Malay medium education…where has it got us?

My husband has worked most of his life to bring opportunities to students in the national language of this country, and to keep standards high.

At ten years of age, he knew four words/expressions in English (yes, no, all right, thank you) and the number of opportunities open to kids of his age group was almost non-existent.

When he was asked at this age what he wanted to be, he said “Chief Clerk”. That was the highest ranking individual that he knew of — other than the British, of course, who, back then (and for reasons that seem inexplicable when viewed from today), thought they had a right to rule the country and be the boss of everyone while they ripped them off economically.

The ten-year-old boy could not dream of anything higher than chief clerk, because if you were a Malay with no English, you never went higher than that.

So where has education in the Malay language from kindy to university – Malaysian, Bahasa, or whatever you want to call it – got us? Not very far, if you hear this story:

This is related by a university lecturer from a VERY prestigious university in this country (fortunately, not the one my husband teaches at.)

I won’t name the uni, or the department, or even the subject. But here’s an incident from last week.

The lecturer was giving a lecture in their subject, but got the feeling that the students were a bit lost. Thinking that perhaps the students didn’t have the historical background to understand the subject of this particular lecture, the lecturer asked (and remember, this is all in Malay language to a group of students who have attended Malay language schools all their lives): ‘What do you know about black culture in the USA?’
The students admitted, not much.
The lecturer then asked a question it would never have occurred to me to ask anyone: ‘Why is there such a large minority of black African-Americans in the US in the first place?’
One student, tentatively: ‘They came looking for a better life?’
Lecturer (who must have been in a state of shock by this time) probed a bit deeper, but no student had anything to add to that. They admitted they didn’t know.
Did they know that the USA had a system of slavery in its history?
No. Really?Did they? Wow!
Have they read/seen/heard of “Gone with the Wind”?
Perhaps desperate for some reassurance, the lecturer then asked if they had heard of Shakespeare.
What about Romeo and Juliet? (Real desperation here).
The Russian Revolution? The French Revolution?

Remember, the lecturer was not asking for in-depth knowledge. All they wanted was general knowledge – the sort of thing you might pick up from the news, or newspapers, the internet, books, films, TV…

But here were a group of university students who have been so cradled by an education system and a culture that appears to be (from this example) totally inward-looking and insular and that offers – apparently – very little to even the brighter students that is not related to local affairs.

Yes, I know this is only one incident of anecdotal evidence. But I am still horrified that it can occur. At that age – as an Australian student – I could have talked a little about, say, Russian classical literature, music and ballet; I could have said something intelligent about the Inca or Mayan culture, the Taiping Rebellion or Japanese Samurai or the San Fransisco earthquake of 1906, or Halley’s Comet, or Robespierre or Trotsky or Margaret Mitchell, or Sputnik or the Moghuls or Saladin or Beethoven or Ulan Bator or Homer or Carthage or apartheid or the Boer War or the formation of Israel or of Pakistan. I could have been much more intelligent about the political affairs of the day, whether it was Tom Mboya or the assassination of JFK.

So where have we gone with Malaysia’s education system that we can produce university students of such appalling ignorance? Or maybe I’m the one who is out of step? Perhaps in this day and age we shouldn’t learn anything outside our field of expertise, because if you need it, you can always “look it up”?


Malay medium education…where has it got us? — 3 Comments

  1. Glenda, a few years ago we saw a report on TV where they showed American university students, studying in Florida, a blank map of the USA and asked them to point out Florida, they couldn't, nor could they point out any other states. So this isn't totally exclusive to the Malaysian educational system.

  2. Is nobody curious these days about the fascinating subject of ancient and modern world history?
    It shapes our lives in so many ways and helps us to better understand the current conflicts.

  3. I was shocked the other day when I sat through an upper level sociology lecture at uni and the lecturer had to stop and take ten minutes to explain Karl Marx's theories because no one in the class had come across them before. I thought that was bad!

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