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Little did I know that there were masses of people on the streets of Kuala Lumpur protesting the use of English to teach Maths and Science in schools last March. Nor did I know that the Ministry of Education is actually bowing to public pressure and reverting the system back to being fully in Malaysian.

I'm quite upset they're deciding to scrap Maths and Science in English. On the one hand, the government's use of grades as a barometer of students' progress is both understandable and contentious. They may be worried about the longterm ability of rural students to get into tertiary education based on their grades. However, the simple truth of the matter is that students who learn Maths and Science in Malaysian will suffer grade issues in university if they don't grasp the concepts in English early on. The extra time required to mentally 'translate' concepts the kids already spent 6 years of high school learning in college is that grinding.

Because college subjects are taught predominantly in English, or using English textbooks, the students will face numerous difficulties first in understanding the text they're reading, and forming answers to questions in exams. They will have had enough traning in writing out essay questions in high school, but in the Malaysian Language. This is actually a problem that isn't just restricted to students who learn Maths and Science in just Malaysian, however, as students who have been taught the subjects in any language other than English have a preponderance to suffer. I've met students in college who learnt Maths and Science in Malaysian and Chinese while in high school, and they had to struggle with language barriers to engage with their lecturers in written and oral communication, even though they technically knew the basics of their subjects. I've also met white collar, working college graduates in Malaysia, who, after scraping through 4 years of English-language college education, can't be trusted to write decent business correspondence. I'm just not sure our workforce needs another dearth of successful entrepreneurs and workers who embarrass themselves in public while communicating with foreign businesses.

When I was in school, the only real option to study subjects in English was to attend expensive private institutions. Incidentally, students in private, English-language medium schools learn to speak Malaysian just fine. The private schooling system typically teaches from Malaysian-language textbooks, with lectures in English. Malaysian is taught alongside English as languages of equal stature. This method does not stop their students from taking the national university entrance exams (in Malaysian) or impedes their ability to excel at them. Studying in English also made the transition to British/American/Australian/Canadian/Irish/Singaporean university life (to name a few foreign locales Malaysian university students strive towards) much less jarring, as the students were both able to communicate with their lecturers and settle down in their new environments much more comfortably. If the government's concern is that rural students should also have a fair chance at higher learning, then it shouldn't make English an elitist field of study.

I hope that at the very least, the government is planning a compromise -- the option for schools or students to study Maths and Science in either English or their native language, an option that, in hindsight, was probably the path they should have started with. By the sounds of it, the current issue is training enough teachers with an affinity for English to teach subjects, and the idea of increasing lesson time devoted to teaching English is encouraging. That nationalist politicians are turning this into any sort of ethnic language/religious identity debate at all is exceedingly sad. This should be about creating students that can compete and participate in the world's leading universities and job markets, not how to racially polarise our country further.

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