Najib Razak’s Apartheid based on Religion by Dr. Syed Farid Alatas

November 11, 2015

Najib Razak’s  Apartheid based on Religion

by Dr. Syed Farid Alatas

UMNO in Power

Apartheid is an Afrikaans word which literally means “apart-hood”.  It refers to a system of racial discrimination and segregation that was established in South Africa and derives its notoriety from that case.

As in many countries, racial segregation began in South Africa during the colonial period, first under the Dutch from the end of the seventeenth century and then under the British who took possession in 1795. But, it was only much later in 1948 that racial segregation became an official policy. White Afrikaner minority rule was established through legislation by the National Party which ruled South Africa from 1948 to 1994.

Under apartheid legislation the population was classified into four racial groups—white, coloured, Indian and black. Millions of non-white South Africans were forcefully removed from their homes and relocated to segregated neighbourhoods. There was no political representation for non-whites.

The apartheid system went so far as to deprive South African blacks of their citizenship. Instead, they were to become “citizens” of supposedly self-governing homelands called bantustans.

Non-whites became separate and unequal inhabitants of South Africa, with little rights and poor access to decent public services and facilities. Apartheid ended with the election of Nelson Mandela as South Africa’s first black President in 1994.

Although the term apartheid is mainly associated with South Africa, comparisons have been made with Israel. Many scholars and writers have sought to compare Israel’s treatment of Palestinians with South Africa’s treatment of non-whites during the period of apartheid.

Those who apply the apartheid analogy to Israel say that the institution of controls such as military checkpoints, restrictive marriage laws, unequal access to land and other resources, and indeed the West Bank barrier itself, that West Bank Palestinians are subject to, is evidence of an apartheid-type state.

The American linguist, philosopher and political commentator Noam Chomsky said of the Occupied Territories that “what Israel is doing is much worse than apartheid… What is happening in the Occupied Territories is much worse [than in South Africa]. There is a crucial difference. The South African Nationalists needed the black population. That was their workforce… The Israeli relationship to the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories is totally different. They just do not want them. They want them out, or at least in prison.”

What is the danger of an apartheid-type system developing in Malaysia? Most historians and sociologists who have studied the pre-colonial Malay world agree that the racial divides that characterize Malaysia today were far less prior to the coming of the Europeans.

There was a great deal of assimilation to Malay culture and inter-marriage, from where we get the Baba or Straits Chinese and the Jawi Peranakan. But, colonial Malaya introduced racism that led to instances of apartheid. For example, the Selangor Club was a whites-only establishment. Locals, along with dogs and other pets, were not granted admission.

Such an environment enabled the British and other Europeans to keep up the illusion of racial purity and superiority, to forget that they were in the East, and to socialize with their own kind. Physical segregation was accompanied by racist views that the British had of the Malayans.

A.R. Wallace, the nineteenth century naturalist, said in his work, The Malay Archipelago, that “[t]he intellect of the Malay race seems rather deficient. They are incapable of anything beyond the simplest combination of ideas and have little taste or energy for the acquirement of knowledge.”

Perhaps the most well-known stereotype was that of the indolence of the Malays. The Malays were stereotyped as lazy and unwilling to perform hard work. The pioneering work of Syed Hussein Alatas, The Myth of the Lazy Native, argued that the characterization of the Malays and other natives such as the Javanese and Filipinos as lazy was part of the ideological justification of the Europeans to rule the colonies as well as import foreign labour.

The Chinese in Malaya were frequently referred to as “greedy Chinamen” who could be found anywhere there was an opportunity to make money. The European view of the Indians was extremely instrumental, looking upon them as a docile population that could be easily exploited as a source of cheap labour.

In the colonial system, racial segregation was not total. Neither was it absent. Indeed it was a system of mini-apartheid that was founded on racist attitudes towards the Malayans. Now we have to be wary that mini-apartheid is being brought back to Malaysia in a different guise, that of religion.

It comes from an excessive sense of impurity and fear of contamination that can only be a reflection of the social and political insecurity that some Malays are currently experiencing.

In such a context, there is a need to live in a way that exaggerates the Islamic identity so that the Malays can feel that not all is being lost. The emphasis on the tudung and other aspects of the dress code are examples of the bid to strengthen religious identity.

It is, of course, understandable that people would attempt to emphasize their Malayness or Muslimness if they felt themselves to be under threat economically or politically. What is horrifying, however, are attempts by the political leadership to capitalize on these fears by introducing apartheid-like measures.

What is unacceptable is to try to differentiate the inhabitants of Malaysia through legislation that would end up segregating people.

Recently it was announced that the Domestic Trade, Cooperatives and Consumerism Ministry is considering a reckless proposal to legislate the segregation of trolleys for halal and non-halal food items in shopping malls. This is ostensibly to alleviate the fears of Muslims regarding the contamination of the food they purchased by non-halal items.

It was suggested that non-halal products could use red trollies while halal products would use trollies of another colour. Well, let us say that the trollies for halal items were green. This would amount to Muslims using green trollies and non-Muslims using red trollies throughout the supermarkets of Malaysia. As if Malaysians were not divided enough, do we have to deal with yet another identity marker, that of trolley pusher?

Making it compulsory for supermarkets to practise such segregation, or even allowing them to do so, sets a very dangerous precedent and puts Malaysia on the slippery slope towards an apartheid-like state. Will the segregation stop with the trollies?

After some time, it may be suggested by some that Muslims feel offended or uncomfortable to see “pork-infested” items being sold in the same supermarkets that they patronize. They may object to seeing alcohol being sold in front of their eyes. They may demand that there be separate supermarkets for Muslims.

This demand may also be extended to kedai runcit and convenience stores. I can also imagine that in future some people may object to non-Muslims eating in halal restaurants. What is to guarantee that these non-Muslims may not inadvertently bring traces of porcine substances into the halal restaurants?

Therefore, it would seem sensible to call for segregated halal restaurants in which Muslims and non-Muslims dined in separate areas and used utensils that were washed and stored separately. There would even be calls to make it compulsory to have separate restaurants for Muslims and non-Muslims. The call for segregation would escalate to encompass more and more areas of life in order that the Muslim consumer would not worry about contamination.

Malay politicians and religious leaders have to take a decision. They can choose to play to the gallery of narrow-mindedness and racism and take advantage of the obsessions of certain unschooled Muslims. They can choose to capitalize on the ignorance of certain sections of the Muslim population of Malaysia. Or, they can take the lead by educating these Muslims on how to live a decent Islamic life, that is, one with a multiculturalist sensibility, that is not ridden with doubts and insecurities.

The last chapter of the Qur’an, entitled Nas or Humankind, asks humans to seek refuge with God from the mischief of Satan, the whisperer of evil (al-waswas) into the hearts or men and women. In this way, Satan attempts to destroy belief by planting psychological anxiety in Muslims, affecting the purity of their faith and way of life.

The duty of the Muslim is to fight this insecurity and live harmoniously with all. Such a spirit of Islam was exemplified by Sayyidina Ali ibn Abi Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of the Holy Prophet and Caliph of Islam, when he advised his governor, Malik al-Ashtar, to have mercy, kindness and affection for his subjects for they are “either your brother in religion or one like you in creation.”

* Dr Syed Farid Alatas is an Assoc Prof at NUS.


The Closing of the Japanese Mind

September 26, 2015

Ask not (’tis forbidden knowledge), what our destined term of years,
Mine and yours; nor scan the tables of your Babylonish seers.
Better far to bear the future, my Leuconoe, like the past,
Whether Jove has many winters yet to give, or this our last;
This, that makes the Tyrrhene billows spend their strength against the shore.
Strain your wine and prove your wisdom; life is short; should hope be more?
In the moment of our talking, envious time has ebb’d away.
Seize the present (carpe diem); trust tomorrow e’en as little as you may–

The Odes and Carmen Saeculare of Horace.

The Closing of the Japanese Mind

by Noah Smith
Most people who follow news from Japan will be paying attention to the economy, or possibly to the fist-fight that broke out in the Diet over security policy. But there was a huge and very worrying change in Japanese education policy that somehow hasn’t received much public notice.

Essentially, Japan’s government just ordered all of the country’s public universities to end education in the social sciences, the humanities and law.

The order, issued in the form of a letter from Hakubun Shimomura, Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, is non-binding. The country’s two top public universities have refused to comply. But dozens of public schools are doing as the government has urged. At these universities, there will be no more economics majors, no more law students, no more literature or sociology or political science students. It’s a stunning, dramatic shift, and it deserves more attention than it’s receiving.

It is also a very bad sign for Japan, for a number of reasons. First of all, eliminating social science could signal a return to a failing and outdated industrial policy. Many observers interpret the change as an economic policy itself, intended to move the Japanese populace toward engineering and other technical skills and away from fuzzy disciplines. But if this is indeed the aim, it’s a terrible direction for Japan to be going.

Japan’s rapid catch-up growth in the 1960s and 1970s was based on manufacturing industries. This is common for developing countries. But when countries get rich, they typically shift toward service industries. Finance, consulting, insurance, marketing and other service industries don’t produce material goods, but they help organize the patterns of production more efficiently — something Japan desperately needs.  Since it’s a country with a shrinking population, it can only grow by increasing productivity.

But Japanese productivity has grown very slowly since the early 1990s, and has fallen far behind that of the US If Japan is going to turn this situation around, it will need more than a workforce of skilled engineers. It will need managers who can communicate with those engineers and with each other. It will need conceptual thinkers who can formulate business plans and strategic vision. It will need marketers who can establish and increase Japanese brand recognition. It will need financiers who can channel savings away from old, fading industries and toward productive new ones. It will need lawyers to sort out intellectual property cases and help businesses navigate international legal systems. It will need consultants to evaluate the operations of unprofitable, stagnant companies and help those companies become profitable again.

In other words, it will need a bunch of social science and humanities students. So the education change is a big step backward economically. But what it signals about Japanese politics and the policy-making process might be even more worrying.

There may or may not be political reasons for the change. Japan’s humanities departments, like those in the US, lean heavily to the political left, and Japan’s conservative administration is in the process of reorienting security policy. More darkly, the change might be part of a wider attempt by social conservatives — Abe’s main power bloc — to move the country in a more illiberal direction by stifling dissent and discussion.

But the main takeaway is that Japan’s policy-making process is arbitrary and dysfunctional. According to Takuya Nakaizumi, an economics professor at Kanto Gakuin University, the changes were probably written not by Minister Shimomura himself, but by more junior members of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. If that is true, it means that sweeping policy changes, which will affect the entire economic and social structure of the nation, are being made by junior officials via an unaccountable and opaque process.

Nakaizumi also suggested to me that the changes might have been made by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, without consulting the Ministry of Finance (MOF) or the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI). If so, that is even more worrying. METI and MOF understand the need for Japan to build a robust service-sector economy. But if they didn’t sign off on the education debacle, it means that policy that undermines their goals is being made right under their noses.

That would be very bad news for Japan, since it indicates a confused and disorganised policy-making apparatus. The sudden, sweeping nature of the reform, and the fact that it came from the ministries rather than the legislature, also highlights the woeful lack of checks and balances in the Japanese system. It takes large, expensive popular movements to undo the bad policies made by unaccountable officials in back rooms. Such a movement is already coalescing to fight the education policy changes. But even if that effort succeeds, the policy changes will have created great risk, cost and disruption.

Japan needs to keep educating students in the social sciences and humanities. It needs to avoid a doomed attempt to return to a developing-country model of growth. It needs a more robust, less arbitrary, more transparent policy-making regime. Minister Shimomura’s diktat bodes ill for all of these things. — Bloomberg

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

Malaysia’s great – and recent – identity crisis

August 16, 2017

Malaysia’s great – and recent – identity crisis

If ever there was a country chronically afflicted by an identity crisis, it would be ours. Debates rage on about how we should define our identities. For example, do I say I am Malaysian first, or Malay first, or Muslim first?

But why not all or none of the above? After all, many of us from George Town may consider ourselves Penangite first.

While I believe identities are fluid and should not be set in stone, there is something to be said about the pervasiveness of racial identity in our public sphere. Discourse on almost every issue, be it the economy, education and especially anything political, cannot escape the inevitable question of race.


pfsheadmastersBorn in 1816 for Multiculturalism

In the Malaysian context, this is translated into the great dichotomy of our country – the division between the Bumiputeras, a bureaucratic label with no constitutional basis, against the others, who are collectively reduced to the ignominious label of “non-Bumiputera”. As the state actively promotes a distinction between these two groups of citizens, the perception now pervades that there are some Malaysians who are considered to be more Malaysian than others.

Ironically, even the Bumiputera identity itself is full of ambiguities and contradictions. Deriving its modern definition from the genesis of the New Economic Policy (NEP), the term generally encompasses the Malays, the Orang Asli and the natives of Sabah and Sarawak. Yet while government employment and education quotas are supposed to favour the Bumiputeras, its practical application has raised questions about some Bumiputeras being more Bumiputera than others.

malaysiansThis is Penang

Issues revolving around Bumiputera, particularly Malay, rights and privileges are often emotional and confrontational in nature. In fact, for a race that is probably the most inclusive in definition, as anyone can be a Malay provided they fulfil the constitutional requirements of language, religion and culture, the Malay race is perhaps one of the most exclusive and parochial of political identities in Malaysia today. Not only have they walled themselves into a self-created mental fortification, Malay nationalism also adopts a fiercely antagonistic attitude towards their politically constructed rivals, the non-Bumiputeras.

It is no wonder then that former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad once commented that the current Prime Minister’s “1Malaysia” slogan would never be coherent, simply because it essentially means different things to different people.


According to sociologist Frederick Holst, identity has become central to socio-politics in Malaysia because both public institutions and social structures have undergone a process of ethnicisation – the infusing and intertwining of economic or political contestations with collective identities. As a result, the question of race, or more accurately, ethnicity, cannot be separated from any form of discussion regarding our country’s social and political dimensions.

Yet, it is important to realise that such a situation is not naturally occurring but instead a social construction. In other words, the ethnicisation of Malaysian society has taken place through a conscious agenda to create an identity that is primus inter pares (first among equals) in order to legitimise policies that favour a certain ethnic group. Hence, the construction of the Bumiputera identity. While the term is not new and has been used in various contexts prior to independence, its adoption as an umbrella identity for the Malays was essentially a post-NEP concept.

At another level, the concept of “race” is also a problematic one because our understanding of it is essentially derived from colonial knowledge. In fact, race as a genealogical concept to describe the societies in the Malay Archipelago was almost non-existent in pre-colonial times. Often, race was used to describe the milieu, such as humanity, as was the case in the Malay Annals or the Sulalatus Salatin, which I quote below:

Maka sahut Nila Pahlawan, “Adapun kami ini bukan daripada jin dan peri, dan bukan kami daripada bangsa indera; bahawa adalah bangsa kami ini daripada manusia.”

Similarly, the concept of “migrants” or “pendatang” has no historical basis. In Hikayat Hang Tuah, for example, the word “asing” or “foreign” is rarely used, and only in reference to foreign countries. When describing traders from foreign lands, the simple and universal term dagang or merchant is used, without any ethnic, racial or national connotation.

In fact, the concept of race as a social identity only became dominant following the arrival of colonialism. As a case in point, the first modern census in the country was conducted in 1871 in the Straits Settlements and had no reference to “race.” Instead, people were categorised into a multitude of ethnicities, such as Acehnese, Boyanese, Bugis, Burmese, Jawi Peranakan, Malay, Malayalam and so on. It was only in later censuses that the term “race” was used in the context that we are familiar with and the Malay, Chinese and Indian races officially became collective identities.

Overcoming our psychological problem

Ketuanan_zawawiHow right you are, Dr. Zawawi

As can be seen, our own history has much to offer in trying to make sense of our post-colonial nation-state. If we seem confused as a society and unable to escape our identity crisis, it is because we do not truly appreciate the richness of our origins. As controversial as it may be, the conversation about who we are, where we came from and who this country belongs to is one that needs to take place. However, it also needs to be discussed rationally and objectively, without being pulled into the myopic frames of ethnocentrism.

Contrary to what the federal government thinks, the way to foster such constructive discourse is to allow greater space and more debate, rather than stifle alternative opinions through draconian legislation. But while ideas should be allowed to propagate, there must also be room for them to be challenged. It is only through such a process, of mature deliberation and openness to contrarian opinions, that we can shake off the noise surrounding the issue and finally discover our true Malaysian identity – or identities.

Zairil Khir Johari is MP for Bukit Bendera, Penang, and Executive Director of Penang Institute.

Balan Moses on Learning English

 June 15, 2015

Balan Moses on Learning English

by Balan Moses

Learning English at the University of Cambodia at  the beginning and a success story: It takes Political Will and Personal Perseverance and Grit

The issue of  whether English should be the medium of instruction in schools has been talked to death in recent years with only funeral rites yet to be observed over the demise of the grand old lady of language.

Ever so often, concerned citizens will give vent to angst over the Malaysian malaise where English is concerned and the powers-that-be will  respond in a patronising father-knows-best tone that the matter was being studied.

To be sure, recent Malaysian history is replete with such studies — truly embarked upon or just a figment of someone’s imagination — that have entered the mists of time due to changes in the political administration of the education ministry.

Let’s be frank about this: no amount of pressure from any quarter will have any bearing on the debate over English if the Education Ministry (read Minister) is not party to it.

The fact is English has been battered beyond recognition over the years by well-meaning nationalists wanting to champion Bahasa Malaysia in its rightful role as the lingua franca of the people.

Even as I stand up for English, I shudder when some young non-Malays today fail to put together a proper sentence in Bahasa Malaysia despite the latter being the medium of instruction in all government schools since the 1970s and one of the elements that binds us together as Malaysians.

Every Malaysian since I took my Malaysian Certificate of Education (MCE) in 1972 has been required to pass Bahasa Malaysia at MCE and Sijil Pelajaran Malaysian (SPM) levels or go nowhere in local life.

The sad fact of the matter is that many young non-Malays are neither good at Bahasa Malaysia or English, no thanks to a built-in antagonism for the former in some  and the lack of heart among the authorities in teaching the language for the latter.

For the majority of Malays who came into the mainstream of Malaysian  life in the 1980s, English  has  been a foreign language to be studied merely to pass examinations and not for use in daily life.

Orang Putih, as in the language, has by and large become something that  Malays who studied  abroad speak to each other in small and select groups with common political, social or religious interests.

I was intrigued recently when I heard a small group of retired Malay Balan Mosespoliticians in their late 70s and 80s hold an hour-long conversation in an eatery entirely in English on issues concerning their common interests.

I have seen this in various other settings where Malays  schooled locally and who, perhaps, read their degrees abroad were even more comfortable in English than their mother tongue.

The long and the short of it is that English has suffered equally among Malays and non-Malays. To put things in perspective, I am not the first journalist to comment on the dirge being sung over English and, most certainly, will not be the last.

Time was when Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh and Penang were bastions of the English language and, in my humble opinion, a notch higher in its finery than our southern neighbour .

I know I may come in for upbraiding by our southerly cousins for saying this. This could have been the result of the sheer number of English speakers in the peninsular,  taking into cognizance the excellence than comes out of competition.

I am not ignoring the likes of lawyer and politician David Marshall, poet Edwin Thumboo and writer Catherine Lim and the legion of other Singaporeans who stand equal to the best in the use of  the Queen’s English.

An illustration is in order to show where we once were in the use of English .I remember visiting Seattle on a junket in 1984 and speaking to an august gathering of intellectuals about the Malaysian way of life on behalf of our group of reporters.

Our audience was beaming when I ended and the first question asked of me was whether Í spoke English on a daily basis and where I had picked it up. They were confused when I said that my entire primary and secondary education was in English. How was that possible, they asked, when I was brought up in Asia.

My reply that Malaysia had been  a colony of Great Britain and that we had inherited their system of education in English, at least until the early 1970s, left them befuddled.

But I digress as the thrust of this comment piece is to ascertain if there is a future for English in Malaysia after a disastrous 40 years or so of it languishing in the doldrums.

The provocation for this baring of my soul comes from a statement by HRH The Sultan of Johor who said Malaysia should follow Singapore in making English the medium of instruction in schools to maintain the nation’s competitive edge in all spheres of activity.

The Ruler should know, given the geographical reality arising out of the republic’s proximity to Johor and the attendant relationships forged over time with the Singaporean man-on-the-street who today speaks arguably better English than the average Malaysian.

Only time can tell if mastery of English will engender greater unity among Malaysians as the ruler suggests. Any language, including Bahasa Malaysia, can help unify the people.

At the  end of the day, the government, the people and our young must decide in concert if they want English to regain its once pre-eminent position in our education system to enable our nation to find its rightful place under the sun.

Even if one of the three reject this proposition, it will be  bound for failure and forever remain just a romantic notion in the minds of those above 50 who lived through the glory days of English.  

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.

Reviving English schools–Dr. Wong Chin Huat

June 13, 2015

Note: Dr Wong Chin Huat, Senior Research Fellow, The Penang Institute, whose views on politics, education and social policy I take seriously, penned his thoughts on education in The Malaysian insider some time in September, 2014, nearly a year ago.

I thought I should post it on this blog so that we can continue to discuss English as a medium of instruction in our schools and the revival of well known English schools like Penang Free School, Victoria Institution, Anderson School, St Johns Institution,  St Xavier’s Institution and others throughout the length and breadth of our country. I feel it is vital for us to resolve this issue for the sake of Malaysia’s place in the community of nations. No nation is an island onto itself in an interdependent networked  and technology driven world where science and mathematics play a decisive role.

Dr Wong raised two questions: First, can the current poor performance of Malay-medium schools be significantly improved and made competitive? Second, can the value of Malay language be enhanced? My own view which support Dr. Wong’s position is that we should adopt multilingualism and each community should be given the right to teach their respective languages and cultures.

In my time in the 1950s I learned both English and Malay. Other Malaysians (Malayans)  of my generation went to Chinese and Tamil schools where they were taught in Mandarin and Tamil respectively and also learned English. One can have both national and cultural identities.

The Malays in remote towns and rural communities  went to Malay schools where they were exposed to their own history and culture.  At Form 1 Level, they were admitted to Special Malay classes for them to learn English in schools where English is the medium  of instruction.

For religious education, I was sent to a pondok school  after classes where I was taught how to read the Holy Quran,  say my prayers and  understand Islam from an enlightened village religious teacher who said to my class that Islam was based on iman (faith), ilm (knowledge), and ehsan (compassion). Mind you in the ’50s. My education made what I am today.  I am not a pious man with a skull cap, but I take my faith seriously and try to do good for my fellow beings. Where have we failed in the 21st century? Your views are welcome. –Din Merican

penang-free-schoolEstablished In 1816

Reviving English schools – why and why not?

by Dr. Wong Chin Huat

In a way, many English-speaking persons are like the ancient Chinese living in the “Middle Kingdom”. They believe that their civilisation is the most sophisticated in the world, it sets standards and it defines progress.

They therefore get perplexed and frustrated why some people won’t learn the language and restore the English-medium schools. To appreciate the frustrations of the English-medium school enthusiasts, one must first understand why many others strongly resist the revival of English-medium schools.

Now, one must first unpack the idea of English-medium schools: are they for all or for some? The opponents and their grounds of opposition may be rather different.

English-medium education for all, why not?

English-medium education for all refers to a single stream of schools, which may take two forms. In the maximalist form, English as the sole medium of instruction for all non-language subjects, and in a diluted form, English and Malay or another language share the dominance as mediums of instruction.

The former is roughly what Singapore has today and what we would dr-wong-chin-huathave if the Holgate Report released by the British Colonial Government’s Central Advisory Committee on Education (CACE) in 1951 was followed through.

Meanwhile, the now-abandoned policy of “Teaching of Science and Mathematics in English” (PPSMI) can be seen as a manifestation of the latter. The first ground of objection is not against having a single medium of instruction, but only against English being the chosen medium.

This is where the “mono-streamers” were split in the past, are still split in the present and will continue to be split in the future. They all claim that only one single medium of instruction can unite the population, yet, ironically, they themselves are divided over which language to play that role, English or Malay.

PPSMI, ‘Let them eat cake!’

Roughly, the preference for English indicates a more globalised outlook while that for Malay points to a more nationalist one.

The faultline between the “monostreamers” appears to many as a communal one cutting between the Anglicised non-Malays and the Malays, but it is at least by now more a class one, cutting between the multi-ethnic middle-upper class and the Malay-speaking middle and working classes.

noor-azimah_200x300The latter is best illustrated by the fact that pro-English education lobby, the Parent Action Group for Education (PAGE) is actually headed by an articulate Malay woman, Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim.

The second ground of resistance is the standard mother tongue education discourse, which was effectively employed and convincingly presented in the rejection of PPSMI.

The advocates of Malay-medium schools finally embraced a discourse long advocated by the lobbies of Chinese- and Tamil-schools.

Many PPSMI supporters see that policy is already a compromise from having English as the sole medium of instruction for all non-language subjects. In their crusaders’ frustration, they cannot understand why many Malaysians resist the golden opportunity to improve our English proficiency within one generation’s time and make ourselves more competitive globally.

The simple answer here is class. Not everyone learns in English equally well, because of difference in socio-economic conditions and intellectual endowment.

To begin with, many urban upper-middle class kids are actually speaking English as home language. Hence, they will reap the benefit of learning in their mother tongue while the non-English speaking kids have to struggle to simultaneously learn both the English language and knowledge in science and mathematics.

One’s ability to learn in a second language of course needs not be hampered if one’s parents are rich enough to provide tuition, if one’s school provides fantastic support or if one is simply smart. But what if one comes from a poor family, attends a low-performing (Band 6/7) school, and is not particularly bright?

Will this kid learn more in mathematics and science through English than if he learns them in her/his mother tongue? Now, if he is going to do poorly or even drop out in high school, what benefit are we talking about here that he may pursue physics or biology in some foreign university without language barrier?

“Let them eat cake!” – the “cardinal sin” I see in PPSMI is not about privileging one language over another, but this self-serving one-size-fits-all mentality that presumes “since my kids will do well, so will your kids”, arrogantly ignoring that different people live in different realities.

Now, those who are maladapted to learning in English under the PPSMI policy may choose to make English their home language – never mind their own proficiency – to ease learning for their kids. So, the language gap may disappear in one generation.

While the English they learn may only get them a low-paid job in hotels and restaurants, but their children may stand a better chance to be doctors, lawyers and engineers. This is in fact the path of social upward mobility taken by many families in the colonial or early independence years.

But why should a sizeable portion of an entire generation be structurally marginalised so that the nation can be linguistically transformed? What is the moral justification for such a “class-blind” policy? At the end of the day, is social exclusion the inevitable price for national competitiveness?

English-medium education for some, why not?

One cannot help to think that the PPSMI policy is an inferior alternative for the federal government to divert the public’s attention from a real option – reviving the English-medium schools, i.e., English-medium education only for some, not for all.

That would be basically admitting the policy to eliminate them in the 1970s was wrong. And in Malaysia, it is much easier for a man to be sent to the outer space than for a government to admit its own mistake.

Having English-medium schools as a stream alongside the existing Malay-, Chinese- and Tamil-medium schools would seem to bring two clear benefits.

First, from the perspective of national competitiveness, it will allow students to be linguistically specialised in English, hence filling the need of a globalised market.

Second, from the perspective of social inclusion, it will allow students whose home language is English to enjoy the benefits of mother tongue education, which some 87%-98% of students in other streams of education have been entitled to.

It would be greatly hypocritical for any advocate of mother tongue education in Malay, Chinese or Tamil to oppose the same right for English-speaking kids. In fact we are closer to a national consensus on education if the mother tongue education discourse is embraced by advocates of all streams of schools: Malay, Chinese, Tamil and English.

Will Malay-medium schools be wiped out?

So, what’s the fuss with some people passionately opposing the revival of English schools? The emergence of English schools as a choice for parents and students rather than a uniformity imposed by the state poses two challenges.

First, the questionable “national integration” discourse against diversity in education, suppressing variance in individual needs and choices, will be effectively abandoned. This is just the problem of face-losing.

Second, and the one with real consequence, is that with its much higher market value, English-medium schools may eventually drive all other streams into oblivion – given time, the market may just achieve what the state has failed so far in this “ultimate objective” of creating a single stream.

This is a fundamental problem posed and encountered by multiculturalism. Like unconstrained market competition may lead to monopoly, laissez-faire multiculturalism may lead to the dominance of one culture and the decline or subjugation of others. Simply put, without artificial intervention, diversity in the long run may not be an equilibrium point.

If the English-medium schools are revived, the Tamil-medium schools may be largely gone in a generation’s time while the Chinese-medium schools too will suffer attrition but will probably survive due to the rising value of the Chinese language.

The question that the state will really care is: What will happen to the Malay-medium schools? Will they survive? Will majority of Malay-speaking parents send their kids to English-medium schools? If so, will the graduates from Malay-medium schools be worse than now in their competence and employability?

This boils down to two questions: First, can the current poor performance of Malay-medium schools be significantly improved and make competitive? Second, can the value of Malay language be enhanced?

For the revival of English-medium schools to be politically viable, the answers to the above two questions must be “yes”.

Like it or not, if you want the English language to flourish, you must help the Malay language too. This is however a reality many advocates of the English-medium schools refuse to face.

How can we confidently answer “yes” to the two questions?

Some like to think that the solutions to our educational decline are already there in everyone’s mind, and only political will is lacking. I beg to differ and this is a humble attempt to ask hard some questions. – September 4, 2014.


Learning English at The University of Cambodia

June 10, 2016

At the University of Cambodia we teach English

uc_campus_00Artist Impression of U of C Campus (Ready by October, 2015)

Today I was at the well equipped and modern Language Center, University of Cambodia, I watched how young Cambodians learn to speak, read and write  English. I was impressed. The young student in the video could speak better English than me. He  was confident  and articulate.

English is spoken here in Phnom Penh compared to the time I first lived and worked here some 2 decades ago. 

The Cambodian Government under the leadership of His Excellency Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen made a wise and conscious decision to teach English as a second language. The Prime Minister wanted his people  to  speak  this widely used language so that they can integrate with ASEAN and do business with the world large.

His farsighted policy decision is paying good dividends for his country today. At the same time, the Prime Minister made sure that Khmer is taught as the first language in all schools and universities together with Cambodia’s history, culture and the fine arts. A study of history, culture and the fine arts is vital to the Cambodian psyche. It has to do with their national identity.

University_of_CambodiaAt the University of Cambodia, we offer degree courses in both Khmer and English at the undergraduate, Masters and Phd. levels.–Din Merican