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Language Teacher

The Language Teacher

Issues in the Teaching of English in Malaysia

Hannah Pillay

Specialist Teachers Training Institute, Kuala Lumpur

JALT98 Special Guest Speaker

Dr. Hannah Pillay is the JALT Asian Scholarship Award Recipient for 1998. She will participate in the 4Corners tour and will make presentations at JALT98. Her visit to Japan is being sponsored by The Language Institute of Japan, Odawara, and her rail transport in Japan is being supported by Intercom Press, Fukuoka.

Malaysia is a multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-lingual, and multi-religious country. The multi-racial composition of Peninsular Malaysia is a result of British colonial economic policies in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The discovery of tin and the introduction of rubber plantations created the need for low paid manual labourers. As the local Malay population were more interested in padi farming, the Colonial Government encouraged the immigration of Chinese to work in the tin mines and Indians to work in the rubber plantations in the early 20th century. By the time immigration was halted in the 1930s, a sizeable proportion of the population was of immigrant stock.

Historical Background

At the point of independence in 1957, the language of instruction in Malaysian schools was determined by the types of financial support given by private organizations: Christian missions funded English medium schools in urban areas, and Chinese communities funded Mandarin medium schools in predominantly Chinese areas. Primary level instruction could be carried out in Bahasa Malaysia, English, Mandarin, or Tamil. At secondary school, the languages of instruction were English or Mandarin, and at tertiary levels, English was the only language of instruction for all subjects.

One of the priorities of the newly independent government "was the establishment of a National system of education to (a) restructure the system to provide national unity; (b) develop a national language; and (c) redress economic imbalances" (Watson, 1983, p. 136). The Razak Report of 1956 (Government of Malay, 1956), which became the cornerstone of Malaysian educational policy, emphasised that a common syllabus was necessary to promote the development and unity of the new nation. It was hoped that a common language (Bahasa Malaysia) and a national education system would create a common culture and a new national identity in a pluralistic society. The Ministry of Education was set up to centrally control the curriculum and the examination system and to restructure the school system.

Steps were taken to establish a number of secondary schools which would use Bahasa Malaysia as the medium of instruction. Furthermore, Bahasa Malaysia became a compulsory subject which was required for the national school examinations certificate. The Razak Report also stated that English would be taught in all schools as Malaysians would need the language in economic and professional fields.

The policy of using Bahasa Malaysia as the medium of instruction in schools was implemented progressively, starting with year one of primary school in 1970. By 1983 the whole school system was using Bahasa Malaysia as the medium of instruction. Although certain primary schools were allowed to continue using Tamil or Mandarin as the medium of instruction, the curriculum content of syllabi was planned by the Ministry of Education to ensure some form of unity in the content.

Despite the decision to introduce Bahasa Malaysia as the medium of instruction, the government was committed to a policy of maintaining English as a strong second language. Consequently, English was taught as a subject from year one of all Malay medium primary schools and year three of Chinese and Tamil schools. Various government documents continued to stress the economic, international and political value of English.

Despite its official secondary status, English was still widely used in higher education as most of the reference texts were in English. University undergraduates studied English as a compulsory subject in order to be able to access reference materials, which were mostly in English. Malaysians still valued higher education in English speaking countries, as a good command of English continued to be seen as a means of educational advancement. The government also funded large numbers of students to acquire professional degrees overseas.

English After 1970

Although Bahasa Malaysia is the official language of administration, English is used to write some statutory documents, which are then translated into Bahasa Malaysia. English is also widely used in most of the high courts and in the diplomatic service.

In the private sector, most local and international business is conducted in English. The exceptions are transactions which involve government departments. This has led to a split between the public and private sector where the public sector operates in Bahasa Malaysia and the private sector in English.

Socially, English is widely used as a language of communication in urban areas amongst large numbers of people from the upper and middle classes and people who have been educated in English or who have studied overseas.

English continues to be utilised by the mass media. Television stations broadcast a large number of programmes in English, although many of them now carry subtitles in Bahasa Malaysia. News bulletins in English can be heard daily over radio and television and there are three English national newspapers The Star, The Sun, and The New Straits Times.

Despite the government's decision to promote the use of Bahasa Malaysia, English still has an important role to play in the social, economic and educational life of the country, especially in urban areas.

Falling Standards of English

In 1991, Prime Minister Mahathir made a press statement highlighting his concerns regarding the poor results the national English language examination which was given at the end of secondary school. He was perturbed that Malaysia might not only lose its economic competitiveness but also find it hard to progress in the industrial and technical fields if its workforce was not competent in English.

In 1995, Minister of Education Dato Najib announced that a quantum leap was needed in improving English standards. The main thrust was the improvement of standards through the introduction of a "tougher English examination" ("Tougher English," 1995). A call for the improvement of teaching techniques and promises of support for beleaguered English teachers were made.

Now that the education system has shifted to using Bahasa Malaysia, and English has been relegated to the status of a subject in the school curriculum, one must expect the level of competence to drop. Fairly or unfairly, teachers of English are being castigated for this "drop" in levels of competence, a fact that politicians and some educational leaders seem reluctant to accept.

This brief historical sketch of the role of English in the Malaysian educational system provides the backdrop to several issues with regard to the teaching of English. The key issues are outlined below.

Proficiency Levels of Teachers

There is a growing concern about English teachers' proficiency and competency. Firstly, we are now recruiting teacher trainees who have had their school education in Bahasa Malaysia and have studied English as a subject in the curriculum. Secondly, since Malaysia wishes to provide every student with access to English education, large numbers of teachers have to be trained. Many of these trainees may not have achieved a high level of competence in English. Thirdly, 1990 to the middle of 1997 were economic boom years. The teaching profession had to compete with other professions to attract competent young people. The higher pay and other perks offered by the commercial sector has meant that the teaching profession has been able to attract fewer people with a high level of competence in English to train as teachers. The public, especially parents, has often raised this issue in the press.

The Disparity in Competency Levels

A serious issue is the disparity in levels of competency amongst students. Case studies of five different schools (Pillay, 1995) indicate that this divide is along lines of socio-economic status and between urban and rural schools. Students who have high levels of competency tend to come from English speaking homes, have greater exposure to English outside the classroom and tend to come from the higher socio-economic status group. Those with lower levels of competence come from either rural schools where exposure to English is limited or from low socio-economic groups in urban areas. This has serious long term implications, as a high competence level in English would give individuals a head start educationally and economically. The question that faces language educators is whether this will create an emerging educated population united by the national language, Bahasa Malaysia, but divided by the "second language" English (Rajah, 1990) and thus widen the socio-economic gap that exists between the economic classes.

Policy Changes

Another issue facing teachers of English is the change in policy of the use of English in tertiary education. In December 1993, the Prime Minister announced that universities in Malaysia would now be allowed to use English as a medium of instruction in courses related to science and technology. Some nationalists and academics feared that as English increased in prominence, Bahasa Malaysia would decline.

In September 1997, the Asian economic crisis hit Malaysia causing turmoil in the political, economic and educational fields. The loss in the value of the Malaysian currency made the cost of higher education in English speaking countries prohibitive. As a result, the Government encouraged the setting up of private universities, while private colleges of Higher Education were encouraged to expand existing forms of link degree arrangements with foreign universities. These institutions are allowed to use English as the medium of instruction for all courses provided Bahasa Malaysia is taught as a subject. ("English in Higher Education," 1998). Foreign universities have been encouraged to set up branch campuses. The eventual plan is to make Malaysia a centre for higher education in this region and recruit students from neighbouring countries.

This change in policy has resulted in the increased use of English to conduct courses in public and private universities and it raises important questions for teachers of English. Will English teachers be able to prepare their students to cope with the higher level of competence needed for tertiary education when English is just a subject in the school curriculum and allocated about 200 minutes a week? Does it mean that the country has to rethink its policy of using Bahasa Malaysia as the medium of instruction in schools and move towards bilingual education? These and many other questions remain unanswered at this point.

The Way Forward

The way forward needs long term plans. In 1997, the Ministry of Education set up two committees to plan programmes to improve proficiency levels amongst secondary school and university students. The Committee for Schools has come up with broad strategies to improve competency levels in schools. Some of the strategies for developing effective and proficient teachers are: upgrading training and enhancing professional development, adopting progressive teaching and learning strategies, upgrading and diversifying learning resources, providing for a more innovative and progressive assessment system, providing for effective monitoring, and supporting research and development at all levels.

Many of these strategies are slowly being developed. Although we are unable to ascertain the effect of these strategies as yet, what remains clear is that there is a concerted effort by the Ministry of Education to improve competence levels of English amongst Malaysians.


English in higher education. (1998, May 4). The Star, p. 18.

Government of Malaya (1956). Report of the education committee, 1956: The Razak Report. Kuala Lumpur: Government Printers.

Pillay, H. (1995). Fragments of a vision: A case study of the implementation of an English language curriculum programme in five Malaysian secondary schools. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of East Anglia.

Rajah, M.T. (1990). Socio-political changes and their implications for second language learning: The case of Malaysia. In B. Harrison (Ed.), ELT documents 132: Culture and the language classroom. London: Modern English Publications.

Tougher English language examinations. (1995, May 23). New Straits Times, p. 8.

Watson, J. K. P. (1983). Cultural pluralism, nation-building and educational policies in peninsular Malaysia. In C. Kennedy (Ed.), Language planning and language education (pp. 132-145). London: George Allen & Unwin.

Article copyright © 1998 by the author.
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