SINGAPORE — In a new twist to an ongoing controversy surrounding a proposal to change Malaysia’s education policy, the two main Chinese components of the ruling National Front (NF) coalition government, have found themselves taking the same position as the opposition parties. This places the Malaysian Chinese at loggerheads with their key ally, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO).

The controversy revolves around a major proposal by UMNO to have mathematics and science taught in English in all schools beginning next year. At face value, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and People’s Solidarity Movement (Gerakan) find the plan laudable: it would open many doors to knowledge for Malaysians in an information-technology-dominated world of the future as globalization advances.

But on closer examination, they could not help but share the same view as the Democratic Action Party (DAP), the Islamic Party (PAS), the National Justice Party (Keadilan) and the People’s Party of Malaysia, that a switch to English may not achieve its goal.

Malaysia’s Malay-based educational system is not properly equipped for the mammoth task, one of its main defects being a lack of qualified and competent teachers in English. Many believe that it would be better to find ways of rectifying such defects first.

The country’s present educational policy, which was initiated from 1970 to convert English-medium schools into Malay-medium institutions, nevertheless allows Chinese schools to teach all subjects in Mandarin in addition to two compulsory language courses on English and Malay six years. After that, Chinese students proceed to secondary and tertiary education, which is exclusively in Malay.

The proposal to use English in teaching mathematics and science came earlier this year after Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad lamented that the standard of English in schools had gone down so badly that many students could not even speak and write proper English.

The students would inevitably find themselves sidelined in an era of globalization, where English is the dominant working language. And this could prevent Malaysia from fulfilling Mahathir’s vision of becoming a developed nation by 2020.

In an attempt to resolve the problem, UMNO at a supreme council meeting two months ago, proposed that English be used in teaching mathematics and science in all schools from next year.

Shahrir Samad, an UMNO supreme council member, explained UMNO’s rationale that the proposal would not only encourage the wider usage of English but also put greater stress on the two subjects related to IT. “It was the government’s move to kill two birds with one stone.”

With four months to go before the proposal is implemented in stages, the MCA and Gerakan find themselves facing a Hobson’s choice: whatever option they take, they would still be hit — and hard.

If they continue with their present “preliminary” position of rejecting the switch to English, they risk incurring the wrath of UMNO. They fear that Mahathir, who recently branded as “extremists” the Dong Jiao Zhong — a Chinese educational movement that favors education in the mother tongue — may extend the stigma to them.

To make matters even more unpalatable, an UMNO leader who is also deputy home minister has threatened to jail “extremists” without trial for at least 60 days under the Internal Security Act.

But if the ethnic Chinese parties accept UMNO’s position that the switch to English be implemented across the board, they are likely to be rejected by the Chinese in the next general election.

This is because a majority of the Chinese apparently have accepted Dong Jiao Zhong’s position that behind UMNO’s push for a switch to English is an ulterior motive: to eventually “convert” Chinese schools to national or Malay schools, similar to what Indonesia did during the Suharto era.

The Dong Jiao Zhong has maintained that UMNO’s proposal would be the party’s first step in this long and complicated, but ultimately unsuccessful conversion process. It argues that the present educational environment has been the result of the success of the switch from English to Malay in 1970 in the aftermath of the 1969 racial riots in Kuala Lumpur — an overwhelming success which nevertheless has become an overwhelming liability today.

The opposition has lost no time in pointing out that Mahathir had confused the whole issue by not separating the wood from the trees. PAS and DAP have made it clear to the people that they are not against UMNO’s policy to encourage the wider use of English. They are only against the arbitrary way UMNO is set to implement it, without due regard for the feelings of the people.

In sharing the same sentiment as those groups who are opposed to the English plan, MCA and Gerakan have admitted that they are feeling the burden of a “Chinese dilemma” which is very much similar to the “Malay dilemma” — a phrase made popular by Mahathir more than 30 years ago.

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