PPSMI and inequality of opportunity

By Hazman Baharom

The blanket implementation of the PPSMI policy in all schools across Malaysia fosters inequality of opportunity, therefore it is a moral wrong. Now, let me explain.

I have a friend back in primary school, let’s say his name is H. We were in the same class together up until Year 6. The school is located in a rural area, in one Kampung Tupai in Sik, Kedah. Majority of the students there came from households of farmers, rubber tappers, or manual labourers. H’s parents were rubber tappers. I, for one, came from a household of teachers—both my parents are teachers until now. In academic classes, I usually earned the highest mark in exams and tests, and H will always score the second highest. There were times that he actually scored higher marks than me. I still remember it clearly when we came out of the school library, he said that he would be very happy if he could be an astronaut. In the library before the conversation happened, we were reading books on space exploration.

On the day the UPSR result came out sometime in December 2004, I got 5 A’s, but H did not get straight A’s as he got a B for the English paper. A little context would be helpful here. The school was built since the 1950’s, but nobody has gotten 5 A’s in the UPSR exam until 2001, when only two students made it. So it was really a big deal to score 5 A’s in that school. Because of my results, I got an offer to study in a government boarding school (Sekolah Berasrama Penuh – SBP), but H only went on to study at a local secondary school near our kampung. That was the third year of PPSMI being implemented as a blanket policy. Meaning, we learnt Math and Science in Bahasa Melayu in primary school, but starting from Form 1, all of us studied those subjects in English. In an SBP such as ours, students were tremendously supported in all angles to ensure that we could succeed in PMR and SPM. And due to all that support, I managed to get 12 A’s in SPM, secured a corporate scholarship to study overseas, and here I am.

I virtually forgot about H until circa a year ago. I discovered that H still lives in the kampung and could not get any job because of his educational background. Due to that, he now runs errands in the kampung for money, including climbing coconut trees, rubber tapping, or doing manual labour such as transporting goods. I was taken aback—how could someone as smart as H, as I remember from our academic rivalry back in primary school—could not go on and score high marks in his secondary school exams, then gain a good degree, and land himself a proper-paying job? Then I started to discover that my other friends are somewhere along that path as well. One of the reasons that I learnt then was the difficulty on their part to understand critical subjects that are important for university admission, and most of the subjects are the scientific ones which were taught fully in English.

When Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad recently mentioned that the PPSMI policy will be reincarnated from the trash bin of history, I was reminded of the numerous injustices that this policy has created. That was just one story from lots of other stories along the same line. We rarely hear this kind of stories because we simply don’t look at the bulk of people that form the majority of our school children—the ones in the semi-rural and rural areas. Even in urban areas, we still have places which are plagued by urban poverty such as the area surrounding Mentari Court in Klang Valley. Sometimes, I fancy myself with some thought experiments, such as the one inspired by Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. What if, by the stroke of luck or whatever force it is, on the day of both our births, my place and H’s place were switched? H then would be raised by a family of teachers, and I will have rubber tappers as my parents. Will our life prospects be the same as it turned out, or will it be turned upside down? You know the answer.

So this essay seeks to argue this: the blanket implementation of the PPSMI policy in all schools across Malaysia fosters inequality of opportunity, therefore it is a moral wrong. It will be premised on (1) the aim of education as a means towards achieving self-realization, (2) the idea of substantive equality of opportunity in education, and (3) education as a fundamental human right that must be equally accessible to all persons.

(1) The aim of education as a means towards achieving self-realization.

My first argument is based on the aims of education. Thinkers throughout history ranging from Aristotle, Ibn Khaldun, up until William James, Alfred Whitehead, and John Dewey have thought that education is a means to create a person with certain good qualities. Regardless of their disagreements on the specific criteria of the “good qualities” a person should inculcate in him/herself, the idea is that any educational endeavour must be based on the students’ understanding of the knowledge being imparted to them. Of course, some thinkers especially in the scholastic tradition stressed on the importance of memorization, however on top of memorization, the aim is to understand the texts that are being memorized. One important prerequisite of understanding something is the grasp of the medium of instruction, which is language; hence the requirement in medieval universities to learn the Trivium—logic, grammar, and rhetoric—before moving on to the Quadrivium and other higher levels of knowledge. There are reasons why important traditions of learning, such as in the medieval Arab and Latinized world, and the vernacular movements following series of revolutions in Europe, to the post-WWII English speaking world relentlessly churn out translations of important texts in their respective languages. Obviously, they wanted to make the texts accessible to learners in their particular socio-historical contexts.

Accessible texts are important for understanding them. Everyone could memorize a text in a certain language alien to him/her without understanding them at all. The clearest example of this are the thousands of tahfiz students being created every year from various institutions, but have zero knowledge on the Arabic language or the Quranic sciences. By just memorizing the Quran, they did not understand any Arabic, nor the substance discussed in the text itself. The same phenomenon rings true in the context of PPSMI. Students especially those who are not from English-speaking or educated families will be pushed further towards memorization of scientific terms, concepts, and processes without understanding them. As a consequence, they will not properly understand the English language nor the scientific concepts at all. Both subjects are now compromised because students’ understanding are handicapped on both sides. Self-realization, as an aim of education, will not be achieved in this manner.

(2) The idea of substantive equality of opportunity in education.

The second argument is based on the idea that education should stand on the idea of substantive equality of opportunity. We need to distinguish between formal equality and substantive equality here. By formal equality, I mean the act of giving every person involved the same starting point. As an analogy, consider three persons involved in a 100-metre sprint contest. They start from the same point on the track and at exactly the same time. Whatever transpires from the race will be decided based on the speed and stamina of the athletes. There will be only one winner who first reaches the finishing line, and the other two will be losers. This is formal equality, since we give all parties the same starting point in space and time. However, substantive equality looks deeper than a same starting point, because it asks questions about the factors that determine the prospect of each athletes to perform the race. The performance of an athlete, and therefore the winning or losing, do depend on the historical experience of that athlete, such as the meals eaten, the financial background to afford proper training, the knowledge on human kinesiology, and so on. A really equal starting point must consider the historical factor that affects the prospect of winning, or as argued by John Rawls in his Theory of Justice, “fair equality of opportunity.” According to Rawls:

The primary subject of justice... is the basic structure of society. The reason for this is that its effects are so profound and pervasive, and present from birth. This structure favors some starting places over others in the division of the benefits of social cooperation. It is these inequalities which the two principles [of justice] are to regulate. Once these principles are satisfied, other inequalities are allowed to arise from men’s voluntary actions in accordance with the principle of free association. (Rawls, Theory of Justice [Rev. Ed.]; p. 82)

This substantive equality of opportunity must be the basis of education if we really want everyone to have the same prospect of success. By having everyone learning in English, the group of students who don’t habitually speak the English language will be further marginalized. It will be a double burden for them to grasp the scientific concepts being discussed. You might argue that these students could get help from teachers, parents, or friends to understand their materials. Students will usually refer to their parents on things that they do not know outside of schooling hours. However, in the context of a family of rubber tappers in a place like Kampung Tupai or a child of a prostitute in the dark alleys of Chow Kit, will this social situation help the student, or further exacerbate his/her predicament, when he/she needs to study at home? A family of professionals will also have professional family friends, and probably professional relatives as well. But what do we expect from a family of rubber tappers? This multi-layered complexity of social forces will make it much more difficult for a student like H to understand scientific concepts. Worse, when their difficult times start to give birth to apathy and despair. Even a bright student who aspired to be an astronaut, when born in the wrong social situation, could not make it.

The ‘substance’ in substantive equality that I am discussing here is contextual in nature. It depends on socio-economic background, history, daily relationships, and so on. For most urban and semi-urban populations, poverty plays a pivotal role here. As an example, if you live in a kampung but your parents are bank managers with five-figure income, they will be able to pay for the best private tuitions for you outside of schooling hours even if they do not know the subjects that you are learning. However, if your parents are rubber tappers with fluctuating income (as of January 2020, latex is valued at RM 2.50 per kilo. This is very cheap!), they will not be able to afford that luxury. For rural and semi-urban populations, they habitually speak their mother tongue at home (be it Kedahan Malay, Kelantanese Malay, Johorean Javanese, and others). They only start learning English as a language to communicate when they enter the schools. Imagine a person started learning Japanese in school, and suddenly expected to understand scientific concepts in Japanese at the same time. The subject will be a gibberish one, if not completely incomprehensible.

Therefore, the issue of poverty must also be investigated since it significantly affects the prospects of success in education. According to the latest statistics, the mean income is RM 2,083 per month and the median income is RM 1,481 in rural area; while in urban area, the mean income is RM 3,274 per month and the median income is RM 2,415 per month (Dept. of Statistics, Salaries and Wages Survey Report 2018). However, this report only took into account the recipient of wages, and according to the same report, the recipient of monthly salaries and wages is only 8.8 million people in 2018. To put this into perspective, in another data, the size of labour force in Malaysia is 15.46 million in 2018 (Dept. of Statistics, Labour Force in Malaysia November 2019). A large chunk of data is still needed to really assess the real-life implication of poverty in the rural areas. A more depressing picture will emerge when we consider urban poverty as well. UNICEF has published the report Children Without in 2018, documenting the extent of urban poverty in Kuala Lumpur. According to the report, 60% of household heads in the low-cost PPR areas only attained their education up to secondary schools, and 9 in 10 of them either have semi-skilled or low-skilled jobs (UNICEF, p. 18). For these families that are led by parents without higher education and low salaries to make ends meet, how do we expect the children to cope with the additional burden of understanding mathematics and science in a language alien to their daily interactions?

(3) Education as a fundamental human right that must be equally accessible to all persons.

My final argument will rest on the idea of human rights. In one paragraph, the Preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) stated that it believes “in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.” Then, in Article 26 (2) of the declaration, it is stipulated that “[E]ducation shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms” (emphasis mine).

In understanding the UDHR and basic human rights, we need to appreciate the history of its development throughout history. There are roughly three phases of the development of human rights ideas, the first phase is the traditional individual rights, followed by socio-economic rights, and finally community and national rights. The intention of having a human rights conception at all is to sustain a condition in which human flourishing is possible, and everyone have the equal capacity to make rational plans in leading their respective lives. When the conception of traditional individual rights as propounded by thinkers such as John Stuart Mill and John Locke could not guarantee the condition in which every person may practice their rights anymore, the development of socio-economic rights ensued. It is not enough that everyone have equal rights formally, but every one of them must also be in the condition that they are able to practice the rights given. In understanding this idea, we must acknowledge that every person needs certain prerequisites to be able to exercise their rights. In the words of Isaiah Berlin, the action of giving rights to persons who are “half-naked, illiterate, underfed, and diseased is to mock their condition; they need medical help or education before they can understand, or make use of, an increase in their freedom.” (Berlin, The Proper Study of Mankind; p. 196).

In a society where inequality runs deep such as ours, there will be groups that are well-prepared to receive early education fully in English—such as the professional urban populations, the upper class who speaks mostly English at home, or the students who came from well-educated families. They have been well-equipped with the relevant prerequisites to receive instruction in English. But what about the other group, who just started to learn how to spell A-P-P-L-E in Year 1 of primary school? This was my own experience, where I was the only one who could spell that word in Year 1 because my mother is an English teacher and I learnt the word much earlier than all of my classmates. Therefore, equal rights to education cannot only mean that everyone have the formal right to receive basic education in the same manner, but everyone must be capable to access them so that all of the students will have the same prospect to succeed. By the same prospect, I mean all external socio-economic factors are eliminated, and success will depend fully on the effort and intellectual capabilities of the students themselves.

When we talk about accessing rights, it is insufficient to just refer to institutional guarantee to secure that access for everyone. Examples of institutional guarantees are the macro-level education system, school and people infrastructure, quality of teachers, and many more. It must also be related to the concept of capabilities, as in the capability approach discussed by philosophers Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen. In short, the discussion revolves around the central factors (or, capabilities) in human beings that must be guaranteed so that all of us could function as humans. Sen developed this theory extensively in Development as Freedom and Inequality Reexamined, while Nussbaum expanded it in the context of human dignity in Creating Capabilities. For Nussbaum, one central capability that must be guaranteed for human dignity is the capability to have senses, imagination, and thought. All of us will recognize that education will elevate human dignity for individuals, however an educated mind must be capable of making sense of senses, creating imaginations, and evaluating thoughts. Every person must be “able to use the senses, to imagine, think, and reason—and to do these things in a ‘truly human’ way, a way informed and cultivated by an adequate education... Being able to use imagination and thought in connection with experiencing and producing works and events of one’s own choice, religious, literary, musical, and so forth.” (Creating Capabilities, 2011; p. 33).

Hence, it is now clear that for the students who have developed their imaginative faculties in their own mother tongue all this while, it will be a major hurdle for them to then go on to develop new ideas in a language alien to them, especially a language that they are just beginning to learn. And, to rephrase what was said by Berlin before, to ask them to suddenly be innovative in other language is to “mock their condition.” How can they achieve human dignity at all now?

In conclusion, many statistical evidence have shown that the blanket implementation of the PPSMI policy across all schools in Malaysia brought more harm than good. For example, the horrendous result of PISA for Malaysia in 2012 (ranked 52nd out of 65 countries) exemplifies the failure of PPSMI in nurturing students with proper scientific understanding. Apart from PISA, there are many other statistics as well.

To be clear, this essay is not denying the fact that for now, English is (arguably) the international lingua franca of scientific communications. Nothing in this essay denies the importance of mastering English or any other languages. However, in the interest of human rights, equality of opportunity, human flourishing, and ultimately justice, reincarnating this Frankenstein of PPSMI is a moral wrong. It has claimed so many voiceless victims and the story of H was just one example. Who knows how many more will it devour after this? We all have a moral responsibility to avert this crisis.

*Hazman Baharom is Lecturer of Moral Studies at Ramsay Sime Darby Healthcare College and a fellow of Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF). He is also one of the coaches for the Malaysian Team to the International Philosophy Olympiad (IPO). In addition, he is the author of Perihal Keadilan (SIRD, 2019) and Renungan Kemasyarakatan (MLC, 2016).
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