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Malaysia Promotes

Excellence in English
BY VINODINI MURUGESAN

Today, however, Bahasa Malaysia is solidly

E
nglish is one legacy of more than a Malaysian public.
century's worth of British colonial rule and irrevocably established as the official
in Malaysia. It is the most important language of Malaysia, thus clearing the way English in Education
foreign language in Malaysia and is used for a new emphasis on the importance of Malaysian students usually receive English
extensively in practically all aspects of daily English without posing a threat to the status of instruction in two distinct ways. Most of them
life, from conducting business transactions to the official language in any way. The gov- attend the public English language education
labeling products to writing jingles for tele- ernment has issued a nationwide exhortation system in government schools during the day,
vision advertisements. English and the official to the people to achieve a high standard of and depending on need, background and
language of Malaysia, Bahasa Malaysia, both proficiency in English, providing incentives preference, receive instruction from either
play a vital role in binding together a and encouragement in various forms. private language centers or qualified freelance
multicultural nation made up largely of three As the primary foreign language in teachers in the evenings. Of course, some
separate and distinct races-the Malay, the Malaysia (often labeled "second language" students exclusively attend private schools
Chinese and the Indians. These groups differ due to its importance and not always from a where English is the language of instruction.
in both appearance and mother tongue and strictly pedagogic perspective), English is English is a compulsory subject in both
rely on one or both of these shared languages evident everywhere. Most people use it-or primary and secondary school,
to communicate outside their and is generally taught in
ethnic groups (in some cases mainstream public schools from
even within them). English and the first year of school until the
Bahasa Malaysia help unite last (eleven years in all). There
people and create a unique are usually five periods of
national consciousness. English in a week, totaling up to
200 minutes or roughly three
The Role of English and a half hours.
in Malaysia There are three major
The importance of the English examinations throughout the
language as a global lingua school years, all of which fea-
franca has always been a major ture English as a core paper.
motivating factor in the learning The first is at the end of primary
and use of the language in school in Year Six (UPSR or
Malaysia, especially as a vehicle Primary School Evaluation
to gain information in science Certificate), the second at the
and technology. Also, as a end of lower secondary in Form
member of the world order Three (PMR or Lower
increasingly embracing global- Secondary School Certificate),
ization via the Internet and the and the third at
Information Age, Malaysia is the end of upper secondary in
aware of the vital need to be lit Form Five (SPM or Malaysian School
erate in English in order to access the wealth a uniquely Malaysian colloquial form of it Certificate). After taking this last exam, stu-
of data available and achieve a reasonable called Malaysian English or "Manglish"-to dents may choose to enter Form Six, which is
measure of success and stature in trade and hold ordinary conversations, give ordinary comprised of two years' work and leads to the
industry. directions or make ordinary remarks. STPM examination (the Higher Malaysian
Despite its history, Malaysia has recently Local television channels screen a wide School Certificate), and thenceforward on to
seen a sharp decline in English language variety of English cartoons, serials, dramas university. Other options include continuing
proficiency, which has provoked the imple- and films in the original language, often sub- education at private colleges or entering one of
mentation of certain measures calculated to titled in Bahasa Malaysia, while cinemas the many post-school matriculation programs
check this and prevent its recurrence. The usually add Chinese and Tamil subtitles to available according to interest.
decline is largely due to a backwash effect English movie releases as well. A few English Competence in English is highly prized
from a change implemented in the early 1960s language films and sitcoms have also been whatever the field of interest, and students are
and 1970s when Bahasa Malaysia replaced written and produced locally, featuring local aware that getting a good grade in English
English as the medium of instruction in actors, and these have been quite successful. greatly increases the chances of acceptance at
schools and as the language used for official No English language entertainment import is both local and foreign universities as well as
matters. In the early days of Malaysia's ever dubbed; this treatment is usually reserved providing a coveted edge in the workplace.
independence, it was necessary for this for Japanese, Korean or Latin American soap In addition to mainstream public prima
fledgling multiracial and multicultural nation operas. A good proportion of local radio
to establish an official language to manifest stations broadcast exclusively in English, and
and reinforce its sovereignty. these are very popular with the

26 ESL MAGAZINE. MARCH/APRIL 2003


ry schools, Malaysia has a substantial number speaking skills. class, although the figure can drop to as low
of vernacular primary schools in which Recently, the Ministry of Education as 35 or rise to as high as 45.
lessons are conducted using either Chinese or announced its intention to implement a radical
Tamil as the medium of instruction. In these step to improve the standard of English in The Teachers
schools, one hour of English must be taught Malaysia-i.e., shifting the medium of Most of the English teachers in the Malaysian
per week at the very minimum, beginning in instruction for the subjects of science and public school system are graduates of
Year Four through to Year Six. (From 2003 mathematics back to English. The change is to government universities or teacher training
onwards, however, English lessons will begin take place gradually over the next few years, institutes, which offer a wide range of courses
in Year One.) Schools are given autonomy to implemented in a carefully planned from English language and linguistics to
decide if they will only fulfill this minimum "staggered" way to allow time for students TESL (Teaching of English as a Second
or allot more time to English. There are no and teachers to fully adjust to the change Language) to English literature degrees. Many
vernacular secondary schools, however, and before the national examinations are official: university graduates from other fields like
students must fulfill an extra year of school ly held in English for these two core subjects. science and geography as well as English
focusing on an intensive study of both Bahasa The rationale behind this rather controversial language graduates with B.A.s instead of
Malaysia and English before they are (but potentially extremely effective) method is B.Ed.s enter the teaching profession after
integrated into a mainstream secondary that students will learn English while gaining completing a post-degree teaching certificate
school. This year of transition between knowledge in science and mathematics, thus in a teacher-training college. The government
primary and secondary education is called the providing a much greater exposure to English has also conducted scholarship programs for
Remove Form and is compulsory for all as a language as compared to merely learning twin degrees between local teacher training
students of vernacular primary schools. it as one subject with limited class time. This institutes and foreign universities in Britain
Some years ago, basic requirements for a will also prevent students from and New Zealand in an effort to maintain an
passing grade in both the PMR and SPM were compartmentalizing English as anadequate number of fully qualified ESL
upgraded, as were the papers themselves, in unnecessary or too-difficult subject (which teachers with a correspondingly high standard
an effort to redress the plummeting standards often happens in rural schools with limited of the language.
of English. The SPM 322 examination was exposure to the language) as well as prevent English language teaching methodology
conjoined with the Cambridge 1119 "0" Level students from taking English lightly since is exhaustively covered as part of B.Ed. degree
paper to produce a hybrid which was their academic performance will be severely requirements, together with a plethora of
altogether far more challenging than the old jeopardized if they do not master the actual related skills like educational theory,
model. A few years later, a literature science and mathematics subject matter. Also, linguistics, phonetics and teaching techniques.
component was added to both papers, the creation of a new generation of graduates Although short practical teaching stints are
including a carefully selected range of poetry who are fluent in English not only as a interspersed regularly throughout the course, a
and prose to further jumpstart student interest communicative device but as a technical and final three-month teaching practicum is
in the language. The SPM English conducted at the end of the academic session,
scientific tool will greatly facilitate Malaysia's
examination incorporating this component aim of becoming a fully industrialized nation and a reasonably high grade in this component
made its debut in 2000 while the PMR paper by the year 2020. is essential before the degree can be awarded.
did so in 2002. Students were, of course, This provides the student-teacher with an
given two years to prepare themselves for the The Students invaluable hands-on experience with English
new element in the language paper. Teachers By the time English lessons are formally language teaching, so that both pedagogic
attended in-service courses organized by the taught in public schools, most pupils are rea- theory and practical teaching guidelines can be
Education Ministry to help them cope sonably proficient in their first languages, optimally merged in the language classroom.
with the change in examination format and to which influences their learning of English in
ground them in the basics of understanding either a positive or a negative way. First lan-
and teaching literature. guage interference is to be expected in such a
Up to 2002, the SPM examination had an melting pot of languages and cultures, and The Classroom and Syllabus
oral examination component which was teachers must be prepared to select and utilize Malaysian public school students usually stay
graded based on the candidate's comprehen- the best teaching approaches to negate or in a classroom, and subject teachers move
sion of a dialogue and ability to respond to counteract it. . between the classes, except in certain subjects
pictorial stimuli. However, this test was found In general, location and background play like science or living skills which may require
to be woefully inadequate since students' an important part in determining students' laboratory facilities. Most classrooms have
proficiency in speaking English continued to attitudes towards English. Urban pupils have notice boards along the walls where the
drop to the point where prospective employers more exposure to the language as well as language teacher can put up any charts or
in both government and private more opportunities to use it. In fact, there are visual aids, and the students can display their
sectors complained about the inability of a growing number of children whose first work.
graduates to converse in even the most rudi- language is English and who may be termed English is generally taught using gov-
mentary situations. This year, a new oral exam native speakers since their parents have ernment issued textbooks which have been
was designed and implemented, aimed at truly chosen to use only English in the home prepared according to the national English
improving students' verbal skills by instead of their ethnic languages. Children language syllabus guidelines set out by the
continuous assessment over a period of two living in rural areas tend to have little expo- Ministry of Education, although teachers are
years rather than a single test, in which the sure to English except whatever is available encouraged to diversify their materials and use
examiners are the students' English teachers at through the radio or television, and so tend to sources other than the textbook alone as long
their own schools. Students are given a choice be more negative towards learning the lan- as they achieve the language teaching
of what form their oral test takes (i.e., guage. objectives for each language lesson. Schools
individual presentation, group discussion, These differences in background result in set out the annual scope of work at the begin-
dialogue, etc.) and they are allowed to take the mixed-ability groups in the English language ning of each academic year to synchronize
tests as often as they wish to in order to gain a classroom, with students ranging from highly what is taught so that examinations may be set
better score. It is hoped that this will prove proficient to complete beginners. Classes are fairly. Nevertheless, teachers must still decide
more practical than the previous oral exam not streamed according to levels of English on the level of language work given for each
and provide a growing Malaysian workforce proficiency, so teachers have to deal with the individual class within a particular topic and
with at least basic English range of abilities as best they can. Class sizes within a particular skill, depending on
average 40 students per students' language proficiency in a partic

ESL MAGAZINE. MARCH/APRIL 2003 27


!.:!'

ular class. Students usually have their own Board, based on competence levels in the four ficiency among graduates. Malaysia has high
dictionaries, and most language teachers use linguistic skills. numbers of foreign students taking local
some form of workbook for classwork or Other centers offer English for academic degrees since Malaysian education is recog-
homework. Schools usually have their own purposes, usually attended by foreign students nized worldwide and is comparatively more
libraries and language laboratories. Some who find it difficult to keep up with academic affordable. The government aspires to make
schools have special self-access learning courses due to a lack of proficiency in Malaysia "The Regional Centre for
centers where students can go to improve their English. Examples of these courses are the Educational Excellence" in accordance with
linguistic skills whenever they are free. intensive English program (IEP) and the semi- its Vision 2020.
The syllabus is based on a communica- intensive English program offered at most There are a number of off-shore cam-
tive model of teaching English according to a centers. Most language centers also offer the puses of foreign universities in Malaysia
skill-based approach. The four language skills basic English language tests needed for offering degree courses in English studies.
(reading, writing, listening and speaking) are entrance into both local and foreign uni- Monash University of Australia is one of
specifically targeted by sequenced activities, versities-the TOEFL, IELTS or Cambridge these, as well as the University of Nottingham
although lately, a new system based on 1119 English. Basically, it is the private lan- (U.K.) and Curtin University of Technology in
"multiple intelligences" instead of the four guage centers' ability to prepare students for Sarawak. All these universities offer degree
skills is being used to increase language these internationally recognized language courses and selected postgraduate degrees in
competence among Malaysian students. These examinations that ensures their status in the English.
"multiple intelligences" are roughly divided eyes of the public.
into three domains: informational use of the Concurrently, teachers in private English Opportunities for
language, aesthetic appreciation of the language centers are reputed to be more highly Teachers in Malaysia
language, and language for interpersonal specialized than those in the public sector, Malaysia remains one of the most open places
communication. In this way, students are some holding post-graduate degrees in ESL or in the world when it comes to job
expected to gain a holistic knowledge of the EFL. Many expatriates work as language opportunities. While the public school system
language as well as the ability to employ it teachers in private schools, and since most are is only open to those with an excellent
towards any purpose. native speakers of English from developed command of Bahasa Malaysia, since that is
nations, this provides much of the impetus the medium of instruction, the private school
Inservice Support which prompts locals to send their children to system as well as the colleges, language cen-
Teachers receive a great deal of support from these centers for English lessons. Any parent ters and universities welcome any qualified
the Ministry of Education, which regularly would prefer his child to learn English from a teacher into their ranks.
conducts inservice training courses, seminars, native speaker rather than someone who has
conferences and workshops on various topics acquired it as a second language, despite paper Vinodini Murugesan has been an English
of pedagogic interest when the need arises. qualifications which bear witness to an equal language teacher in a rural public secondary
The Ministry of Education has recently level of English language proficiency. school in Malaysia for the past four years.
established the English Language Teaching Her classes include Form Three (15 year
English and Tertiary Education olds) and Form Five (17 year olds). Her spe-
Center specifically to provide inservice
training programs to update and upgrade With sixteen fully cial interests include literature and drama.
English language classroom teachers' skills funded government
and expertise. universities offering a
wide range of courses
Private English Language Education in English (linguistics
Apart from being a compulsory subject in
government public schools, private English as well as education
language centers found in all major cities and degrees), there is no
most towns in Malaysia offer English shortage of English
language courses tailored to meet the indi- degrees available to the
vidual needs of people, whether personal or public. The oldest and
professional. Private primary and secondary
largest university, the
schools that use English as the medium of
instruction in all subjects are open to all who University of Malaya,
can afford the fees. These schools are usually has the largest English
attended by students whose parents feel that department and a
they would prefer an English-medium separate English
instruction for their children instead of the
literature degree
public school system which generally employs
Bahasa Malaysia as the language of offered under the arts
instruction. Private schools like Garden and social sciences
International School are popular with both department. Post-
Malaysians as well as expatriates. graduate degrees in
There are language centers offering
English are also
English courses for specific purposes, usually
patronized by those eager to improve their available at many
command of the language for advancement in government
a specific career or in a specific field (i.e., universities.
communicative English or CEP, business In 1999, the
communication, company contract training, Malaysian government
etc). For instance, employers who want to introduced the
evaluate their staff's level of language profi- Malaysian University
ciency for any purpose can register them for English Test (MUET)
the English Language Skills Assessment as a prerequisite for
(ELSA) conducted by the London Chamber of students planning to
Commerce and Industry Examinations study at local universi-
ties in order to estab-
28 ESL MAGAZINE. MARCH/APRIL 2003
lish and maintain a
high standard of
English language pro