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How English-medium schools vanished overnight

I refer to the letter Wake up Najib, our education system is a failure .

In lambasting Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak, Richard Teo went on to accuse his late father, Abdul Razak, of abolishing English-medium schools. I think Teo got his facts wrong and I would like to correct him on that score.

It was not Razak who sounded the death knell for English medium education in Malaysia which took place on Jan 1,1970 when all English-medium schools beginning from Standard One were changed to Malay-medium with English being taught only as a subject. Thereafter, the conversion process took place each succeeding year such that by 1983, all those who entered Std 1 in 1970 would have studied all subjects in Bahasa Malaysia up to their first year in university.

Hence in 13 years, the English-medium educational system from primary, secondary, post-secondary and university was completely phased out - with dire consequences as we can see today in the era of globalisation.

The move to end English-medium education took place in July or August 1969 when Malay feelings against Tunku Abdul Rahman were very high, shortly after the infamous May 13 racial riots in KL. Demonstrations by Malay students took place against the Tunku at Universiti Malaya, Mara colleges and other places.

They had been influenced by Dr Mahathir Mohamad's scurrilous letter blaming the Tunku for giving in too much to the Chinese and thus causing the May 13 riots. Among some of the contentious issues that Malay extremists were unhappy with the Tunku was their perception that he had neglected the status of the Malay language and Malay education. Malay-medium schools by and large were inferior to English-medium schools then. Malay extremists wanted to reverse this situation.

Monitoring the issue closely was then Education Minister Rahman Yaakub. Being a shrewd observer of movements in Umno, Rahman could sense the burning desire of Malay language extremists, who form a powerful lobby in Umno, to elevate the status of their language to a level higher than that of English, especially through schools. He decided to take a gamble that fateful day in July or August 1969 - and succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.

Out of the blue, Rahman announced the conversion of all English-medium schools to Malay- medium ones beginning from Standard 1 with effect from Jan 1, 1970. Many, including the Malay language extremists, were caught by surprise as the decision was sudden and arbitrary. Still, it could not be challenged by the non-Malays much as they had objected to it, as the country was under emergency rule exercised by the National Operations Council (NOC).

The Malay language extremists were nevertheless elated and cheered wildly and overnight Rahman Yaakub became their hero, idolised to the same extent as former Dewan Bahasa and Pustaka head Syed Nasir Ismail, another Malay language champion. Rahman was not even a Malay or an Umno member to begin with. He was in fact a Melanau Muslim from Sarawak and a member of Parti Bersatu Bumiputera, an ally of Umno. Rahman who studied law in the UK, was English-educated and spoke English better than Malay which was not his mother tongue.

But that did not prevent the opportunistic streak in him from exploiting a sensitive issue to be a hero of Malay language extremists who were about to emerge as some of the 'king-makers' in Umno after the May 13 incident. Rahman had become so popular among the Malay language extremists that when he resigned as education minister to contest the Sarawak elections in 1970 on the instructions of Umno, the Malay language extremists 'protested' asking for his retention as education minister.

The mainstream papers, of course, gave wide and prominent coverage of the event with pictures showing Rahman crying and asserting that 'the (Malay) educational system was too strong for anyone (meaning non-Malays) to oppose it'.

On reflection, had Rahman announced his arbitrary decision to phase out English-medium schools if the Tunku had not fallen from grace among the Malays, he would certainly have been smacked down hard as in the case of Syed Nasir when the latter tried to create a big controversy over the government's decision to allow a liberal usage of English after 1967 when Bahasa Malaysia became the sole official language of the country.

With the full backing of the federal government, Rahman returned to Sarawak and became its first Melanau Muslim chief minister in 1970 after the state elections, a tool of Umno to end Dayak political supremacy in the state, erstwhile represented by Stephen Kalong Ningkan.

Rahman had his share of ups and downs in politics, especially his bitterness at being 'played out' by his nephew Taib Mahmud whom he had groomed to take over the Sarawak CM's post from him in 1981, but that is another story. Suffice to say, at this juncture, the non-Malays (and even some Malays) who cherished English education were already condemning him in the strongest possible terms, especially when looking at the sordid mess of the present education system.

Today, 37 years after Rahman Yaakub made that historic announcement, what do we see? Not only students, but teachers, and yes, even university lecturers who can't even string together a proper sentence of grammatically correct English, let alone speak the language fluently.

In the era of globalisation when English is so important, not being able to speak and write the language well seriously disadvantages our students and even working adults up to the age of 45, they who have been schooled under the present Malay-medium education system. It is only Malaysians above 45 as well as those whose parents were educated under the previous English education system who can speak and write English reasonably well to be in tune with globalisation. This because their parents wisely make it a point to converse with them in the language at home.

Mahathir, who was prime minister from 1981-2003, had conceded that though the move to phase out English-medium education was educationally wrong and even disastrous, nevertheless it was politically correct, at least to Umno. On reflection over the years, the move to phase out English- medium education when it was doing so well, was akin to someone cutting his nose to spite his own face.

The Malay-medium national schools have today, in fact, become almost 100 percent Malay Islamic schools with Chinese and Indian parents sending their children to the vernacular schools. Polarisation along ethnic lines has been unprecedented. The Malay-medium national schools remain a symbol of Umno's political rather than educational supremacy to the extend that even top Umno leaders have no faith in them and prefer to send their children to the UK, America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand for their education in English and usually also for matriculation proceeding to university.

In recognising the growing importance of English in the era of globalisation, Mahathir tried to revive the English-medium schools. However the Umno supreme council, which is even more powerful than Parliament, opposed the move on the grounds that it would undo all that Umno had done to ensure the supremacy of Malay education since 1970.

There were fears among Umno leaders that even Malay parents would prefer to send their children to English-medium schools should they be revived. The move to teach Maths and Science in English from various standards beginning 2003 was thus some sort of a 'compromise' on the part of Umno in recognising the growing importance of English while reaffirming the supremacy of Malay-medium education.

English education today remains the domain of the private sector, available only to a privileged few aside from the Umno and BN elites. Never again would it regain its former privileged and cherished status prior to the May 13 racial riots of 1969, more so with the country likely to become an Islamic state in the not too distant future.

To conclude for Teo's benefit, Razak was the education einister in the 1950s and came up with an educational report (The Razak Report) which, in fact, converted Chinese-medium secondary schools to English-medium as part of the government's 'Malayanisation' of the education system where equal status was given to both Malay and English as the medium of instruction in schools. It may thus seem ironical to Teo in the sense that Razak promoted English-medium education rather than killed it as Teo suggested.

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