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Malaysia attempts to halt slide ...

Claudia Civinini describes how initiatives designed to reverse falling levels of English have faced delays and been met with some resistance

‘Most older generations of Malaysians, particularly those who received their primary and secondary education during the early years of the post-colonial era, from late 1950s to 1970s, when the medium of instruction was still English, have proficiency levels that are almost native-speaker level,’ according to a former English teacher (who wishes to remain anonymous), now coordinating EL programmes at provincial level in Malaysia. But she added, ‘The level of English language proficiency among today’s generation of Malaysians is declining in comparison.’


The Malaysian press has given extensive coverage to the country’s falling level of English, from complaints about English teachers’ proficiency to reports that some 1,000 students in Malacca allegedly dropped out of medical school due to poor English. The government has launched different language policies over the years to address the situations, but not all of them seem to have been successful.

The government’s Education Blueprint 2013–25 announced that from 2016 the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) secondary school certificate English paper would be a compulsory pass. However, earlier this year the Malaysian Examination Syndicate, part of the ministry of education, postponed this indefinitely. The ministry said this would give teachers and schools more time to prepare, adding that large numbers of students, especially in rural areas, would have failed the SPM had the compulsory pass been implemented.

Reactions to postponement have been mixed, with parents’ groups accusing the ministry of not taking education policies seriously. However, secondary school teachers and teaching associations were hugely relieved. The Malaysian English Language Teaching Association (Melta) and the National Union of the Teaching Profession (NUTP) both supported the decision, calling for an official timeline for the new implementation. Melta told the Malaysian Digest that a four-to-five-year notice would be required to allow students and teachers to fully prepare.

According to our source, a compulsory SPM English pass will not help improve English language proficiency among students as it would place ‘more emphasis on examination-oriented activities in the classroom, which will contribute to a deterioration of the quality of English teaching and learning’. In her view, the best way to foster proficiency in English is to instead immerse students in the language.

The government launched its Empowering Bahasa Melayu and Strengthening the English Language (MBMMBI) policy in 2010, which replaced the Teaching and Learning of Mathematics and Science in English (PPSMI). The ministry of education admitted that, ‘if the PPSMI policy is continued, a larger number of our pupils will fail to master mathematics and science and will eventually be left behind’.

The MBMMBI policy reinstated the Malay language as a medium of instruction at national and secondary schools, and added more teaching hours for English. It will also launch the Dual Language Programme (DLP) later this year, with 300 primary and secondary schools taking part in the pilot. Under the DLP, schools will be able to teach science and mathematics in English to three year groups: standard 1(6–7 years old), standard 4 (9–10) and form 1 (12–13), the Rakyat Post reported.

Our source agreed the DLP will probably work better than the PPSMI as it gives schools and parents the freedom to make their own choices. ‘A school can only offer DLP if there are fifteen or more parents who want their child to be in the English language programme,’ she explained. ‘I strongly believe that a programme can only be successful if the people involved are willing to be in it, rather than forced to do it.’

In line with the MBMMBI policy, the education ministry announced in mid-2015 that it would hire trained English teachers from India to help raise the competence of local teachers, but the controversial move was put on hold in November. The Star Online reported that the ministry had a technical team deciding whether ‘there was a need to take in English language teachers from overseas or utilise local teachers, including pensioners’, and that the results would be released in 2016.

In November 2015 the state of Sarawak made English, along with Bahasa Malaysia, the preferred official language of the state administration. ‘I am just being practical – we don’t want our graduates to be unemployable,’ the chief minister told the Malaysian press. Despite support from the ministry, he has received sharp criticism from Malay-rights groups and other politicians. The state opposition leader, although agreeing with the decision, cautioned him that the federal government could invoke the national language policy and ask federal government agencies in Sarawak not to entertain any correspondence in English, or refuse to fund language training programmes for civil servants.

The Gazette contacted the Malaysian Ministry of Education for a comment but as we went to press we were still waiting to hear back from them.