Three Things Malaysia Can Do to Improve Malay Proficiency That Doesn’t Involve Closing Down Schools

What Malaysian public education suffers in quality, it certainly makes up for in quantity: its governing ministry has RM64.1 billion to play with (the most of any ministry), 419,904 teachers who in turn serve 4,939,959 students in some 10,218 public schools.

Public schools in Malaysia depart from the usual one-size-fits-all approach associated with government-built schools elsewhere in the world. One estimate is that there are some 17 forms of public schools in the country. In no particular order, these are:

  1. Sekolah Kebangsaan/Menengah Kebangsaan (National schools)
  2. Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan (National-type schools)
  3. Sekolah Wawasan (Vision schools)
  4. Sekolah Kluster (Cluster schools)
  5. Sekolah Premier (Premier schools)
  6. Sekolah Agama Islam (Islamic schools)
  7. Sekolah Mubaligh (Mission schools)
  8. Sekolah Bestari (Smart schools)
  9. Kolej/Sekolah Vokasional (Vocational colleges/schools)
  10. Sekolah conforming (‘Conforming’ schools)
  11. Sekolah Berprestasi Tinggi (High performance schools)
  12. Maktab Rendah Sains MARA (MRSM; MARA Junior Science Colleges)
  13. Sekolah Berasrama Penuh (Fully-residential schools)
  14. Sekolah Berasrama Penuh Integrasi (Integrated fully-residential schools)
  15. Sekolah Seni (Arts schools)
  16. Sekolah Sukan (Sports schools)
  17. Sekolah Amanah (Trust schools)

For better or otherwise, Malaysian parents have no shortage of options. When one considers the sheer avenues on offer, even before considering private education, this country is spoilt for choice. And in late-stage capitalist Malaysia, more options are always better.

This optimism does not appear to be shared universally, however. Looking past, if only for a moment, the country’s insane politicking, there are efforts to homogenize Malaysian education, namely by declaring national-type schools (better known as vernacular schools) unconstitutional and therefore calling for their abolishment. The justification is the common stereotype that graduates of vernacular education (where the medium of instruction is Mandarin or Tamil) commit the cardinal sin of speaking bad Malay.

Curiously, no such accusations have ever landed on Malaysians enrolled in elite, private ‘international’ schools. Additionally, such efforts come not from the education community at large, nor from the government (which had adopted the usual wait-and-see approach; see M’sian Education Blueprint 2013-2025, p. 7-17), but from a band of lawyers and NGOs. Reasons for doing so mainly concern (1) threats to national unity, (2) segregation of students by racial categories, (3) foreign influences in syllabi and, again, (4) poor spoken fluency of the national language (Malay).

This article regards (4) as the sole, legitimate question, all others having been adequately satisfied or otherwise refuted elsewhere. Speaking from the perspective of a native-born Malaysian who had received their primary, secondary and pre-university education entirely from public institutions, I have no special loyalties to vernacular schools. Still, I believe there are less drastic alternatives to explore before committing ourselves to bulldozing some 1,826 (18%) of the country’s schools, a sentiment shared evenly by politicians from conservative camps.

Here, then, are three things we could do to improve Malay fluency:

  1. Create a Malay proficiency test

At the time of writing, there is no meaningful Malay equivalent to the Indonesian UKBI, the English IELTS/TOEFL, the German TestDaF, the French DELF, the Spanish DELE, the Chinese HSK, the Japanese JLPT and so on. The closest we have is the SKBMW (Malay Language Proficiency Certification for Foreigners), which mainly target international students enrolled in public universities. Otherwise, one would have to contend with taking the Bahasa Melayu paper for the secondary school SPM. Both options are perfectly valid, but obviously nowhere sufficient for the lofty ambitions for expansion expressed by linguistic nationalists.

The reason for this suggestion is this: people like having their hard work recognized. And acquiring a language is hard work. When it comes to a country as addicted to grades as Malaysia, the best way to incentivize learning Malay would be give out swanky certificates of proficiency to candidates who do well. In addition, it would provide much-needed, authoritative definitions of what exactly constitutes ‘good’ Malay, as such a test would ideally be put together by linguists and educationists, i.e. actual professionals.

  1. De-emphasize written tests

This may appear to run counter to the above recommendation. In Malaysia, however, teachers teach to the test, and students learn to the test. The key nuance is in what is actually being tested for. Language tests seek to determine proficiency, and proficiency is just that: functioning in real-world language by reading, writing, listening and speaking. In the classroom, teachers can really only teach and assess performance in controlled environments.

If the goal is for people to be able to do these things in the real world, then the focus should be on listening and speaking skills, rather than reading and writing. Language learning is an organic process. It’s a lot like learning an instrument. One could spend years learning music theory and memorizing scores, but without actually practicing on the instrument, it just wouldn’t work. My own mastery of Malay was extremely informal: from growing up with Ujang and Apo? Magazines to reading the news in Malay.

  1. Abolish Perbadanan Kemajuan Filem Nasional (FINAS)

For those unable to be swayed from the warpath, this article recommends that they channel their destructive energies toward the above address. Essentially Malaysia’s equivalent to the US’ Motion Picture Association, the National Film Development Corporation Malaysia appears to do everything except develop national film. Recent achievements include advocating censorship on Netflix and restricting the role of actors and actresses to their age. In the hallyu age, where entire sections of global society furiously learn Korean just to gain greater access to their favourite idols, movies and music from that part of the world, FINAS is a liability at best.

Linguistic nationalists are certainly right to point out that nowhere else in the world would one find ‘deviations’ in education of such magnitude as in Malaysia. Certainly, countries like Japan do not teach their citizens in English. But neither does Japan possess our richness of diversity in their societal makeup. I see these not as deviations, but as innovation. Above and beyond nation-building and the passing on of culture, the function of education is to get people to learn. If the problem is with Malaysians speaking bad Malay, then the issue is with the way Malay is taught. Unless, of course, none of it actually has anything to do with Malay proficiency.

Written by Brandon Quek

DISCLAIMER: Views expressed in this article are those of the author and they do not necessarily represent the position of UNM IGNITE.

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