By Mariam Mokhtar
Recently, some of you may have seen video clips of ministers speaking English whilst addressing an international audience.
Many of you felt embarrassed and cringed at how the ministers had crucified the language.
Many people thought the ministers sounded ridiculous, but it is no laughing matter because when Malaysia gained its independence 64 years ago, the English spoken in our schools was relatively fluent.
Many students later graduated and became English teachers and continued the tradition of delivering fluent English.
There are many Malaysians who will remember how their grandparents and great-grandparents spoke better English than many of today’s schoolchildren and graduates.
When the British left Malaya, many of our citizens could speak English well. We were the envy of Southeast Asia, possibly even the envy of Asia. At universities abroad, our graduates were highly respected.
The decline in English cannot be attributed to one single factor, although government policy has been a major contributor.
So, what went wrong? When did the decline in English start? How was this possible? Who was responsible for the drop in standards? What can we do to address this problem?
Others will ask if it really matters?
On the day you enrol your child at school, your main concern is that the teachers are competent, qualified and caring towards their pupils.
In 2015, the erstwhile deputy PM and education minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, expressed surprise at the poor standard of English amongst Malaysian school children, when he launched the Malaysian Education Blueprint (MEB) on higher education.
He wondered why children after completing pre-school, primary school, secondary school and tertiary education, were unable to converse in English.
Has he not been listening? For decades, Malaysian parents have expressed concern over the poor standard of education and the decline in English proficiency of our schoolchildren.
Do advisers only tell the ministers what they want to hear? Haven’t successive governments spent hundreds of millions of ringgits on English teachers? We had teachers from England, Australia, USA, and India. Did these teachers fail to produce satisfactory results? Why were they unable to attain the desired standards in English?
Most of us are aware that the Umno-Baru putera elite and wealthy Malaysians are fortunate that they can afford to send their children to international schools. Many parents make huge financial and personal sacrifices.
Before the pandemic, some parents would relocate to others towns like Johor Bahru so that their children can be educated at schools in Singapore. The children would stay in Singapore during the week and return to the family home at the weekends.
Others simply send their children to oversea boarding schools in England, Australia, India or America.
However, the majority of parents do not have the resources to provide their children with sound education.
Many Malaysians blame Dr Mahathir Mohamad who was the minister of education in 1974. He tightened control over local universities and his policies were responsible for the decline in English. He wanted to stamp his mark in politics by pushing through the nationalist agenda and his “Look East” policy. All these came at the expense of our educational system.
Instead of correcting Mahathir’s wrongs, successive education ministers and prime ministers ignored the need to provide Malaysians with a good education.
Today, we reap the rewards of their failure and the politicising of education.
With the drop in educational standards, Malaysian diplomats and civil servants cause the nation great shame on the international circuit. In some cases, some graduates at oversea universities speak only passable English.
English is the language of commerce in many parts of the world. Many research articles are in English. Knowing English opens a whole new world in learning.
Many locally trained English teachers are difficult to understand. Despite their inability to communicate in English, the government has deemed it acceptable for our children to be taught by them.
We also flip flop between the teaching of Science and Mathematics in English and when the nationalists object, the system buckles and our schools revert to teaching these subjects in Malay.
So, why does the government bend to the wishes of Malay extremists?
It is alleged that the Ministry of Education destroys our educational standards by lowering the pass marks for examinations. This gives the illusion that students are good, when the opposite is true.
Many Malays must realise that they are being kept ignorant by leaders who know that a well-informed, educated and articulate rakyat poses a threat to their power.
If you want to destroy a nation, there is no need to drop nuclear bombs or use other threats. All one has to do is to tinker with the education of the country.
(Mariam Mokhtar is a Freelance Writer.)