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Malaysia Finds Need for Cast-Off Colonial Tongue


KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — As an associate professor at the respected University of Malaya, Edmund Terence Gomez has a problem: Much of the knowledge he wants to convey is locked in a language half his students can't read.

Three decades after the country's leaders decreed an end to colonial-era English in official life and made Malay the sole language for government affairs, public school instruction and civic life, Gomez's problem has become Malaysia's problem.

At a time when much of the world has accepted English as the language of international commerce, technology and cutting-edge ideas, it has all but died out among large sections of the country's majority Malay population.

"If 10% of my [Malay] students could follow a simple English sentence, I'd be pleasantly surprised," Gomez said. Still, the 12 books he assigns as required or optional reading for his third-year political economy class are all in English.

"The students are overwhelmed, but that's where the knowledge is," he said. "If there was a text in Malay, I'd assign it, but there isn't."

Faced with a threat to the prosperity of this outward-looking trading nation, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad announced in late July that math and science would be taught in English from the first grade on. But the reversal quickly generated an outcry from just about every segment of society.

Malays fear an erosion of their culture, and the country's large Chinese and Indian minorities see a threat to alternative-language schooling that they finance privately. Educators claim that teaching 7-year-olds math and science in a foreign language will produce children who fail to learn all three, while parents worry about added stress for their children.

Sitting in a restaurant in Seremban, about 40 miles south of the capital, Kuala Lumpur, Lee Ah Yeow fretted that her 9-year-old son already finds math and science difficult enough without having to learn it in a foreign language.

"He's too young for that," she insisted. Like many parents, she believes that her son should learn English, but only later and as a separate subject.

Opposition politicians say Mahathir's decision to implement a sudden change--the new program would begin in January--after years of doing nothing is a recipe for chaos.

"He's trying to fix things, but it's all wrong," opposition politician Ronnie Liu said. "It's crazy to do this under such a deadline. There needs to be a debate. More English teachers need to be found and trained."

Liu is one of many outspoken ethnic Chinese critics of the change. Dzulkifli Ahmad, an ethnic Malay and leading member of the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, says he supports greater use of English, but not Mahathir's proposal.

"I question the wisdom of this," he said. "There's no infrastructure for it."

At the time, scrapping English seemed like the right thing to do. Reeling from an explosion of ethnic violence in 1969 and seeking to unite their nation after 12 bumpy years of independence, Malaysia's leaders fixed on Malay--the mother tongue of the country's largest ethnic group.

English remained a subject taught in schools, but the quality of instruction gradually declined. Elsewhere, it disappeared from the corridors of domestic power and even from road signs.

Accepted reluctantly by the Chinese and Indian minorities and viewed by the indigenous Malays as a chance to redress their lowly status, the change brought the intended social peace and fostered integration.

But to the dismay of Malaysia's leadership, it has also brought something else: a generation of publicly educated college graduates woefully ill-equipped for life in a globalized world.

"Students graduate, but they have no skills," Gomez summed up. "It's a generation lost."

According to Malaysian government statistics, about one-third of the students who graduated from the country's 14 public universities in the last year remain unemployed. Nearly 90% of the jobless are Malays with degrees in religious studies or social sciences and no English proficiency.

Other former British or U.S. territorial possessions in Asia have kept English. In the Philippines, for example, it remains the language of government, of parliamentary debate and Supreme Court decisions.

In Singapore, it is one of four official languages and a language of public school instruction, while in India, English is both an official language and a preferred "neutral" language for those communicating across the country's many indigenous linguistic lines.

Fixing the problem here in Malaysia won't be easy. With education and language both potentially explosive issues, politicians have long looked the other way. "It's there for all to see, but no one dares to talk about it," said Liu, a member of the opposition Democratic Action Party.

Critics of the language policy now look back and say it was a mistake to eliminate English. Others, however, accuse opponents of playing politics and insist that there isn't time for a long public debate.

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