Johor Sultan slams Malaysia's multi-stream schools

A woman in Malaysia shopping with a child for a new school uniform before the new term starts. Johor's Sultan Ibrahim Ismail says he is worried that English is becoming a language for the old in Malaysia as the young are not being taught the language
A woman in Malaysia shopping with a child for a new school uniform before the new term starts. Johor's Sultan Ibrahim Ismail says he is worried that English is becoming a language for the old in Malaysia as the young are not being taught the language in primary schools.PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

JOHOR BARU • The Sultan of Johor has broached an education issue that few Malaysian politicians dare to talk about openly by saying that he does not like the country's system of Malay, Chinese and Tamil language primary schools.

Sultan Ibrahim Ismail said in an interview with The Star daily published yesterday that he was "not in favour of the present three types of schools", which had resulted in Chinese and Indian students who do not know the national language - Malay - and Malay students who cannot speak English.

The issue of Malaysia's multi-stream school system is a delicate one as political leaders of Malaysia's three main races staunchly defend these primary schools, saying that they are important for ensuring that the young are imbibed with their own ethnic culture and language. The system started in the early days of Malaysia's independence and often becomes an emotional issue when raised in the political sphere, although it has been blamed for the drop in racial harmony as the main races play and study separately.

The Johor ruler spoke about the school system in the interview when asked about deteriorating English proficiently in Malaysia, a subject that he has spoken about before. He said "most government officers nowadays are unable to speak or write good English" and urged Malaysia to adopt a single-stream education system.

"In those days, English schools were regarded as 'neutral ground'. All races attended these schools. During my time, it was a must to know both Malay and English," he said. "But now, when you teach mathematics, geography and history in Malay in (national primary) schools, students are at a loss when they have to read books in English in universities. How can you be a scientist when your English is so bad?"

Sultan Ibrahim said previously that Malaysia should adopt the Singapore education policy of using English as a main language.

He said he is worried that English is fast becoming a language for old people in Malaysia. "The previous generation spoke English beautifully. Yes, English is in danger of becoming the language of the older people while the young cannot speak English proficiently", he said.

"In countries such as France, Spain and China, young people are speaking English. It is the reverse in Malaysia. I am alarmed.

"So, how can we improve the situation?," the ruler asked.

Successive government plans to introduce the teaching of subjects such as maths and science in English in schools have failed due to political pressure and the lack of teachers able to speak English well.

The split in the education system has been further compounded by the rising popularity of international schools in Malaysia and elite schools that teach in English.

Said Sultan Ibrahim about bringing the English language back into the school system: "No one should politicise education and health issues. I am worried for the education standards in this country. Please wake up!"

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 29, 2015, with the headline 'Johor Sultan slams Malaysia's multi-stream schools'. Print Edition | Subscribe