Malaysian survey goes viral, 90 per cent want standard of English raised

PHOTO: The Star

THE red flag has been raised for some time on English proficiency among school students. It has been a "hot button" issue especially for concerned parents and employers and yet, consensus remained elusive.

In September, Pemandu designed a simple anonymous online survey to gauge public opinion on the importance of English proficiency among school students.

In just one week, more than 90 per cent of the 190,000 respondents came back to say they were in favour of upping English standards in schools.

The survey went viral in a way I never imagined it would.

Everywhere I went, people said they had replied and commended the Government's efforts to find a solution.

Journalists - both local and international - were buzzing with questions, keen to know what we were up to.

A majority of survey respondents came from urban areas. This clearly meant we had touched on an issue very close to their hearts.

Rural respondents comprised 10 per cent of the survey, with many agreeing that a solution was imperative. Regardless, the Government also acknowledged real concerns amongst this group on whether children would be able to cope if there were blanket rules on teaching crucial subjects in English.

Stakeholder engagements and results from the survey provided a basis for the Ministry of Education to build a compelling pitch from its English lab to the Economic Council chaired by the Prime Minister.

Conducted in July, the lab facilitated by PADU and Pemandu introduced two new programmes under the existing Upholding Bahasa Malaysia and Strengthening the English Language (MBMMBI) policy:

- Highly Immersive Programme (HIP)

- Dual Language Programme (DLP)

The Prime Minister's Budget 2016 included an allocation of RM135mil to support these programmes and a sum of RM38.5mil from this total has been earmarked to facilitate a pilot project to launch HIP and DLP in 2016.

HIP enrichment activities are not entirely new, since the programme is a reinforcement of the 1999 Ministry circular. What is new is the implementation approach - empowering schools, by the schools and for the schools.

Tool kits for purposeful activity planning featuring best practice examples from urban and rural schools would be provided based on their local contexts and capabilities. Support mechanisms at the district and state levels will be ramped up and by the end of 2016, about 1,000 schools are expected to implement the HIP.

Meanwhile, the DLP involves teaching in English subjects such as Mathematics, Science, Design Technology and ICT. Its pilot phase will involve 300 schools that meet certain criteria. To make this work, we need school leaders who agree to implement, capable teachers to teach in English and parents wanting this programme for their children. At the same time, schools must meet the BM mastery levels set by the Ministry.

Other schools wanting to be part of DLP can convey their interest to district education officesso the necessary processes can kick in to assess the school's readiness.

The English lab recommendations on HIP and DLP were fully supported by top Government leadership -the Prime Minister, previous Minister of Education Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, current Minister of Education, Datuk Seri Mahdzir Khalid, the Economic Council, Cabinet and senior Ministry officials.

Given diverse views about teaching other subjects in English, the Government settled on middle ground. We believe the right way in managing polarities is to trigger a bottom-up approach by introducing the element of "choice" for schools and parents. They are now empowered to decide what they want for their children's future without compromising Bahasa Malaysia proficiency.

In taking into account concerns that BM proficiency is not compromised at schools, the Ministry, with both PADU and Pemandu will be planning a lab in 2016 to study this area.

There are 70,000 English teachers in our national schools. To date, close to 12,000 teachers from three cohorts have been upskilled over a period of one year. The first two cohorts have been retested with approximately 60 per cent improving at least one band under the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) English proficiency benchmark.

Many Malaysians have been ceaseless in criticising Government for not taking the right stand in improving English proficiency. In one of my previous columns (, I touched upon the four constellations - principal, teacher, parent and student - needing to be in alignment to make any school great.

With the HIP and DLP in place, the Ministy has created an environment to activate the aligning of these constellations.

More importantly, if you have noticed, decentralisation of decision-making and empowerment of schools and parents are already at play. The future of your childrenhave been placed in your hands as the Government focuses on facilitating a conducive learning atmosphere.

Returning to the importance of English proficiency, growing up in deep interiors of the Sarawak highlands may have been a blessing in disguise for me. There is only so much village-life can do to fascinate you. Boyish curiosity drove me to become aschool librarian because that gave me access to read as many books and find out more about the world yonder. This was my first immersion into English language.

I worked for Shell, an international company for 23 years. In places like London, Holland and Sri Lanka, where I was based - there was no way to excel without being able to speak English. Whilst language iscrucialfor employability, confidence in the language gives you an edge over global peers.

Ultimately, I believe once you master English, the world becomes your oyster. Now that the decisions lie within the constellations, there's nothing to hold us back.