By Elizabeth Looi
MALAYSIA'S decision to teach mathematics and science in English is often painted as a racial issue.
The Chinese, for instance, have been among its most vocal opponents. Many believe that Chinese primary schools are superior to others, and about 96 per cent of Chinese pupils study there.
But the mixed feelings about the policy, known as PPSMI, also underline the urban-rural divide.
The urban community generally feels that the programme will ensure a brighter future for the younger generation. Those in rural areas, by contrast, see it as a setback for their children.
In Kuala Lumpur, tuition teacher Stephen Arokiasamy, 50, said it is definitely better for children to start learning the two subjects in English.
The civil engineer and father of four has been giving maths and science tuition after work for 15 years.
'Maths and science are technological subjects and they must be taught in English,' he said. 'It will be a breeze for the students when they want to take up science subjects such as engineering in universities.'
Students from urban schools also prefer to learn the two subjects in English as most of them speak English at home.
Shaun Darwin Fernandez, 16, from Petaling Jaya in Selangor, said he had no problem learning maths and science in English.
'I find it so much easier, especially when I have to do research on the Internet. I don't have to translate from Malay to English.'
Shaun, who speaks English at home, said: 'I don't think I can cope if the government suddenly wants to change the teaching system back to Malay. Learning biology, chemistry and physics in English is so much more fun.'
For technician Rosli Dahlan from Kuala Terengganu - in the backwaters of Malaysia's east coast - the story is quite different.
His two children, who are studying in Standard Two and Standard Four - equivalent to Primary 2 and Primary 4 in Singapore - complain about the difficulties of learning the subjects in English.
And Mr Rosli, 42, feels helpess.
'Neither me nor my wife can help our kids with their homework when they can't solve some maths problems because it's all in English,' he said in Malay.
'Their results have been getting worse too. It will be better if everything is taught in Malay.'
Mr Rosli believes that it is important to allow children to develop their interest in a particular subject before expecting them to excel.
'But many kids are no longer interested in maths and science now, including my children,' he said.
He also felt that teaching maths and science in English would not help to improve the students' proficiency in the language.
'They can pursue their interests in languages if they want when they go to the university, but we must first make sure that they have a good foundation,' he said.
But Mr Arokiasamy does not agree.
'If we want a better future for the next generation, we must sacrifice this generation by teaching them maths and science in English even if they have to suffer,' he said.
This article was first published in The Straits Times on January 15, 2009.