There are many different languages spoken in Malaysia. However, Article 152 of Malaysia’s Constitution states that Malay or Bahasa Malaysia is the country’s official language. This is the general medium of instruction employed by Malaysia’s educational system. Mandarin and Tamil are also taught in national-type schools because of the large population of Chinese and Indians in the country. English, on the other hand, is taught only in international schools.
However, in 2003, the PPSMI policy was implemented. It was initiated by Run Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the prime minister at that time. According to this policy, science and math subjects were to be taught in English. This was to ensure that future citizens of Malaysia will not be at a disadvantage compared to citizens of other countries in this era of intense globalization. The internet then was fast becoming an important tool for education, business, politics, etc. Therefore, English proficiency seemed essential.
By 2009, there was a reversal of the PPSMI policy. This meant that science and math were no longer going to be taught in English after 2012. Bahasa Malaysia will be the medium of instruction for both subjects together as with all the other subjects. While in national-type schools, Mandarin and Tamil will be used.
The government went ahead with the reversal and used one of the UNESCO studies as basis for the decision. According to the studies made by UNESCO, students are able to learn better in their mother tongue especially during the earliest stages of education.
Many people were opposed and are still opposed to this reversal. They come from different groups: members of the academe, parents, teachers, students, among other. However, there were and still are many supporters of the reversal from the same groups of people mentioned earlier. Studies and arguments continue to be presented left and right. The debates never seem to end.
It is interesting to ask whether parents should actually have a say on this matter. Someone cited the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights as saying that children should be educated according to their parents’ wishes. Would the parents want their children learning only Bahasa Malaysia? Or would they welcome English as a medium of instruction for science and math?
In a world where the lingua franca for science and math is English, are the Malaysian children then put to a disadvantage? What about in other nations? Is English used as the medium of instruction for both science and math? How then are their students faring? Is the national language of those countries that use English to teach science and math being compromised?
This is indeed an interesting time for Malaysia’s educational system and for its official language. Malaysia should find a way to balance their desire to be competitive in this time of globalization with their aspiration to keep their national identity intact by ensuring the sovereignty of their official language, Bahasa Malaysia. The government must find a win-win solution to this challenge because they have the power to write the future of Malaysia through the language used to teach their future generation.