The English language is nobody’s special property. It is the property of the imagination: it is the property of the language itself.

— Derek Walcott, poet and playwright

Sarawak has re-introduced its own state-owned international school education system which is now the envy of the country.

Despite its noble ideals, a Malayan with lofty credentials such as UKM’s professor Datuk Dr Teo Kok Seong suggested that Sarawak maintain its current “national syllabus” which has been the reason behind Malaysia’s declining standard of education.

Appropriately, Education, Science and Technological Research Assistant Minister Dr Annuar Rapee said that Teo should have checked his facts before shooting himself in the foot.

If Teo had done his homework he would have discovered that Malaysia’s current “flip-flop” education policy had failed miserably, and Sarawak especially, has suffered as a result.

It was none other than Tun Abdul Rahman Yakub, a Cambridge-trained student who decreed that Bahasa Melayu replace English as the lingua franca in schools in 1970.

And it was left to Singapore-trained doctor Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad to undo the rot.

Twenty years ago, Dr Mahathir in his wisdom called for the upgrading of standard of the English language.

He was particularly interested in encouraging Mathematics and Science to be taught in English and

to make national schools more viable — a policy which Sarawak has adopted and introduced recently.

Once the world’s oldest prime minister until he resigned at the age of 93, Dr Mahathir who was

education minister in 1974, lamented that public schools were focusing too much on the Malay language and religious studies.

“In the end, students face difficulties in furthering their studies overseas as they must be proficient in English. Even if you want to go to Japan, you have to be fluent in English,” said Dr Mahathir.

When Dr Mahathir became minister of education in 1974, he tried to ensure greater government control over Malaysia’s universities, despite strong opposition from the academic community.

He also moved to limit politics on university campuses, making scholarships “conditional” to limit the university to education alone.

In fact, before he retired as Malaysia’s fourth prime minister in 2003, he encouraged the teaching of Science and Mathematics in English.

Despite mixed reactions, teaching Science and Maths in English was gradually implemented at all stages of the national school system but after five years it was scrapped in 2007.

During his tenure as prime minister from 1981 till 2003, the country was among the best performing Asian countries when it came to English proficiency.

However, after Dr Mahathir left, politicking resulted in the decline of English.

When he returned as prime minister in 2018, Sarawak decided to go its own way by initiating a private school system mooted by the late chief minister Pehin Sri Adenan Satem.

Needless to say Adenan and his forebears such at Abdul Rahman Yakub and Tun Abdul Taib Mahmud, were beneficiaries of the Cambridge school system.

The revival of the old British education system is a boon to Sarawak which have been languishing in the shadow of our learned counterparts in Malaya and Singapore.

Even though the emphasis is still on teaching Science and Mathematics in English, Sarawak should consider introducing other subjects to inculcate a broader understanding of the world at large.

For example, it would be prudent to include History, Geography and Literature into its “international schools” syllabus.

These three subjects will imbibe in our younger generation a general knowledge of their own heritage as well as their neighbours and other continents.

Literature will appeal and enhance the senses in the arts and culture for our people because Sarawak is a country with a multitude of races and not just three communities!

Over the last 30 years, English language education in Malaysia has undergone several reforms and as a second language, English has been taught and learned in Malaysia from primary to tertiary levels.

However, teachers involved in teaching English need to improve their proficiency in the language to be able to ensure their students upgrade their level of understanding and utilise the language properly.

Some of the initiatives to upgrade the teaching of the English language include ensuring that the teachers themselves are also endowed with social skills.

Native students in particular who mainly use their mother tongue at home, have suffered due to poor or inefficient methods of teaching by unqualified teachers.

Teachers have a responsibility to ensure their charges can not only write in English but also use the language to communicate with others effectively.

The views expressed here are those of the columnist and do not necessarily represent the views of New Sarawak Tribune.