(An edited version of this post appeared in the Star’s iPad edition, 17 November 2011)

The Government’s latest move to allow students already studying Science and Mathematics in English to continue doing so appears to have done little to silence the pro-PPSMI lobby.

At the risk of simplifying the debate, it seems that one side tends to underscore the significance of English as a medium of knowledge, while the other doubts that very premise, quoting cases in Europe and Asia, whilst dabbling in a fair bit of linguistic nationalism.

I will, for the most part, avoid here, these well-trodden paths. Not because I do not recognise the force of some of the arguments, but because there remains something to be said about practicality and priority.

I’m willing to concede that PPSMI proponents have the country’s best interests at heart, even if some could do better at demonstrating an awareness of the world outside their upper middle class bubble. But I digress. A couple of years on the fringes of the political and policy sphere have made it vividly clear to me that an idea is only good inasmuch as it is implementable. It matters little that a policy is well intentioned if those intentions are not translated on the ground.

Consider the collective exasperation of my generation when critiques of policies like the NEP or ISA are brushed aside by invoking various incarnations of “the policy is good; the problem is implementation”. At some point, conceptual and practical dimensions meet such that it becomes disingenuous to hide behind the ‘spirit’ of an idea if its consequences are deemed undesirable. The same standards apply in this case.

So what of the consequences of the policy? Research by at least three bodies do not lend credence to those who base their support on the notion that PPSMI improves students’ grasp of Science, Mathematics or English across the board. The findings of Permuafakatan Badan Ilmiah Nasional (PEMBINA), Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris (UPSI) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS 2007) – all of which are in the public domain – collectively reveal a dip in student performance and interest in the three subjects during the years that PPSMI was in practice, especially amongst students from rural and low-income communities.

PPSMI fans know these studies well. Faced with the data, the onus is on them to demonstrate that the policy’s shortcomings are easily reversible with better implementation. Instead, “choice” is the wonderfully ethereal trope now employed, i.e. schools should decide for themselves if they want the “PPSMI option”. Suddenly, it is not so much about the efficacy of the idea, but about the rights of parents to decide what’s good for their children.

Nevermind the data. Nevermind that the Ministry has undertaken painstaking research, considered the national education objectives and engaged with the civil service responsible for the workings of the policy. Nevermind that “choice” is, in more ways than one, an asymmetrical resource constrained by expectations and biases. Let’s undercut all that by invoking the sentiment that surely parents must know better than the State. Cue the small government mantra. Great.

Except even here, the idea is woefully thin on detail. Let’s take just one example. Proponents of this ‘compromise’ offer little elaboration on how exactly the “PPSMI option” would work well in a system where too few teachers were able to properly implement PPSMI to begin with. Was this not precisely a problem contributing to the policy’s underwhelming results?

PAGE’s memo to the Prime Minister addresses this major roadblock in a comically cursory manner. It remarks, “teachers fluent in English can easily be transferred, at low cost, to schools offering the PPSMI option”. How convenient.

Pardon my indulging in speculation. Presumably PAGE believes all English-speaking Science and Mathematics teachers would readily flock to the SK Bukit Damansaras and SK Seri Hartamases of Malaysia. Presumably they would do this because teachers don’t have families or commitments of their own and make no bonds with local schools and communities to which they may have contributed for years. And because the requirements of schools that already struggle with teacher retention don’t stand up against the wishes of a section of society.

Two things have humbled me in my recent work at a non-profit aiming to eradicate education inequity: the massive structural and systemic challenges faced by young Malaysians from difficult socio-economic backgrounds – many in their teens cannot read or write – and the unwavering passion of teachers to transform these students’ life trajectories.

And through conversations with teachers, it is apparent that a central issue is the lack of interest amongst students stemming from a general worldview that under-privileges education. Teaching Science and Mathematics in English will do nothing to address this problem; if anything data suggests it has served to exacerbate it.  

So I ask, when you demand for the system to accommodate PPSMI, what are you essentially saying to those at the short end of education inequity whose voices are almost always marginalised? That their problems are irrelevant? That they must bear the generational sacrifice just so the upper middle class with cosmopolitan status ideals gets its way – the upper middle class possessing cultural and financial resources to learn English terminologies of Science and Mathematics with relatively little marginal effort anyway? You ask these for a policy whose practicality and instrumentality remain dubious at best?

Until and unless PAGE and its supporters offer specifics about how the “PPSMI option” can be implemented well under current circumstances and in such a way that these concerns are averted, I’m afraid the questions will remain.