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Are we losing the battle to transform our nation? So many areas of national life – education, national unity, institutional reform, environment – urgently need attention. Yes, we’ve been reminded ad nauseum that change takes time, that our “new” government has only been in office for a little over 13 months, but time is a luxury we don’t have. If we don’t strike while it’s hot, the pressure for change will dissipate and we’ll quickly go back to the old ways. It’s already happening.

National paralysis

We talk about the need for reform. We hold seminars. We write papers. We make promises. But somehow we just cannot seem to agree on the way forward. Everything becomes bogged down in tedious and futile arguments about race and religion. Everything seems to be defined not by our hopes but by our fears and suspicions.

Perhaps nothing exemplifies this sense of national paralysis better than the issue of Teaching and Learning Science and Mathematics in English (PPSMI). A pet policy of Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad to improve the standard of English in our schools, it was  introduced in 2002 and then scrapped in 2012 by the Najib administration. Mahathir is now pushing for its reintroduction.

Appalling standard of English

We all know that the standard of English in our public schools is atrocious. Successive governments played political football with our education system; every two-bit UMNO politician who wanted to burnish his racial credentials was allowed to stomp all over the system with disastrous consequences. Today, even  university graduates have trouble stringing together a proper sentence in English.

Time and again, surveys have shown that the lack of English skills is a major handicap when it comes to finding good jobs. We can grumble all we want about  discrimination in the marketplace but until language skills are improved, graduates entering the job market will struggle to find good jobs.

And yet, despite the urgency to do something about this pressing problem, we simply cannot agree on a plan of action. Every time someone proposes a solution, (PPSMI for instance), somebody somewhere gets offended or feels threatened.

No consensus

The National Union of the Teaching Profession (NUTP), the country’s largest teachers’ union, for example, has now come out against PPSMI. They argue that it is not the solution and insist that the government should instead focus on the quality of teachers and undertake a review of the syllabus. But when Mahathir talks about revising the syllabus – devoting more time to science, maths and English at the expense of religious subjects – other groups protest vociferously.

The Malay Consultative Council is also opposed to PPSMI; they worry that PPSMI will increase “the gap between rural and urban students” (euphemism for  Malay and non-Malay students). They still don’t get it that the “rural” students they are so concerned about are already seriously disadvantaged and falling further and further behind each year. PPSMI is but a small step to try to bridge that gap.

PAS leaders, intellectually bankrupt as ever, are now warning that unknown groups are scheming to make Mandarin the second national language. Of course, it is nothing but a figment of their fetid imagination  but it muddies the waters even further and makes rational discussion about improving English in our schools next to impossible.

To be sure, some of the concerns being expressed – maintaining the primacy of the national language, adequate training for teachers, time for students to adjust, etc. – are not unreasonable but surely it is not beyond us to find appropriate solutions. Difficulties must not become excuses to resist change. All these challenges are not unique to Malaysia alone; others have navigated the same waters and have come out well.

Leadership needed

The lack of real leadership at a time when it is needed most is also worrying. Whenever Pakatan Harapan leaders come up against opposition (especially by Malay groups shouting about Malay rights), they seem to run for cover. They ran for cover on the ICERD issue. They ran for cover on the ICC issue. And now they seem to be wavering on the PPSMI issue.

In the face of rumblings of discontent over PPSMI, Home Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, for example, said that the education ministry is still “studying” the issue.  As we know all too well, when politicians say they are “studying” an issue, it means they are “avoiding” an issue. Look no further than the UEC issue to be convinced.

If they think PPSMI is a good idea, they should proactively promote it, explain it and defend it instead of allowing other groups to define the issues involved.

What hope can there be for change if we cannot even come up with a solution to something as basic as improving the level of English in our schools? If the leadership of Malaysia Baru is unwilling to fight for their own initiatives and policies, how can they hope to push through reforms in more contentious areas like national unity and democratic reform? They don’t need more time, just more spine.

[Dennis Ignatius |Kuala Lumpur |26th June 2019]