Friday, 31 July 2009
Thursday, 30 July 2009
Sat 15 Aug, 4pm
The Annexe Gallery, Central Market, Kuala Lumpur
Presented by Matahari Books
It's here, and hot off the press! Body 2 Body: A Malaysian Queer Anthology is the first of its kind, a compilation of original creative writing on the gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transsexuals and transvestites of the country.
The book has 23 pieces, fiction and non-fiction, in English. They were painstakingly selected by the editors Jerome Kugan & Pang Khee Teik from a higher-than-expected total of 61 submissions. There are cheers and tears, raunch and kink, polemics and politics: a versatile tribute to the rainbow diversity of Malaysia.
Most of the writers will turn up, and there will even be short readings by six of the 23: Shanon Shah, Cheryl Leong, Brian Gomez, Faizad Nik Abdul Aziz, Paul GnanaSelvam & Maya Tan Abdullah. Amir Muhammad (aka Matahari Books) will be your friendly host and facilitate some intellectual intercourse, for those of you who like your intercourse to be intellectual.
You can confirm on Facebook.
If you can't make it to the launch, you can pre-order here.
Launch-day price: RM30
Bookstore price (when it finally reaches the shops): RM34.
WHAT DO GAY PEOPLE EAT? - Brian Gomez
BREATHING PURE OXYGEN - Cheryl Leong
ROOMMATES: NOT A LOVE STORY - Sharil Dewa
THE WEDDING PRESENT - Sonia Randhawa
THE MAN FROM BERALI CARPETS - Maya Tan Abdullah
AND I LOVE YOU - Hwa Yi Xing
HAFIZ’S DILEMMA - Ann Lee
DUDE DON’T TELL ME - Kung Khai Jhun
THE FRIENDSHIP DICTATOR - Faizad Nik Abdul Aziz
MUSLIM 2 MUSLIM - Shanon Shah
CREAM OF THE CROP - Pang Khee Teik
PIRATE GIRL - Marisa Repin
GOOD JOB - O Thiam Chin
HARRY IS DEAD - Shih-Li Kow
THE OLD FIG COUNCIL - Zed Adam
THE WIVES’ STORY - Tan May Lee
HAVE YOU SEEN MY SON? - Abirami Durai
FRIENDS OF EVERYONE - Julya Oui
MONSOON MASSAGE - Paul Gnanaselvam
THE NAKED MEME - Ray Langenbach
IN SEARCH OF - Ho Sui-Jim
ALVIN - Jerome Kugan
SUNSET - Azharr Rudin
Wednesday, 29 July 2009
MUKHSIN written and directed by Yasmin Ahmad (Grand Brilliance & MHz Films, 2006, 95 min)
Since this is the last Pulp Friction column, we will celebrate by doing something different! And so the text we will discuss is a film rather than a book.
My memories of Mukhsin are inextricably linked with the circumstances in which I first saw it. It was at the Berlin International Film Festival 2007, a full house with almost a thousand people.
When it started, it was safe to say that most people there had no image of Malaysia. But when it ended, the applause went on for over five minutes. I wasn’t involved in the making of the film. But if the pride I felt at that moment could be bottled and sold, it would be the most potent power drink ever.
Mukhsin is deceptively simple and functions as a fable about the end of innocence. We follow two kids, the 10-year old Orked and the slightly older Mukhsin, as they spend a few weeks together. You can almost say it’s summer if Malaysia didn’t have summer all year round. The enveloping warmth is palpable; the characters are framed in an almost Edenic natural environment.
It’s puppy love, which the Malays here would call monkey love. But Mukhsin is also ‘about’ many other things without being unduly didactic: class, faith, gender, race, little cruelties and redemptive sympathies. Its serene humanism remembers not only the raw pull of emotion but the cheeky thrill of naughtiness.
Any Eden will have snakes. Sour notes are provided by Mukhsin’s bitter older brother, and Orked’s family’s mean-spirited neighbour. Everyone is created by a home environment, and we get enough glimpses of how the attitudes of these killjoys were created. A stand is taken against such life-denying carping, but it’s done with graceful ease.
The director’s favourite scene is where Orked’s precocious and relatively privileged family dance to a record, while Mukhsin, standing outside their house, looks in on them. He is happy for them but also envious, since his own family isn’t nearly as harmonious.
My own favourite, which is an odd choice, would be where Orked’s maid explains how she makes ais krim Malaysia. Basically, you can’t appreciate the sweet unless you also have the bitter. It is the director’s storytelling credo, but presented with such blithe nonchalance that you smile rather than feel lectured to.
Also in that scene, the actress stumbles on a line but then covers it up by saying she’s nervous at getting a visitor! This is wonderful. Other filmmakers would have yelled “Cut!” But by using that take, the film becomes all the more transparent and charming. You can’t celebrate humanity without accepting that we all flub once in a while; it’s how you bounce back that counts.
The film has a supple quality; it sculpts with light and time. Which makes it even more tragic that the official Malaysian DVD is of such low visual quality. (A much better DVD was apparently released in The Netherlands, and I’m sure other countries will follow suit).
This film is, in the order of release, the fourth in the ‘Orked quartet’ that began with the made-for-TV Rabun three years earlier, followed by Sepet and Gubra. But in terms of the character’s chronology, it comes first. It also ends with the director’s own voice-over (the only time we hear it in the quartet), wishing that Mukhsin found his own love, too. In the end, fact and fiction, reality and celluloid dreams, immediacy and nostalgia, all blend together.
Away from the cold and wet Berlin weather on that day, Mukhsin had me thinking warm thoughts. And I was surely not the only one.
It wasn’t an entirely ‘happy’ ending: Mukhsin, if he were not careful, might also be consumed by the anger and despair that affected his brother. The crucial factor would be whether he was open to the love that exists all around him, for him, if he would only realise it. This love takes on a divine quality with the theme song Hujan, where (seemingly unusually for a story not set among farmers), rain is proof of blessing.
And blessings indeed can come in many forms, and sometimes from the most unexpected people. The works of Yasmin Ahmad will be viewed and discussed for as long as we hunger for an inviting place called home. Ameen.
(Malay Mail, 29 July)
Monday, 27 July 2009
Friday, 24 July 2009
Wednesday, 22 July 2009
TUNKU ABDUL RAHMAN PUTRA AL-HAJ: His Life Journey Leading to the Declaration of Independence (1903-1957) by E. Yu (MPH, 2009, 240 pages)
Last week’s novel, The Malayan Trilogy, ended at Independence but gave us the sardonic sweep of our incipient nation’s colours and contradictions. It did not foreground any politicians, so this oversight (if it can be considered one) is happily corrected in this comic tome.
This is a longer and more satisfying book than E Yu’s previous biography of Dr. Mahathir. It’s still in the genre of hagiography rather than critical biography, but it’s more diverting since there are more incidents here that aren’t common knowledge to the average reader of today. The cute tone is also more apposite, since the Tunku exists in the public imagination as a much cuddlier figure than the famously combative doctor.
The Tunku was an affable old-school gentleman whose Anglophilia and royal credentials were matched by humour and cosmopolitan ease. (This is where we are conditioned to sigh: “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore!”) To use the title of a biography about someone else, he was also a ‘reluctant politician’ whose conciliatory personality nevertheless shaped the first few decades of the country.
Not exactly the towering paragon that a more rabidly ‘nationalist’ writer would invent, the prince of Kedah is shown as a less-than-stellar Law student who would sometimes get bullied at work, and whose second marriage ended in failure. Even the Preface by his son acknowledged that the Tunku “was not much of a family man.”
But it was his infectious joviality that inspired people. Unlike UMNO founder Onn Jaafar (presented here as antagonist), he wasn’t even a sterling orator, but his royal status was the starting (but not ending) point for garnering supporters.
Speaking of which: Malaysia would be very different now if Onn Jaafar’s proposal to open up the party to non-Malays hadn’t gone down like a ton of bricks. We probably wouldn’t still be wasting time arguing about ethnicity when there are more pressing matters. We won’t need 1Malaysia if the concept were already a fait accompli. Things always seem easy to fix in hindsight, but it’s doubly sad that the Tunku ended his years in yet another party, Semangat 46, that was defined primarily by race. Did he really feel we had not moved on?
The birth of any nation is always a contested terrain and any account is bound to displease some people. On the plus point, it’s great that this book highlights the fact that our royalty was never an apolitical institution: the sultans were ready to agree to the entrenched colonial plan of the Malayan Union, and were also hesitant about Independence lest they lose their powers. The relatively chummy terms by which Independence was granted is also not ignored in favour of breast-beating perjuangan rhetoric. And unlike the film 1957 Hati Malaya, it even includes Chin Peng and the Baling Talks!
But the crucial role of women in UMNO is neglected, as well as the neighbouring freedom movements of Indonesia. If the latter didn’t have any impact, then why would Indonesia and UMNO have almost the same flag?
Like E. Yu’s Mahathir bio, this has a host of slapstick commentators, human and non-human, tucked away in corners of the frame. My favourite is the “hairy porter” who’s offering his services.
The most moving section is his first wife’s death through medical malpractice; it is shown as typical of his selflessness that he did not press charges. And the most exciting is when he ‘kidnapped’ his father during the Japanese Occupation, and in the process saved the aged sultan’s life.
Towards the end, we get the national anthem. The fact that Negaraku uses the melody of an Indonesian love song (which was also adapted into a Hawaiian pop tune) speaks of the exciting fluidity that existed at the time. Only a playboy prince would have been unstuffy enough to choose it; a more insecure arriviste would have insisted on something more pompous.
To provide a more rounded picture of the forces at work then, this should be read alongside another illustrated book, Where Monsoons Meet, which unabashedly took the Leftists as heroes. Some people will say that both combined still don’t make a ‘complete’ picture, but only extinct people have complete histories.
So here we are, squabbling often about the same trite themes. I’d like to think the Tunku is now sitting somewhere, nursing a favourite drink, sighing with some exasperation, but pleased to be away from it all. Cheers!
(Malay Mail, 22 July)
Sunday, 19 July 2009
Wednesday, 15 July 2009
I would rate this as my favourite Malaysian novel, even though it was written by a mat salleh before Malaysia came into existence in 1963. But Anthony Burgess was no ordinary mat salleh: a polymath who never seemed to try too hard, he spent six years of his life here and left behind this novel; lucky us.
For starters, there’s the wide range of characters, of every possible Peninsular ethnicity. It’s the most vibrant depiction yet of our Truly Asian but multi-racist society. The jokey, pomposity-puncturing allusions to local mores and hypocrisies have not gone stale. Even the Malay names of places are often rude, which is something that the average English reader wouldn’t have possibly realised when reading it; so it’s like a gift to us.
This novel has not proved popular among humourless local academics, who find it patronising. What they willfully ignore is that the depiction of the whites here is often more scathing, with enough booze and adultery to keep any daytime soap-opera going for months.
The first book takes place in a state modeled after Perak, where Burgess did indeed teach (at the venerable MCKK); the second is in a disguised Kelantan; while the third is in a state that doesn’t even have a fictitious name. In a novel where names are often meant to be taken ironically, the protagonist Victor Crabbe doesn’t end up victorious. And the very first man we meet, an alcoholic policeman named Nabby Adams, is also ‘expelled’ from this warm Eden by the end of the first book.
Burgess represents varied Malayan voices with a musician’s ear, a humourist’s lightness of touch, and a wounded idealist’s moral rigour. Many of the jokes come from racial caricatures that we can recognise from our daily conversations and from cruder subsequent works.
When Crabbe the teacher says to his multiracial class, “Man was not born to work”, the author follows this with: “All the Malays nodded.” The throaty “A?” is described as “a noise which God gave only to the Chinese lower classes.” To round up this muhibbah triumvirate, we learn that “with Indians there is an unhealthy love of the law”, as seen in court through “wailings, rendings of shirts already rent, flashing eyes and poetry, babies exhibited theatrically at moments of crisis.”
Take just one small episode: an elderly Chinese cook is seen chasing a Malay servant girl. He’s actually after her cat (to be eaten), but a small angry mob gathers because he’s suspected of trying to molest her. So here we have comparative gastronomy, a ribald pun (she’s trying to save her puss), slapstick misunderstanding and opportunistic racial grandstanding.
I don’t mean to grant Burgess any divine mythic powers, but it’s amazing how eerily prescient the book is. For example, there‘s a deathbed controversy of the theological nature, which could have been wrenched straight from today’s headlines. But although the mood grows darker (along with Crabbe’s) as Merdeka approaches, there’s still a heedless optimism in the portrayal of how the younger generation chooses to bond.
Witness the budding friendship between Syed Hassan (who would in today’s vernacular be a mat rempit) and the music prodigy Robert Loo (who is thought by the town to be a ‘catamite’ – a word I learned from a different Burgess book). It’s inexplicable, it goes against ingrained prejudices, but it feels apposite.
And that’s why the world depicted in this novel will rumble on, almost in spite of ourselves. It’s this ‘tidak apa’ (a phrase he uses often) resilience that some of our more exasperated public intellectuals, for example, simply never ‘get’.
The Malayan Trilogy is a rambunctious and colourful performance of heat and lust, with the comic bathos of downpours always on hand to quench any potential high-mindedness. It should be made a compulsory text at school, as long as the teachers aren’t prudes who will latah at the lewd words.
(Malay Mail, 15 July)
Tuesday, 14 July 2009
Friday, 10 July 2009
The most sensible thing I read about PPSMI (the teaching of Math & Science in Malay, I mean English)
Maths and science: The case for BM
by Helen Ang
( 9 & 10 March 2009 )
Yang dikejar tak dapat, yang dikendong berciciran.
We might dream about creating a breed of Malaysian scientists and mathematicians but we’re losing hordes of children who don’t even have a decent grounding in Math and Science due to PPSMI (Pengajaran dan Pembelajaran Sains dan Matematik dalam bahasa Inggeris).
1 Prof Mohamad Tajuddin Rasdi commented that the move to teach Math and Science in English was made with “such rapidity that it boggles any management team to implement”. The public did not hear about any feasibility study nor were there any debates or concerns that built up to the radical switch.
2 PPSMI was implemented in January 2003, coming at the tail-end of Dr Mahathir Mohamed’s tenure. “Tun Mahathir sort of woke up one day and decided to change the languages of the two subjects”, Prof Tajuddin noted. Dr M’s ‘Eureka!’ moment came after Malaysian kids have been learning Math and Science in Malay for almost four decades.
3 Dr M’s executive order was given against a backdrop of massive unemployment among local graduates which he blamed on their lack of proficiency in English. At the same time, private colleges offering courses in English were burgeoning. The PPSMI directive did not originate from the Education Ministry but was instead the premier’s personal initiative.
4 The PPSMI project – it was revealed in Parliament last May – has already cost taxpayers RM3.2 billion over the last five years. A significant portion of the money was ostensibly spent on ICT equipment. Further billions have been budgeted to see through the programme. Is it an enrichment of pupils or of cronies, one may ask?
5 We have completed a cycle of PPSMI. In 2008, the pioneer batch finished their Year Six. Yet last year, only 31.1% elected to answer the UPSR Science paper fully in English, while 68.9% opted to use Malay, or vernacular (Chinese/Tamil), or a combination of languages.
This rojak language feature is unheard of anywhere else in the world. Would a 12-year-old in England submit his Science answer script in a jumble of English-French-Urdu?
6 Close to 70 percent were not confident enough to sit the exam in English. In absolute numbers, that’s 352,641 pupils. It is mother tongue instruction that’s most effective for children as countless studies have shown. Unesco endorses this formulation. The European Union similarly adopts a mother tongue education policy.
7 Is it so incomprehensible to the vocally pro-PPSMI urbanites that English is alien to the majority of rural children?
Furthermore, Math and Science teachers who are themselves deficient in English will not help improve the pupil’s language command. In fact, a likely scenario is that kids will pick up English grammar mistakes from Cikgu during Math and Science periods.
Wrong to scapegoat BM
8 A most oft-cited argument in favour of PPSMI is that the bulk of reference material is in English. But we’re talking about seven year olds and 11 year olds. They don’t need to refer to advanced textbooks and academic papers.
They’re not required to write a thesis using English jargon. Foundation level Math and Science deals with basic concepts that can be explained just as well in BM or vernacular.
Even at ages 13 to 15, schoolgoers don’t specialise in Math and Science. Not everybody aspires to be a scientist.
9 Three scientists of Japanese ethnicity shared the 2008 Nobel Prize for their work in subatomic physics. They obtained their PhDs from Nagoya University and University of Tokyo. They learned their Math and Science in Japanese…I’m sure.
10 Let’s say that a science magazine discusses the field of their Nobel prize-winning endeavour with words like ‘particle accelerator/Large Hadron Collider’, ‘CP violation’ and ‘Higgs boson’. Mastery of English doesn’t necessarily help a Form Five student comprehend the contributions of the Japanese trio.
Only by being very good in Physics will the 17-year-old Malaysian find the article illuminating. English is not a magic key to unlocking scientific aptitude.
11 The problem with Malaysians doesn’t lie with the language of delivery. It lies with the passive education system, the teachers’ dispiriting approach and the by-rote exam structure (practise, practise, practise past year test papers, spot questions). These methods fail to foster a scientific mindset.
12 Impressive Math and Science scores in domestic exams do not automatically make Malaysia a great science and technology nation. Does Malaysia have the requisite technology base (except in the automotive industry thanks to Proton), flourishing R&D sector as well as incentives to absorb those future graduates who intend to do original research?
13 What’s the real value of an ‘A’ in the Malaysian exam system? The revamped PSSMI syllabus has been dumbed down compared to the BM curriculum it replaced.
14 Not only that, the GMP (movement to abolish PPSMI) has alleged that in order to cover up the failure of the policy, the Education Ministry has resorted to lowering the passing mark to 30 percent and thus beefing up the pass rate.
National language, national identity
15 Article 152 of the Federal Constitution makes Malay our national language. It is the language for ‘official purpose’, i.e. “any purpose of the Government, whether Federal or State, and includes any purpose of a public authority”. English has no official purpose in schools.
16 The Education Act says that the national language shall be the main medium of instruction in all educational institutions except Chinese and Tamil schools. It does not provide for the existence of English school.
UPSR in national school has six subjects; the core subjects Math, Science and second language are in English. To all intents and purposes English has become the medium of instruction. If the government insists on proceeding with PPSMI, it should amend the Constitution and change the law first.
17 In national-type schools similarly, the school’s Chinese character is lost while ‘doubling’ wastes precious time when Math and Science are taught overlapping in both English and Chinese.
Chinese primary schools are feeders to the independent Chinese high schools whose students take the UEC. This exam is recognised for entry to universities in Taiwan, China, Singapore, Australia and some European countries. PPSMI will kill the UEC, and seal off alternative avenues to higher education if students are incompetent in Chinese language.
18 PPSMI benefits the ‘haves’ and disadvantages the ‘have-nots’. Poor parents lack the resources for private tuition, not that there are tuition centres anyway in the rural and remote areas.
Nor are these parents capable of giving home tutoring as they themselves are not well-educated. And in settlements and long houses, children do not have access to facilities, computers and laboratories.
English-speaking parents desire the easier path paved by English access, otherwise their kids will have to adapt to English later at college level. What is advantageous to them comes at the expense of the majority losing out in Math and Science (see results). PSSMI shifts the burden to young rural children while those exposed to an English-speaking environment cruise ahead.
19 It is not for the greater good to penalise many to advance a few. Since 1982, all first degree courses have generally been taught in Malay at our public universities. For close to three decades, these tertiary institutions have been producing graduands who obtained their qualifications in Malay. We’re a Malay-speaking polity.
20 Finally, the standard of BM has risen in inverse correlation to the decline in the standard of English. Our socio-political milieu is undeniably Malay. Unless we’re willing to alienate ourselves in ethnic enclaves, it’s untenable to continue living in Malaysia if we do not encourage our children to be adept in Malay or at the very least, keep up.
PPSMI by sidelining the national language turns the accepted notion of nationhood on its head.
We have completed one cycle of PPSMI. In 2008, the pioneer batch that was taught Math and Science entirely in English finished their Year Six.
Yet last year, only 31.1% of Year Six pupils elected to answer the UPSR Science paper fully in English, while 68.9% opted to use Malay, or vernacular (Chinese/Tamil) or a combination of three languages (English-Malay-vernacular). Good grief! We’ve formally brought the Malaysian rojak culture into the classroom.
An unintended consequence of PPSMI is that of turning the UPSR haywire – its rojak language feature unheard of anywhere else in the world. A parallel would be, say, a 12-year-old in England submitting his Science answer script in a jumble of English-French-Urdu.
Close to 70 percent of Malaysian Year Sixers were not confident enough to sit the exam in English. In absolute numbers, 352,641 pupils.
Taiwan and Korea topped the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS)* in 2007. Taiwanese and Korean children don’t learn Math and Science in English.
Hong Kong children taught in spoken-Cantonese and written-Chinese also ace Math and Science. On the other hand, Filipinos are fine in English. Do you ever hear that the Philippines is tops in Math and Science?
Two countries usually considered technological powerhouses are Germany and Japan. Imagine if German and Japanese children were to be taught Math and Science in English in order to improve their English as well as performance in both subjects.
I should hope that a Japanese Education Minister treating his country to such flawed reasoning would have the decency to commit harakiri.
Mother tongue is best
It is mother tongue instruction that’s most effective for children as countless studies have shown. Unesco endorses this formulation. The European Union similarly adopts a mother tongue education policy.
The majority of Malaysians speak Malay at home. Malay is more familiar to the Orang Asli and other indigenous peoples even if it is not their dialect, whereas English is alien. Our teachers’ language of competency is Malay. Our pupils are most conversant in Malay. (In vernacular schools, Chinese and Tamil.)
Is it so incomprehensible to urbanites that the majority of rural children don’t speak English at home? That the people around them don’t speak English? That even their older brothers and sisters who are college-age speak little or poor English?
The poor are unfamiliar with English, period. And education is the means of upward social mobility for the poor – their lifeline.
Furthermore, Math and Science teachers who are themselves deficient in English will not help improve their pupils’ language command. In fact, a likely scenario given the reality of Malaysia is that kids will pick up English grammar mistakes from Cikgu during Math and Science periods.
The most oft-cited argument in favour of PPSMI is that the bulk of reference material is in English.
But we’re talking about 7 year olds and 11 year olds. They don’t need to refer to advanced textbooks and academic papers which admittedly are in English. They’re not required to write a thesis using English jargon. Foundation level Math and Science deals with basic concepts that can be explained just as well in BM or vernacular.
Even at ages 13 to 15, schoolgoers don’t specialise in Math and Science. Not everybody aspires to be a scientist. Some kids when they grow up want to be a pet groomer or a landscape design consultant.
Not addressing the root cause
Three Japanese scientists shared the 2008 Nobel Prize for their work in subatomic physics. Two are nationals of Japan and the third an American citizen; the Japanese duo obtained their PhDs from Nagoya University while the Japanese-American from University of Tokyo. They learned their Math and Science in Japanese … I’m sure.
Let’s say that a science magazine discusses the field of their Nobel prize-winning research and uses descriptions like ‘particle accelerator/Large Hadron Collider’, ‘weak nuclear force’, ‘CP violation’ and ‘Higgs boson’.
Even though it’s generally true that in the international arena, scientific breakthroughs and cutting edge theories are articulated to the public at large through English, mastery of English doesn’t necessarily help a Form Five student comprehend the contributions of the Japanese trio.
Only by being very good in Physics will the 17-year-old Malaysian find the article illuminating. English is not a magic key to unlocking scientific aptitude. Making BM the scapegoat is grabbing hold of the wrong end of the stick.
The language of Math and Science is technical and precise. Following are the sort of sentences you would come across in a Chemistry lesson: “Fill test tube with ethanol” or “Immerse cotton wool ball in hydrochloric acid solution”. Biology and Physics are just as replete with glossary.
Not even those enamoured with English’s utility would claim that kids doing PPSMI are acquiring communication English useful in real life situations.
Emotional quotient (EQ) which reflects maturity is expressed through the richness of thought and nuances of language. The latter aspect (e.g. vocabulary, discursive skills) is better gleaned from the nature of the humanities subjects such as History, Literature, etc., and not from the terminology and formulae of Science and Math.
One way to lift academic standards in Math and Science is by fostering methodical and rational thinking, and promoting academic rigour.
The problem with Malaysians doesn’t lie with the language of delivery. It lies with the rigid, passive education system, the teachers’ dull, dispiriting approach and the by-rote exam structure (practise, practise, practise past year test papers, spot questions). These methods do not inculcate in children such traits that are the attributes of a scientific mindset.
What’s the real issue?
What is it that we really desire out of PPSMI? Impressive Math and Science scores in domestic exams do not automatically make Malaysia a great science and technology country.
In fact, the GMP (movement to abolish PPSMI) has alleged that in order to cover up the failure of the policy, the Education Ministry has resorted to lowering the passing mark in Math and Science to 30 percent and thus beefing up the pass rate.
Not only that, the revamped syllabus for Math and Science has been dumbed down to accommodate the stragglers. Consequently, the bright students are not stretched or challenged.
Well, Malaysia produced an SPM student who scored 21As and a clutch of others with almost as many distinctions. What’s the value of Malaysia-calibrated stratospheric achievements? It’s only jaguh kampung, akin to ‘Wira Angkasawan’ but ‘Malaysian space tourist’ to the rest of the world.
Even if we self-arbitrate that our Math and Science students are prodigies par excellence, does the country have the requisite technology base (except in the automotive industry thanks to Proton), flourishing R&D sector as well as incentives to absorb those future graduates who intend to do original research?
Registered patents are one indicator of technology advancement, i.e. which countries are inventing new things. In Japan, 27,230 patents were filed in 2007. In the corresponding year, Malaysia recorded 93 (see table).
For further comparison, Singapore: 443, USA: 52,969. Singapore places an emphasis on English medium education but it’s the intellectual climate in the States that makes Americans far more inventive than Singaporeans.
So looking mistily ahead, we might dream about creating a breed of Malaysian scientists and mathematicians taught in English. In the here-and-now, we’re losing hordes of children who don’t even have a passable grounding in Math and Science due to PPSMI. Yang dikejar tak dapat, yang dikendong berciciran.
The law on this
Under the provisions of Article 152 of the Federal Constitution, Malay is the national language.
It is also the language for ‘official purpose’, i.e. “any purpose of the Government, whether Federal or State, and includes any purpose of a public authority”. Hence, English has no official purpose in schools.
The Education Act says that the national language shall be the main medium of instruction in all educational institutions except a national-type school, that is, except Chinese and Tamil schools.
Following are the UPSR subjects: Bahasa Malaysia Pemahaman (comprehension) & Penulisan (writing), Bahasa Inggeris, Kajian Tempatan, Matematik, Sains. The latter two taught in English, plus English itself as a language paper, add up to three subjects in English.
Apart from Islam and BM as language subject, there is only one other subject in Malay. In Chinese schools, Math and Science in English will sharply curtail the amount of time immersing in the mother tongue.
What then becomes of the Chinese character of national-type schools? Don’t forget that the Education Act allows for Chinese school; it does not permit the existence of English school.
These Chinese primary schools are feeders to the 60-plus independent Chinese high schools whose students take the UEC. This exam is recognised as the entrance qualification for universities in Taiwan, China, Singapore, Australia and some European countries. Math and Science in English will kill the UEC, and seal off alternative avenues to higher education if students are incompetent in Chinese language.
Also, the PPSMI format practically negates Malay as the medium of instruction gazetted in the Education Act while to all intents and purposes English has become the medium of instruction for the core subjects. This development turns the accepted notion of our cherished nationhood – which national language is the chief marker – on its head.
If the government still insists on continuing with PPSMI, it should amend the Constitution and change the law first.
So what’s my beef?
The sorts of accusation levelled against those opposed to PPSMI are ‘Malay ultra’, ‘language chauvinist’, ‘knowledge-shy’ or ‘anti-English’. These labels do not apply to me, and I was a Science student who sat Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Additional Mathematics in the SPM.
I’m against Math and Science in English because of the way it is being done. It hurts the majority of children. Pupils at national-type school ‘double’, wasting precious time on Math and Science in overlapping timetables both English and Chinese.
PPSMI is an ill-conceived policy ill-suited to Malaysia’s realpolitik conditions. Its implementation is helter-skelter. Bottomline: Simply not viable.
I see the issue in class terms: PPSMI benefits the ‘haves’ and disadvantages the ‘have-nots’. The smart ones get smarter, the ones already backward fall further behind. How else to view the RM3.2 billion worth ICT equipment purchased under the PPSMI project when some schools don’t have enough classrooms or even electricity?
With English, a small segment that might later pursue tertiary studies requiring Math and Science expertise will have an easier path. But English impedes a greater number of youngsters who find the language barrier hampering their fundamental understanding and interest in Math and Science.
The trade-off in cost is extracted from those with a poorer socio-economic background.
Their parents lack the resources for private tuition, not that there are tuition centres anyway in the rural and remote areas. Nor are these parents capable of giving home tutoring as they themselves are not well-educated. And in settlements and long houses, children do not have access to facilities, computers and laboratories.
The question, thus, is one of the greater good. With PPSMI, children whose parents are vocally pro-English will naturally do better. But PPSMI is at the expense of the majority losing out in Math and Science, in addition to their English not getting any better. Local studies have shown that PPSMI is damaging. (See box below).
If the worry is about English, then the upper middle-class and professional strata should improve their children’s English after school hours rather than inadvertently punish the majority of Malay and vernacular speakers. If the concern is about Math and Science, then privileged kids will just have to make an extra effort at matriculation and tertiary level.
Retrogressive to nationbuilding
Since 1982, all first degree courses have generally been taught in Malay at our public universities. For close to three decades, these tertiary institutions have been producing graduands who obtained their qualifications in Malay.
Under PSSMI, the burden is emphatically placed on young children, not on the late teens who may wish to specialise in Math and Science. Not only is this unfair and unconscionable, it makes no sense.
Finally, the standard of BM has risen in inverse correlation to the decline in the standard of English. Even the UPSR BM paper for 12 year olds is of a high degree of difficulty.
If we belong to the minority groups, we have to remember that we’re residing in the Malay archipelago. Our socio-political milieu is undeniably Malay. Unless we’re willing to alienate ourselves in ethnic enclaves, it’s untenable to continue living in Malaysia if we do not encourage our children to be adept in Malay or at the very least, keep up.
Malay culture steeped in the Malay language expresses the soul of our country. Bahasa Jiwa Bangsa.
GMP chairman, former director of Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka Dr Hassan Ahmad, sums up best: “What we know is that there is no race in the world that has shaped its culture and civilization, art, literature, philosophy of life, myth, worldview and corpus of knowledge through the language of another people”.
As Anak Bangsa Malaysia, we have no choice but to respect Article 152.
Wednesday, 8 July 2009
LETHAL LESSON AND OTHER STORIES by Adeline Lee Zhia Ern (Silverfish, 2009, 175 pages)
Adeline Lee is not the first teenager to publish a book this year. A few weeks ago we talked of Nik Nur Mahidah, also 18, who shared her spiritual and motivational tips on how we can, like her, get 20As for SPM.
(What happened to all the boys? Are they all wannabe rempit and ah long who aren’t interested in the written word? There’s just no hope for some folks, I tell ya.)
Aside from their age and the determination that these two self-possessed young women display, I wonder if there are any other resemblances? The story in Lethal Lesson that reminded me most of Nik Nur Madihah’s memoir is “A Father’s Love,” because the titular parent happens to be a fisherman as well. But Lee’s is a slightly darker vision: the father is a compulsive gambler who thinks that education is wasted on mere girls.
Lee’s book is fiction rather than fact, and since I don’t know her I can’t presume to know how much is autobiographical. But this is a wonderfully assured debut.
I was a little wary of the first story, “I love you grandma.” A 91-year old reminisces about her life, but isn’t it odd that she describes cinema buildings of the 1940s as being ‘old and dilapidated’? Surely they seem so now, but wouldn’t they have been brand-new then? Ah, but she’s on her deathbed, so maybe the medication is doing things to her.
A much more successful grandma’s-eye story is “Belonging Somewhere,” which might just be the strongest piece here. A different old woman (albeit a sprightlier 82) was born in China and came to Malaya decades ago, but still finds it hard to adapt. She’s aghast at the way her granddaughter “used to speak Hokkien, but the dialect has slowly disappeared from her vocabulary, like colour fading from a frequently washed shirt.”
Against the inflammatory and politically bankrupt rhetoric of kaum pendatang, this story brings to vivid life, with well-rounded characters, the hard choices and compromises that have been made by all of us. The story is also significant for being the only one with a supporting character who is not Chinese: the old woman’s daughter is dating someone named Kassim. (I don’t know if Lee consciously chose this name to evoke the film Ibu Mertuaku, where another Kassim didn’t get along with his mother-in-law either, but with more tragic results).
Many of the stories take place in Ipoh (where Lee lives), but this isn’t the multiracial milieu of Yasmin Ahmad’s films or Lat’s Town Boy. In that sense, it does bear a striking resemblance to the exclusive ethnic enclave of Nik Nur Madihah’s Kelantan.
Another of my favourites is “Imaginary”, an old-fashioned ghost story that evokes The Turn of the Screw. The chills and familial tensions are superbly controlled; I can see the J-horror remake right now.
Most of the stories are very much grounded in the realism of multi-generational families. Only a couple, like “Mermaid” and the title story “Lethal Lesson” push forth into more fanciful territory; the former has a scaly creature much less lovely than Maya Karin in Duyung, and the latter has girl assassins!
I think she evokes various situations pretty well, but the stories of school have a particular resonance. Her school-going protagonists don’t have much luck: she ranges from fat and dangerous (”The evil one”) to being mildly insecure at not getting straight As (“The Score”). I don’t know if reading Nik Nur Madihah’s book would help them, though.
Lee can also portray something that not many writers, of any age, can do well: happiness. A teenager being nice to a neglected man in an old folks’ home, or a young mother speaking to her infant (who chooses to “look silly” only when a snootily judgemental adult visits), a moth being set free – these are the colours we should celebrate.
The fact that she injects these little shots of happiness without too much sentimentality is already a gift. But her palette is richer than that. To use a reference from before her time: The future’s so bright, she’s gotta wear shades.
(Malay Mail, 8 July)
Wednesday, 1 July 2009
PEEING IN THE BUSH by Adeline Loh (MPH, 213 pages, 2009)
I never knew that hippos were the deadliest animals in the world (after you discount those nasty mosquitoes). Deadliest to humans, that is: 200 of us are killed by those beasts every year.
Luckily for us, Adeline Loh did not become a gruesome statistic. Although she does entertain many premonitions of gristly death by means of mammal, reptile and man-made vehicle, she survived her one-month adventure holiday in Southern Africa to deliver this chortling account.
I don’t read many travel books, but this has got to be one of the funniest around. The comedy comes from her cheerfully irreverent approach to life. She has a sidekick, too: Chan, a much more cautious woman (a vegetarian, to boot), whose restraint acts as counterpoint to Loh’s desire to try everything at least once.
Loh’s special gift is comic similes. Her overstuffed knapsack made her “bend over like a 90-year old with a hernia,” while Chan’s standard garb of scarf and sunglasses made her like “like she was secretly trailing her adulterous husband.” Bathos also stops the book from sliding into the kind of sonorous voice-over that you get from travel documentaries; for example, standing by the great Victoria Falls is like “being showered upon by a permanently depressed giant aerosol can.”
The descriptions of animals and their anthropomorphic peccadilloes are another highlight, although I still don’t think I can tell an impala from a puku. My favourite is the endangered white rhino who refused to develop an Oedipus complex.
It isn’t all funny ha-ha. Zambia is one of the 12 poorest nations in the world, and more than 15% of its population has HIV. (But almost everyone speaks English, so you wonder where our own government got the idea that this language is somehow a prerequisite to la dolce vita.) The tone doesn’t shift jarringly to the deadeningly solemn when she discusses the sadder side of life there, but the lingering lightness is more honest, and more indicative of the human resilience she sees around her.
Does tourism encourage empathy or distance? Are there discomforting similarities to colonialism? For example, Victoria Falls itself existed and was known to natives of the area long before Dr. Livingstone “discovered” it and named it after his queen, an irony Loh is aware of. Most of the locals she encounters are trying, in one way or another, to get some money from her, so that presents a necessarily distorted sample.
At the end of the day, this book is less ‘about’ Zambia than about an assorted menagerie that any tourist will not only encounter but become part of. The animal kingdom is varied enough; there are also the shifty guides, the would-be Lotharios, the reckless drivers, but also people from faraway countries who feel the inexplicable need to ‘find’ themselves by, well, getting lost. Perhaps the latter group is the weirdest of all, but everyone exists in mutual, and mostly agreeable, dependence.
Hence the emphasis on toilet functions, evident right in the title. At the end of the day, all of us, whether from the First, Third or ‘developing’ world, need a place to pee. And when there’s nowhere more convenient, the bushes that have served our animal cousins will do the same for us.
It’s a bawdy, democratic vision but the book stays clear of overt political correctness by broad, often nationalistic, caricatures: when they are at their most disheveled, the two women feel like “Indonesian housemaids” when lining up for food with an atypically smart urban crowd. (I winced at that, I must admit. But at least she, unlike most of us, thinks that these women deserve a day off to eat outside in the first place!)
Driving back from KLIA, her senses seem permanently changed – at least, until the next adventure. Wherever and whenever that will be, I want to be in for the ride.
(Malay Mail, 1 July)