12:04pm 30/01/2023
Why students don’t sit for SPM Chinese language
By:Wong Tai-Chee

On January 27, 2023, Kwong Wah Yit Poh published a worrying news on its front page: Deputy Education Minister Lim Hui Ying said, “Students do not like to sit for the SPM Chinese language paper; as a result of this Chinese primary schools have problems recruiting Chinese language teachers.”

It is a ruling that a teacher must have scored a credit (C6 or better) in SPM Chinese language paper to be qualified to teach Chinese language in a primary school.

As of today, the yearly number of students registering to sit for the SPM Chinese language paper has dropped to 40,000, making up only a small part of the total ethnic Chinese candidates in Malaysia.

Given this downward trend of development, apart from those SPM graduates with excellent Chinese paper passes who are not prepared to become teachers, there will be tremendous problems getting enough qualified Chinese language teachers in the long run.

This is alarming and definitely embarrassing!

Indeed, Lim Hui Ying’s statement could have been more accurately put this way: “Students are afraid to take the SPM Chinese language” because low scores in this subject will affect their overall performance.

Why is it so?

For most of the ethnic Chinese children who after passing their Primary Six, would choose to continue their studies in national secondary schools where Malay language is the main medium of instruction. Here, they may continue to take Chinese language which is optional, as an elective.

However, lessons are often arranged during non-normal class hours. If it is arranged on a Saturday which is a rest day, parents may not encourage their children to take Chinese lessons, and they would rather arrange for them extra tuition to study “more important” subjects.

Even with this inconvenience, there are students and parents who insist on continuing to study Chinese after graduating from Primary Six in a secondary school.

The most unbearable issue is nevertheless the “non-objective correction” of SPM’s Chinese language grades.

Rumors have been commonly heard in the midst of the Chinese community that the Ministry of Education tends to raise the scores of A grades to discourage students from sitting SPM Chinese.

For example, if you normally get A1 with 75 marks, it may be raised to 85 marks, which makes candidates afraid to take the Chinese paper!

Fear of lower grades

We all know that before the School Certificate Examination/Malaysian Certificate of Education (SC/MCE) was replaced by SPM in the late 1970s, all examination papers, except Chinese, were marked and graded in the United Kingdom.

For Chinese language subjects, it was a matter of good rationale that they were marked in Malaysia, as local Chinese language teachers were far better qualified than those in the UK.

The British Cambridge Examination Board understood that too well and they would not interfere with that arrangement.

Nevertheless, local marking of the Chinese language subject meant grades would be submitted directly to the Malaysian Ministry of Education. This would give the Ministry of Education room for “adjustment,” as the British Cambridge Examination Board would not intervene out of courtesy and trust.

Consequently, the “adjusted” results might have matched the rumors spread around and acted as a psychological blow to students.

After the implementation of SPM, the Ministry of Education took over the examination management of all subjects.

Half a century has passed by, where the Malaysian language policy should go is the key concern, and it is also opportune for Malaysia’s top decision-makers to reposition our language policy.

From the perspective of national interests, there are two key issues to consider.

The first is political rationale.

For ethnic Chinese Malaysians to continue to learn and use their Chinese mother tongue, does it really hinder national unity? The answer is obviously not. However, those who fight to maintain Chinese education including the Chinese community must be aware of the fact that it is the obligation and responsibility of Chinese children to learn well the national language which is Malay.

To consolidate national unity, good communication and mutual trust between races are a prerequisite, on the top of which there is another religious barrier between the Chinese and their counterparts.

Clearly, having a solid knowledge in Malay language will also make it easier for ethnic Chinese to truly participate in state affairs and make contributions more effectively in the Malaysian society.

National interests always stronger than blood or language ties

Besides, non-Chinese national leaders think that ethnic Chinese who have a good standard of Chinese language may be inclined to be closer to China than to their own country, Malaysia. This worry is uncalled for.

I firmly believe the present generation of Chinese Malaysians under the age of 50 have virtually detached themselves from the previous generation’s mindset of “overseas Chineseness.” Malaysia to them is their only homeland.

In practice in international relations, it is national interests that determine the relationship between countries, not blood or language ties, nor public opinion.

As an example, I wish to cite that towards the end of the First World War (1914-1918), the United States decided to join the war by supporting Britain and France against Germany and Austria, purely out of national interest rather than public opinion.

By public opinion, Americans of German and Irish ancestry who outnumbered their countrymen of British and French ancestry would likely choose to fight on the side of Germany and Austria. Irish Americans opposed Britain because they were supporting Ireland fighting for independence from Britain but the Irish were brutally suppressed by British armed forces.

Second, with the rise of China’s economic status and the improved status of Chinese language in world trade, it is foreseeable that Malaysians with good knowledge in Chinese language will make greater contributions to the overall Malaysian economy.

After all, having Malaysians equipped with a good standard of Chinese language will do no harm to the country, yet this will benefit the country even more.

But I wish to remind that Chinese Malaysians who benefit from the language advantage when doing business with China should seek reliable and capable business partners from other ethnic groups. It is key to share benefits with others.

Our analysis above has speculated the high probability of the Ministry of Education’s control of the SPM results over the Chinese language paper, probably as a means to discourage candidates from taking the Chinese language paper.

This speculation has tied in with national interests as they are closely linked at the macro education policy level.

My objective is to convey the message to top national leaders that allowing ethnic Chinese children to learn freely their mother tongue and consolidating their ability in Malay language does no harm to the nation.

From the perspective of national interests, it is instead a matter of killing two birds with one stone.

(Wong Tai-Chee has his B.A and M.A degrees in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Paris, and earned his PhD in Human Geography from the Australian National University. After teaching 20 years in Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, he retired in 2013. He then worked as Distinguished Professor for two years at Guizhou University of Finance and Economics, China, and as Dean and Professor at the Southern University College, Johor until the end of 2018. He was Visiting Professor to University of Paris (Sorbonne IV), Visiting Fellow to Pekin University, Tokyo University and University of Western Australia. His main research interests are in urban and economic issues, and more recently on Malaysian politics. Besides his 15 self-authored and edited book volumes, he has written over 100 academic articles and published widely in international journals.)


Wong Tai-Chee


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