having primary and secondary schools with English as the medium of instruction.

What is also  not supportable is Mahathir’s repetition yesterday that the issue of using English to teach mathematics and science in Chinese and Tamil primary schools is  “an internal Barisan Nasional problem to be resolved internally” – as this is a public interest issue affecting all Malaysians as well as the economic well-being and prosperity of the country which should be the subject of the widest public consultation and discussion.

Malaysians, for instance, are entitled to ask and to get satisfactory answers whether in proposing to use English to teach mathematics and science in primary schools from Std. One, Malaysia  would be following the footsteps of  Singapore or South Africa, first and last respectively in world schools mathematics tests  in  the Third International Mathematics and Science Survey (TIMMS) 1995 and 1999 although both use English to teach these two subjects.

In TIMMS 1995, which involved 45 countries, 15,000 participating schools and more than half a million students, South Africa came out last both in mathematics and science. In TIMMS-R (Repeat) 1999, in which 180,000 students  in Grade 8 (Form II) from 38 countries participated (including Malaysia for the first time), South Africa again came out last for mathematics and science. 

There is a raging controversy in South Africa as to whether one main cause for  the low standards of mathematics and science is because of the use of English, one of the official  languages,  as a medium of instruction from too early stages resulting in impeding the  development of thinking skills  of students with the consequent  low achievements in mathematics and  science. 

Educationists and researchers of bilingual education like J. Cummins, M. Swain, M. Saville-Troike and   K. Anstrom have made following powerful argument:

“It is vitally important that learners fully develop their L1, (first language) because in so doing they also develop their cognitive academic abilities, their ‘thinking skills’, and their academic intelligence. To achieve full L1 and cognitive academic development, the home language needs to be used as the medium of instruction at least for the first few years of primary school at a minimum. Without this, learners enter L2 (second language) education mentally under-developed, which disadvantages not only their language acquisition, but also their overall academic success, and, in particular, their maths and science achievement.”

They also find  a very close link between the learners’ attitudes towards their home language and culture, their motivation at school, and their overall academic achievement. Cummins and Swain in Bilingualism  in education (1986)  recommend that the home language is used extensively in the early years of school, not simply to make the children “feel good”, but also to ensure that they improve their overall academic performance:

“Acceptance of the home language in the home and school is clearly, then, one of the first steps in creating an environment where learning can occur, an environment which fosters feelings of self-worth and self-confidence. But acceptance of the home language is only the beginning. Active encouragement to make use of the home language in school is equally important. This can be done in a variety of ways. One way, of course, is to use the language as a medium of instruction, which not only enhances students’ comprehension, thereby improving academic performance, but also provides concrete evidence that the home language is a useful and valued tool.”

Singapore is of course the total reverse to South Africa, scoring first of 45 countries  in mathematics and science in TIMMS 1995  and first in mathematics and second in science out of 38 countries in TIMMS 1999 – but the  Singapore system is different not only in being a “total immersion” programme, where English is the medium of instruction for all subjects, but where English is the “home language” of many Singaporeans. 

Is the Education Minister or Education Director-General capable of responding  whether Malaysia will be following the footsteps of  Singapore or South Africa when English is used to teach mathematics and science from Std. One next year? 

Incidentally, in the  TIMMS-R results released in November 2000, where  Singapore emerged first in mathematics and second in science, Malaysia  was placed 16th in mathematics and 22nd position in science out of 38 countries. 

The Singapore Education Ministry has made public the  “key findings” relating to Singapore students who participated in TIMSS 1999 immediately after the release of the results in November 2000: such as (i) Most Singapore students are in the international top half – 93% and 80% of Singapore students are in the international top half for mathematics and science respectively; (ii) A high proportion of Singapore students also achieve excellent results – 46% and 32% of students reached the international top 10% in mathematics and science respectively; and (iii)  For mathematics, 96% of the Chinese students are in the international top half while 83% of the Malay students are in the international top half.  For science, 86% of the Chinese students and 61% of the Malay students respectively are in the international top half. 

The Malaysian Education Ministry should similarly make public the “key findings: relating to Malaysian students who participated in TIMMS 1999, particularly an analysis of the performance of the Malay, Chinese, Indian, Iban and Kadazan students in mathematics and science  in  TIMSS 1999, or Malaysia will be shown to be lagging way behind in accountability, transparency and democracy in refusing to release these educational findings. 


*Lim Kit Siang - DAP National Chairman