Continuing his trend of staying heavily involved in domestic politics, former Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad blasted the education system for failing to provide Malaysians with the English skills necessary to compete in the modern world. In particular, Mahathir cited the government’s policy of teaching math and science in Malay, instead of English.

Mahathir Mohamad

Mahathir statement on teaching in English

Mahathir was quoted as stating “I am a Malay and I love the Malay language. But I also want the Malays to be educated. I beg that the subjects be taught in English again.” There is a certain irony, however, in Mr. Mahathir’s statements on the issue. Malaysia under his rule actually turned away from English and encouraged reaffirmation of Malaysia as a “Malay” state. Now, those very policies may be coming back to haunt a country trying to secure its place in the global economy.

When Malaysia first gained full independence in 1963, the education system emphasized English to a great extent, due primarily to British influence. Most subjects in Malaysia’s education system are now taught in Malay, including math and science. For a country trying desperately to avoid a middle income trap and looking for ways to develop competitive advantages over its cheaper or more developed neighbors, English could become a vital asset.

Malaysia facing language issues

Already Malaysians have the best English skills in the region; however, this is not enough. Most Malaysians still do not possess high enough English proficiency levels to successfully compete and engage in the global English-speaking economy. While many Malaysians understand English, and can write basic English sentences, their skills are not refined enough to allow them to communicate effectively and perform work with high end MNCs.

Malaysian researchers have also fallen off the map as much of the research being conducted is either written in Malay, or written in such poor English that it cannot not qualify for major international journals. In fact, the University of Malaya was once ranked as the best university in S.E. Asia but after largely switching to Malay, it has dropped out of most international rankings completely.

Science and Math to be taught in English

Mahathir believes that switching math and science back to English will alleviate the situation. In many ways he is likely right. Both math and science use highly specialized terms that can be difficult for second language speakers to pick up, especially later in life. By switching to English, conditions should improve.

This will not be enough, however, if Malaysia is looking to truly develop world-class English skills, which may be necessary for the country’s long-term success. Understanding English and having a functional ability to communicate does not mean that an individual will have enough skills to actually work for a Western MNC, which generally requires native-level English.