The Malaysian Cabinet decided yesterday that all medical graduates will need to have a high school Bahasa Malaysia (BM) qualification before they can be employed as medical officers.
The decision - which affects only Malaysians - came after the Ministry of Health sought in February to exempt medical officers from the requirement, sparking an outcry over the status of the national language, and whether such doctors would be capable of treating the Malay-majority population.
It was previously reported that relaxing the rules would allow 300 to 400 medical graduates to begin work first and obtain the Malay language qualification during their two-year housemanship.
The government has targeted a doctor-to-patient ratio of 1:400 by 2020, compared with 1:600 currently, according to The Malay Mail Online news site.
Health Minister S. Subramaniam said the decision to allow only those with a pass in BM at Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) level – equivalent to the O levels – to be accepted into housemanship programmes was made unanimously after the weekly Cabinet meeting.
He said: “Before this, we decided to take medical graduates and grant them the chance to undergo training as graduate medical officers, with the condition that they must pass the BM paper while they are doing their housemanship.
“Today we decided that they must first pass the BM paper before being appointed as graduate medical officers.”
News of the proposed exemption had sparked an outcry, with Malay organisations like Umno Youth warning that it would sideline the national language and Malay rights group Perkasa threatening to sue the ministry for implementing a policy that "went against the Federal Constitution".
Members of the medical profession, however, have said the ability to communicate effectively with patients, learnt through medical training, was more important than the results of an exam taken before they attended medical school, The Malay Mail Online reported.
Health director-general Noor Hisham Abdullah had explained last week that those who did not have the SPM qualification included medical graduates who studied abroad, those who sat the O levels at international schools, or took BM at university.
Correction note: This story has been edited for clarity.