Archive for November, 2011




Diversity is the reality, unity the dream


I ATTENDED last week the conference on National Unity: From Vision to Action jointly organised by Yayasan 1Malaysia and the Institute of Strategic and International Studies. The invited speakers and participants comprised young people below 40. The moderators of the two panels and three workshops were older, averaging 65 years of age. A generational divide some would say.

Certainly in their discussions, the groups presented diverse views depending on their background and experience. The young politicians in the panels – Teo Nie Ching (DAP), Khairy Jamaluddin (Umno), Masiung Banah (Upko) and Yusmadi Mohd Yusoff (PKR) made impassioned appeals for more serious efforts to forge unity.

A heightened cultural and religious understanding, a new social contract underpinned by a unified education system, sincerity in power sharing in the nation’s leadership, an empathetic justice system, greater interaction and collaborative entrepreneurship were the calls made by them.

The workshop participants were no less vocal in discussing the obstacles to national unity. They were united in decrying the negative impact of divisive politics and the unbridled ethno-racial chauvinism exacerbated by irresponsible political rhetoric and irrational discourse.

It was agreed that it is natural for people to polarise towards their own socio-cultural groupings with its attendant practices, customs and traditions. However, it becomes incumbent upon every Malaysian to break the silos that encourage segregation in their organisations and communities if they are serious about achieving unity.

In the summing up, Prof Chandra Muzaffar appealed for more substantive analyses of national unity matters where ethnic issues are handled with honesty, sincerity and fairness. Integration with integrity are indeed values which the nation must seriously espouse.

I share Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon’s argumentation for harmony in diversity. Implicit in the concept of national unity is the belief that there is a common path – one that holds shared values and aspirations among people of diverse socio-cultural orientations. The journey towards unity and its twin concept of peace is best undertaken when people accept one another’s differences and strive to define their common goals as a nation.

Building a national identity must necessarily be seen as the process of consolidating our multiple identities as individuals and as members of the groups we belong to – be it ethnic, community, religious, professional or political. What better way to forge greater understanding than to engage one another in open and honest ways, with empathy and compassion.

While fulfilling our roles and responsibilities within our own communities, we are contributing to the nation in constructive and resourceful ways. While we are proud to uphold our ethnic and religious values and traditions, we stand tall in upholding the honour and integrity of our nation.

We are secure in our identity as Malays, Chinese, Indians, Ibans, Kadazans, Dayaks and Eurasians just as there is solidarity in our identity as Malaysians. What is most urgent is for Malaysians to be united by a common national vision.

The bonding among diverse groups will then be sealed through a common destiny. What we must do at the individual, organisational and community levels is to look deep within our own resources and strengths and share them with others. Our talk and walk must be inclusive. We must be prepared to accept one another’s differences. We must engage one another in meaningful ways.

Our concern for the integral values and principles of democracy and egalitarianism must unite us as we seek societal justice, equity and fairness. We must rid ourselves of the tendency to be biased or exclusive.

As we strive to mend the fragile boundaries of race, religion and regionalism we must advocate policies that build strong bridges between people and communities. Activities and programmes addressing issues of national concern in education, the economy, culture and religion, the law, politics and government must be put in the hands of leaders and role models who uphold the values of peace and undertake their duties and responsibilities with a conscience. The voices of reason must prevail over the rumblings of discontent.

Perhaps what must be seriously established are new criteria for leadership roles, starting with the elected members of parliament – the people’s representatives – who must answer a set of questions, for instance “How many friends of another race do you have?” or “How many times have you sat down to eat with people of other ethnic groups?” or “What other religions do you know apart from your own?” or “What are the practices of another ethnic group or religion that you are most fascinated by?”

From the questionnaires, the leaders of political parties can extract a taxonomy of attributes of each aspiring candidate to select the “winnable” ones for the next general election. Only then will Malaysians be convinced that national unity has a chance of becoming a reality in their lifetime.






As a seasoned teacher-lecturer of English language, literature and linguistics and a proponent of excellence in English Language Learning-Teaching (ELT), I humbly offer some pragmatic classroom approaches to optimise the learning potential of students and teachers of the English language.

No amount of platitudes on the virtues of English can produce Malaysian students proficient in the use of the language or teachers adept at teaching it. The mastery of English (or any language for that matter) requires total immersion, that is a situation where learners are completely and constantly exposed to the correct models of the language and will acquire it spontaneously. 

In their home environment children internalise the basic structures of their mother-tongue, including its grammar and pronunciation, without any formal teaching.  In contrast, the second language learning situation places students in a contrived environment with teachers covering a selected syllabus using certain teaching methods and techniques. Success depends very much on the variables which input its processes, among which are the readiness of the students and teachers, the suitability of teaching-learning materials and techniques, and the relevance of the assessment tools.

For many students in Malaysia English is a first or second language learned as a subject in school but reinforced by continuous exposure to a conducive educational and social environment.  For the less-privileged, it is a foreign language with little opportunity for use except in the English language classroom where the teachers themselves are poor models. It is no surprise therefore that there are great disparities in the proficiency levels of English among the population.

How then does one crack the ELT egg to address its problems squarely and come up with effective long-term remedies? How does one intercede the vicious downward spiraling of English standards with immediate short-term solutions? How can the basic requirements of language learning be simulated in the classroom?

First, the English language curriculum must be revamped to adopt and adapt the pedagogical principle of total immersion.  The four traditional skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking must incorporate materials that will expose the students to a wide range of topics at all levels.  Central to this will be a strong literature component to hone their reading and writing skills through activities such as reading aloud, dictation, recitation, role play, drama, answering comprehension, writing essays, summaries and book reports.  Group project work will encourage further interaction, reading and research.

Second, the teaching methodology must be modified to provide for maximum participation of learners in their own learning. What this means in classroom management terms is that the students are grouped in fours or fives with a group leader who will facilitate the activity and allow for peer turn-taking.  Teacher talk is reduced as the teacher’s role will be to guide and monitor the learning with computer-aided input whenever necessary.

Third, the time-tested method of teaching listening and speaking through the use of language tapes must be religiously pursued. Drills in pronunciation and enunciation of words and phrases, and oral practice in intonation of sentences and longer stretches of speech are effective methods in oral/ aural English.. Students are provided with ample exposure to the correct models of spoken English and have the  opportunity to practise speaking aloud.

In the ideal ELT classroom the teacher is the role model that the students imitate and emulate. However, in the Malaysian context one must be innovative and circumvent the problem of the lack of trained English teachers and teachers who are proficient in the language, by using more creative teaching aids and technology-aided learning. At the same time as fulfilling the traditional role of the teacher, these classroom methods if skillfully used will also allow the teachers to improve their own language proficiency as they monitor the progress of the students.

Apart from the language and computer labs which require great financial investment and complex time-table scheduling for the school, a quick and effective investment would be to equip each classroom with a library of learning materials (books, magazines, newspapers, educational toys, tapes, CDs), and to provide every English teacher and student with a personal listening device such as the Walkman. With this ready availability of language tapes and CDs, they can use them in their spare time and free periods, or even borrow them in the weekends and school holidays.

I urge the Education Ministry to collaborate with radio and television businesses, telecommunication corporations and electronic service providers in providing Malaysian students and teachers with language-learning materials and the appropriate technology to learn English in efficient modern and innovative ways.  The Europeans, Chinese, Japanese and Koreans are successfully learning English in language labs and by using personal listening devices.

As part of their corporate social responsibility, corporations can also offer to run training programmes for teachers to bring their language proficiency up to par in the shortest possible time through the use of modern language-learning technology.  The teacher mentoring programme must extend beyond the 300 native speakers from abroad brought in to train local English teachers. Apart from the high cost of importing them, their command of their mother tongue sometimes leaves much to be desired. A more practical move is to mobilise the thousands of retired English language teachers in every state in the country and recruit them on a part-time basis.

Instead of pointing fingers and playing the blame game or getting caught in circular arguments about which comes first – the chicken or the egg – an reasonable government, a business/ corporate community with a conscience and concerned parents can do wonders if they put their heads together for the sake of their children and ordinary Malaysians who, through no fault of their own, are unable to participate fully in national development or contribute meaningfully to it because of poor English.






Halimah Mohd Said


IT’S not difficult to get one million people to petition for the reinstatement of the teaching of Science and Maths in English (PPSMI) in the national education system when the issue is close to the people’s heart and the arguments for the policy seem compelling enough.

The popular reasoning is that because the huge knowledge base of these two subjects is in English, students who are taught in English are better equipped to understand the concepts and handle the subjects academically. Added to this is the thinking that English language proficiency will be enhanced and communication skills improved as students are widely exposed to English in Science and Maths classes. Their command of the international language, it is argued, will stand them in better stead in their future careers.

Surreptitiously appended to the PPSMI petition is the call for parents to be given the right to choose the medium of instruction which best suits their children’s needs. The proponents of education in English argue that, in addition to the national schools in Bahasa Malaysia, Chinese schools in Mandarin and Tamil schools in Tamil, there must be national schools in the English medium. The country has only to gain from a liberal education policy which produces school leavers fluent in English, they add.

Being academically qualified in English language, literature and linguistics and professionally trained to teach these subjects in schools and universities for more than thirty years, I would be the first to list the virtues of an English education. There’s no doubt that at the personal level, a good command of English allows access to tremendous information and knowledge, and builds the confidence to communicate effectively in speech or writing wherever English is the operating language.

However, I would not hesitate to support the development of Malay as a modern language of knowledge and communication, of science and technology. Having instituted Bahasa Malaysia as the national and official language to forge the educational agendas of nation-building, national identity and unity, the Razak Report and the Rahman Talib Report formalised in the Education Act of 1961 firmly established Bahasa Malaysia as the medium of instruction in national schools and its teaching in national-type schools.

As a result of concerted efforts to ensconce education in the national language since the 1960s, Malay has grown from its status as the lingua franca of everyday communication to the formal language of administrative, academic and literary discourse. Through the work of Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, its vocabulary, spelling system, grammar and pronunciation have been modernised and standardised to a level that has not been achieved even by the English language. To meet with advancements in the major fields of knowledge, terminology in Malay has been growing by leaps and bounds enriching the language further.

Malaysians who doubt the ability of the national language to deliver a sound education system in all academic subjects including Science and Maths must be reminded of the giant step taken to establish Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia in 1970. Since then UKM and other public universities have continuously produced graduates educated in Malay. They are among the country’s outstanding academicians and professionals who effectively add value to the national treasury of skills and expertise.

Parents who think that Science and Maths can only be effectively taught in English must be reminded of the basic pedagogical principle that among young children, concepts and notions are best acquired in the mother tongue or language of constant exposure in the school system viz Bahasa Malaysia. If they want their children to be educated in English there is a wide choice of private schools, colleges and universities to choose from at home and abroad.

It is a fallacy to link the abolition of PPSMI to the falling standards of English or to argue that learning Science and Maths in English will boost proficiency in the language. Even among those educated in English, it is not the scientists and mathematicians who are the most articulate but rather, those educated in the humanities. It is subjects like English Literature, History, Economics and Law which provide ample opportunities to read, speak and write in English.

What the proponents of English must urge for is the total revamp of the English curriculum, including the syllabus and teaching methodology. If the teaching of existing subjects in English runs contrary to the national education policy, the Education Ministry must seriously consider bringing in English Literature as a strong component in the English curriculum.

Rather than adopt the hop, skip and jump strategy when handling important educational issues, concerned parents must synergise with teachers, English Language Teaching/ Learning experts and ministry officials to propose a fresh model for ELT benefiting both teachers and students in the short and long terms.

A much lamented issue is the insufficient number of trained English language teachers and that those assigned to teach English are themselves not proficient in the language.

Rather than be circular and heap blame on the poorly qualified English teachers who teach their children, parents must get around this issue and press the government to provide continuous in-house training to bring teachers’ language proficiency up to par. Teachers must also be weaned off outdated language teaching techniques and be retrained in innovative methods of effective language teaching.

If the government can come up with a comprehensive plan of action to allay the apprehension of parents and NGOs representing them, much will be gained. Rather than exacerbate the chicken and egg situation that the Malaysian public is good at playing, the egg must be cracked with a bull’s eye and the bull taken by the horns.

November 2011