Musa Mohamad should apologise for giving the most outrageous and  scandalous answer in the history of Parliament in his reply on studies which convinced the  government to use English to teach maths and science in primary schools

Media Statement
by Lim Kit Siang

(PetalingJaya, Wednesday): The Education Minister, Tan Sri Musa Mohamad should apologise for giving the most outrageous and scandalous answer in the history of Parliament in his reply to the DAP MP for Kota Melaka, Kerk Kim Hock yesterday on studies which convinced the government to use English to teach mathematics and science in primary schools. 

In reply to Kerk’s question  on the educational reasons  and the studies which had convinced the government to introduce the policy to use English to teach mathematics and science in primary schools, Musa gave the following written reply: 

“Kementerian Pendidikan melaksanakan pengajaran Matematik dan Sains dalam Bahasa Inggeris atas sebab-sebab berikut: 

  1. Matematik & Sains adalah bidang ilmu yang sangat dinamik dan menjadi penyumbang kepada pembangunan negara.

  2. Sebahagian besar maklumat terkini mengenai bidang ini terdapat dalam bahasa Inggeris; and

  3. Pendedahan awal kepada pelajar dapat memberi peluang mengakses maklumat berkenaan lebih awal.

“Oleh kerana Matematik dan Sains adalah bidang ilmu yang sangat dinamik, maka pengabaian terhadap kedua-dua subjek tersebut bererti ‘deprive them of a basic education, handicap them for life’ dan keadaan ini pasti merugikan negara yang amat bergantung kepada rakyat yang berilmu dan berbakat (American Association for the Advancement of Science 1990).”

This is a most ridiculous and outrageous answer, as it not only failed  to answer the question as to why the government wants to use English to teach mathematics and science in primary schools from Std. One, it also made the false assumption that the only way to excel in mathematics and science is to learn the two subjects in English from Std. One. 

Firstly, is Musa suggesting that under all the previous Education Ministers in the past four decades,  Malaysians had been  “deprived of basic education” and “handicapped for life” because of the neglect of mathematics and science  in schools, as mentioned in the quotation from the American Association for the Advancement of Science? 

Secondly, Musa does not seem to know that countries which excel in mathematics and science are not all from English-speaking countries or  use English as  medium of instruction, as illustrated by the  results of the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO), an annual  World Championship Mathematics Competition for High School students participated by over 80 countries  since it was first held in  1959.

The power-houses in the annual  IMO Olympiads have consistently been  China, Russia, USA, Vietnam, South Korea and Taiwan which had always been in the top ten countries in the last three mathematics Olympiads. – and apart from the USA, none of the other  countries use English to teach mathematics and science in primary schools.

In the  largest, most comprehensive, reliable and important international study of educational outcomes, TIMSS-R (Third International Mathematics and Science Study – Repeat) 1999, of the world’s top 15 countries in mathematics, only Singapore (No. 1)  and Australia  (No. 13) use English to teach mathematics and science, one country Canada is bilingual, while all the other 12 countries use their respective mother tongues to teach these two subjects. Singapore, ranked second in science,  only teach science from Std. 3.

If the Education Ministry is serious in wanting to give proper emphasis to mathematics and science, then the first thing Musa should do is to ask Parliament to amend the Education Development Blueprint 2001-2010 to adopt the national objective to become one of the world’s powerhouses in these two subjects.

The first part of Musa’s answer to Kerk is ridiculous and outrageous enough, but the second part of his answer is doubly outrageous and scandalous.

Musa referred to four studies which he said supported the government’s intention to introduce the policy to use English to teach mathematics and science in primary schools, namely:

A National Study of School Effectiveness for Language Minority Students’ Long-Term Academic Achievement by Thomas & Collier (2002).

Effects of bilingual/ESL instruction on the academic achievement of eight-grade Mexican-American students by Gomez (1997)

The Impact of Greek Bilingual Programs on the Academic Performance Language Preservation and Ethnicity of Greek-American Students: A case study in Chicago by Xidis (1993)

A Meta-Analysis of Selected Studies on the effectiveness of bilingual education by Willig (1985).

It is most shocking that Musa can use these four studies to justify the new policy to use English to teach mathematics and science in primary schools from Std. One, as are they totally unrelated to the specific issue of using English to teach these two subjects in the first year of primary schools.

But what is most astounding is that these studies could be used to justify the  teaching of  mathematics and science in English  in primary schools from Std. One, when they are studies on the effect of bilingual education on  “language minority students” like the Greek and  Mexican ethnic minorities in a English-speaking mainstream country like the United States.

Such bilingual education programmes could have different linguistic goals, from the transitional bilingual programme to either eradicate the mother tongue or substitute it with English; the maintenance programme to maintain the mother tongue while adding the second language; and the enrichment programme to add a language to that which children already know and foster children’s academic growth in both languages.

The situation of national primary schools in Malaysia are completely different, as Bahasa Malaysia is the mainstream medium of instruction – and the four studies quoted by Musa are completely inappropriate.

In fact, these four studies are pertinent, not to support the use of English to teach mathematics and science in primary schools from Std. One, but to justify (i) the preservation and development of mother-tongue education, whether Chinese or Tamil primary schools in multi-racial Malaysia; and (ii) opposition to the use of English to teach mathematics and science from Std. One for national, Chinese and Tamil primary schools.

These four studies may have some relevance if the Education Ministry proposes to introduce an entirely new policy of bilingual education in national primary schools for all school children – where medium of instruction will be given in two languages. Is this the intention of the Education Ministry?

Musa should refer to  educational studies world-wide showing that using a second language as a medium of instruction from too early stages can impede the  development of thinking skills  of students resulting in low achievements in mathematics, science and languages. 

Studies by internationally-acknowledged educationists and researchers of bilingual education, like J. Cummins, M. Swain, M. Saville-Troike and   K. Anstrom show that a unitary cognitive academic proficiency (i.e. “thinking skills”) underlies all language performance, and may be expressed through either the first language (L1) or the second language (L2).  The “thinking skills” are developed primarily through the L1 in the early years, and may then be transferred to and expressed in an L2 later on.  If a learner’s L1 remains underdeveloped, then so does that learner’s “thinking skills”.  Thus, when that learner attempts to acquire an L2 and pursue studies through  the medium of an L2, that learner will bring  lower “thinking skills” to the task and be disadvantaged. 

These studies show that if a learner uses and develops his or her L1 for several years, and then moves into an L2 educational system at a later stage, that learner will invariably perform better than a learner who entered the L2 education system from the very beginning. 

In one “classic study” on immigrant Finnish children in Sweden,  the prevailing belief that the younger the children were when they begin school in their new language, the better they would do in terms of second language acquisition and overall academic achievement was proved wrong. The study found that the children who adapted and performed the best were those who began education through their L2 between the ages of 10-12 years. 

Another study compared the performance of two groups of Mexican children in the 6th grade in US schools on English language reading comprehension tests.  The one group had received two years of Spanish language education in Mexico followed by four years of English language education in the USA. The other group had received no Spanish language education in Mexico, and six yeasrs of English language education in the USA.  Contrary to popular expectations, the children with two years of L1 education outperformed the others in English, even though they had received fewer years of English language education. 

After reviewing similar research, Cummins and Swain (1986) reach the conclusion that an initial period of L1 education is imperative to achieve a higher level of mental maturity, which can then be transferred into L2 education. 

DAP can extend to Musa these educational and professional studies worldwide showing that it is vitally important that learners fully develop their L1, because in so doing, they also develop their “thinking skills” and their academic intelligence. 

There are also studies to show that learners in L2 education lag behind their peers in areas such as mathematics and science, which may be because their L2 skills are insufficiently developed to be able to think mathematically and scientifically in their second language – and that learners have their best chance of success in mathematics and science if they study it through their L1s.  Successful achievement in mathematics and science is difficult enough for students learning through their L1, and it is significantly more difficult for L2 learners because of the specialized type of language that mathematics and science need, even from a very early stage. 

Musa should apologise for giving the most outrageous and  scandalous answer in the history of Parliament in his reply on studies which convinced the  government to use English to teach maths and science in primary schools.

Everybody knows that Musa is a pharmacist and not an educationist by discipline, but as Education Minister, he should be diligent and responsible enough not to use completely inappropriate studies to justify the introduction of a new education policy.


*Lim Kit Siang - DAP National Chairman