The suggestion by Malaysia’s minister of education that English should become a “must-pass” subject for students to receive their high school certificate has reignited the debate on failing English standards in the country.
Currently the majority of Malaysian schools forego teaching English grammar in favour of emphasizing “communicative English” that in theory allows students to put their acquired language skills to practical use. However, this over-emphasis on “communication” to the detriment of “understanding” has resulted in notable deficiencies, such as students’ inability to recognize the difference between words such as “pain” and “painful.”
“They don't understand why they are wrong when they say ‘it is very pain.’ Students are given marks for using key words,” remarked one teacher.
While many recognize Malaysia’s declining standards of English education and understand the importance of raising English proficiency if Malaysia wants to stay competitive economically, others are critical of would-be attempts at making English a “must-pass” subject. Residents of rural districts complain that such a policy change would be unfair because they suffer from inequitable access to good English teachers and language materials, and they don’t use need to use English in their day-to-day activities.
The current English debate follows not too far on the heels of Malaysia’s 2003 decision to use English to teach math and science subjects in schools, a policy that has remained deeply controversial for the ruling Barisan Nasional since its implementation.