English is the predominant language of global business and diplomacy and despite talk of America’s declining influence in the world, lots of people still want to learn English.
But in Malaysia, English appears to be on the decline. Some say it’s a victim of rising nationalism in the former British colony.
Now some families who want their children to learn English are taking drastic measures. They’re sending their children to school in Singapore.
In the southern state of Johor, 12 children board a minibus in early morning darkness for a two-hour ride. They’re crossing the border into Singapore just so they can learn English.
“Sometimes (it's) very difficult, sometimes (it's) very easy,” said Aw Yee Han, 9, who’s been making this bus journey for three years.
He’s among the 15,000 Malaysian students who go to school in Singapore, where English is the main language. It’s a grueling routine, but according to his mother, Shirley Chua, it’s worth it.
“Most of what’s written in science and math is in English,” she said, “so it’s essential that my son be fluent in the language.”
Chua, like many parents here, doesn’t trust Malaysia’s schools to teach him English.
Malaysian students may know the latest American pop songs, but many at a typical primary school in Kuala Lumpur would struggle to have even a simple conversation in English.
The Malaysian government began phasing out English as the language of teaching after Malaysia gained independence from the British in the mid 20th century. By the early 1980s, most students were learning in the national language of Bahasa Malaysia. As a result, according to Ong Kian Ming, a Malaysian political analyst, Malaysian graduates have become less employable in the IT sector.
“We’ve seen a drastic reduction in the standard of English in our country, not just among the students but I think among the teachers as well," he said.
That decline has made officials worry that Malaysia would lose its competitive edge. So in 2003, the government issued a new policy — schools should teach science and math classes in English. Almost overnight students who were learning these core subjects in their native Malay were asked to re-learn technical terms in English.
It’s been a huge challenge for students to tackle these key subjects in what is essentially a foreign language. One student, Muhammad Faiz, said he’s failing science.
“Of course, I’d like to be taught in Malay,” he said. “It’s our national language here.”
So many students are falling behind in science and math that the government recently declared the policy of English for math and science a failure. As of 2012, science and math classes will again be taught in Malay for those entering the first grade. But the government plans to expand English language hours in the curriculum.
Khairy Jamaluddin, a government politician in the youth wing of the party, said English remains critical for Malaysia.
“Absolutely, it’s the lingua franca of the world today. It’s the language of commerce and international trade,” he said, but added that the question is how it should be taught.
Some critics say the government’s reversal on English devalues the language here. Wan Saiful Wan Jan of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, an independent think tank, said he worried that the change is driven by nationalists who want to increase the use of the Malay language.
“If you look at daily life, there are many instances where the use of English is being discouraged," he said. "People are beginning to say that speaking English is elitist.”
Wan Saiful said those who believe that English is critical for the future of their children are taking matters into their own hands. In addition to the parents who send their children to school in Singapore, those who have the resources send their kids to expensive private schools.
Back on the school bus, the driver drops off all 12 children in Singapore on time.
Uncle Gan, as he is known on the bus, said there are many families who want to send their children to school in Singapore.
That’s why he recently bought four more minivans and hired drivers, just to keep up with the demand.