Ever since the Malaysian government decided to revert to using Bahasa Malaysia as the language of instruction at schools, there have been screams of protests in the form of letters and articles in newspapers. Yes, we all know the importance of English. Yes, it is the lingua franca in international politics, business, and education. Yes, nearly one-third of the countries in the world use English as either their first or second official language. And yes, we also know that the majority of books and online content are written in English.
Yes, yes, we know all these, so why then is the policy of teaching in English being rescinded? This is because there is a difference between knowing something is good for you and actually doing it.
Although many reasons have been given for the rescinding this policy, I believe the main reason is simply that most Malaysians are just not bothered or care enough to pick up the challenge to learn English. Though Malaysian intellectuals may write their letters and articles of protests until their faces turn red, the reality is most Malaysians are not intellectuals, and they do not care enough to improve themselves. In other words, it is just too darn difficult.
At UPM, I teach a subject called “Agriculture and Man” which is a compulsory subject for all undergraduates, irrespective of their degree course. For two semesters, I taught a large group of English literature undergraduates who share the same problem: the majority of them have a poor command of English! One even said that she expresses herself better in Malay than in English. Even though I teach in English and my notes are fully in English, these English literature students still prefer to answer the exam questions in Malay.
Many times, I am an English teacher first, then a science teacher. I have difficulty understanding the written assignments by my students. I have to correct their English sentences first, then proceed to check their science facts.
However, there is hope for individuals who both understand the importance of English and who are willing to work hard to master the language. While the majority of Malaysians in the future would be babbling their English words, great opportunities await those who stand out because they can write and speak fluently in English.