PENANG, Malaysia - Despite achieving a "consensus", Malaysia's ruling coalition still appears divided on plans to find a compromise position on how to best to improve the standard of English in schools while preserving mother-tongue education.
The issue illustrates how difficult it can be to strike a balance between the two, especially in situations where language and education can often be so heavily politicized in this multicultural Southeast Asian nation.
In May, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, apparently worried that Malaysians were losing their competitive advantage in the globalization stakes, said that the government would reintroduce English-medium schools if the people wanted them, which prompted a flurry of debate in the media. The supreme council of Mahathir's United Malays National Organization (UNMO) objected, arguing that English-medium schools would be contrary to the National Education Policy, which has promoted the Malay language. Instead UMNO backed a proposal for only science and mathematics to be taught in English in schools. The issue has since been heavily politicized, with Mahathir having staked his personal prestige on the compromise proposal.
The government expects to introduce teaching the two subjects in English in stages next year as part of a national initiative, but before that happens the government must find a face-saving solution for its leader and for the dominant ethnic parties that make up Mahathir's administration.
Last Tuesday, Mahathir said the ethnic-Chinese minority parties in the government coalition had been given a week to come up with a modified proposal on how to integrate the teaching of science and mathematics in English at Chinese-medium primary schools. "They [Chinese-medium schools] are not exempted. We will find a way for the schools to implement the new policy. The implementation may be different, but it will be carried out in the same spirit," said Mahathir.
Reluctant to concede much, the Chinese-based parties have floated the idea of conducting classes for the two subjects in English after school hours, while continuing to teach science and mathematics in Chinese during normal hours. But Abdul Rafie Mahat, the education ministry director general, rejected the idea saying the language switch must be incorporated into the formal learning hours for all schools.
Chinese-medium primary schools are regarded by many in the Chinese community, as an important safeguard of their cultural heritage. Out of Malaysia's 24 million population, over half are ethnic Malays while ethnic Chinese make up a quarter.
The fate of Malaysia's ethnic-based ruling parties is closely tied to the preservation of the partially government-aided Chinese and Tamil-medium primary schools, which exist alongside the nation's fully funded Malay-medium schools.
It is a climb-down of sorts for four of the five Chinese-based parties in the ruling coalition with reservations about the plan. Both the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and Gerakan, the two largest of these parties, had publicly expressed their opposition, the MCA's rebuff coming only last week. Such open dissent among ruling coalition parties towards an official proposal is rare in Malaysia; grievances within the ranks are usually expressed behind closed doors while the public is offered a show of ruling coalition unity. The sole ethnic Indian party, the Malaysian Indian Congress, supported the proposal but, in what looked like a quid pro quo deal, asked for full government aid for Tamil-language schools, many of which have been neglected over the years.
The language issue has never been far from the surface over the decades. From the late 1960s, English-medium schools were progressively converted to the Malay-medium by the authorities, fired up by nationalistic zeal.
"Basically the Chinese political parties are under pressure but they want to give the Chinese community the impression that the Barisan formula - going through negotiations - is functioning," said Ng Tien Eng, who has researched the history of Chinese-medium education in the country. "But the Chinese parties will have to give up something to keep the so-called consensus afloat."
The ethnic Chinese-based political parties in the ruling coalition, opposition parties and critics of the proposal have resisted Mahathir's language switch proposal for a variety of reasons. Some felt that ethnic Chinese students would be handicapped if they had to use English instead of Chinese to learn mathematics and science.
"We have presented numerous studies and evidence to show that the best way to master maths and science at a tender age is through the mother tongue," said Ronnie Liu, the national publicity secretary of the opposition Democratic Action Party. Others felt the proposal could dilute the role of Chinese-medium schools as the protectors of Chinese language and heritage. Apart from the partially aided Chinese primary schools, there are some 60 independent Chinese-medium secondary schools dotted across the country.
For their part, education experts worry about the lack of trained English-language teachers and teaching resources in rural areas, especially in the Malay-medium national schools. There has also been dissent from Malay-language proponents who feel that the Malay language must be given prominence in all areas of national life. But the government is sticking to its guns despite such misgivings. It argues that it is important to teach the two subjects in English as most of the latest technical and scientific literature is in that language.
Mahathir and UMNO, however, cannot afford to antagonize the Chinese-based ruling coalition parties. In the 1999 general election, the ruling coalition - faced with an erosion in support from its traditional ethnic Malay supporters - depended heavily on ethnic-Chinese support to keep its commanding two-thirds parliamentary majority intact.
Observers will be watching the issue closely to see what kind of modifications the Chinese-based parties will come up with in the coming week.
It is not only the extent of mother tongue education in Chinese-medium schools that is at stake, but also the tight cohesion in ruling coalition ranks could loosen if the modified proposals prove unsatisfactory to coalition partners