This article of mine has been published in The Malaysian Insider on Oct 4, 2013. To read from TMI, click HERE
I wrote this article as a response to Tun Mahathir’s recent comment on National Education Blueprint 2013-2025, as reported in Malaysian Insider on October 1, 2013.
I was a strong supporter of PPSMI but as a government officer, it is my duty to implement national policies hence my acceptance for its abolishment and my present support for MBMMBI.
However, I strongly believe that the spirit of PPSMI should not be completely abandoned because it is an undeniable fact that the body of knowledge of mathematics and science, hence engineering for that matter, has evolved so deep, so wide and has gone through a revolution so fast, that their acquirement can only be best done by updating our reading on books and scientific articles written in English. The days of the Germans, Japanese, French, Koreans and Dutch to write their latest books and scientific findings in their mother tongue have basically long gone. Even if they write it, most of us still cannot read their mother tongue, can we?
Based on this, I would like to suggest that the spirit of PPSMI to be brought into a new realm, that is into local academia. At first, such a suggestion might sound trivial because we have the perception already that English has been the lingua franca of our academia especially with the internalization of our universities where almost in every class we would have international students. I would say no to this in the spirit of PPSMI.
In the spirit of PPSMI, mathematics and science are not about calculation and facts memorizing but they are mental constructs; they are ideas and concepts just like politics, philosophy, history and humanities. So as mental constructs, mathematics and science must be understood in words and delivered in a storytelling manner where symbols and numbers are only there to assist with the delivery and the understanding.
Math and science must be properly argued and reasoned. However, the sources for such arguments and reasoning are embedded in the body of writing within textbooks and scientific articles which sufficiency, elegancy and relevancy, in turn, depend on the authors. Great professors and researchers author great materials but nowadays the fact is, almost all of them are authored in English for greater readers and viewers.
So, the difficulties faced by our university's students, researchers and even teachers in reading "between the lines", in grasping the arguments and reasoning and to follow the "storyline" of books and scientific articles are what PPSMI was supposed to solve.
I myself had the same difficulties when I first arrived at Imperial College London for my PhD. I thought I was smart enough because I got a master from UTM only to realize that I knew nothing as far as the fundamentals required for a world-class research pursuit. I was forced to read the books all over again only to find out how were difficult actually the arguments of mathematics and scientific principles to be understood and obviously, to have language barrier definitely did not help, it only worsened the condition. As my independent learning initially was slow, I was forced to go around asking my seniors to explain to me what the meaning of this and that (not literal meaning as we have dictionary for this) to the extent one day, one of my senior said to me, "Airil, Malays are not ugly but stupid.” I swear to God he said this but I didn't buckle, they could say whatever they like as long as they taught me the knowledge. At that very moment, I made a pack with myself; there will be not a single day without knowledge for me.
After I came home six years ago and started to teach and conduct researches with the Malaysian students, I then saw it happened all over again. I watched how the students failed to read books and journal articles thus failed to understand it. Yes, they could do the calculations, but without reading the storytelling written in the materials, they could never have the proper understanding which without it, they could never produce anything good enough, worthy enough to provide the country with innovations required in establishing the much spoken sustainable economy.
Since it was not even an option for them not to understand, my research students went through the hardship of sleepless night of reading back the basics and took appreciably longer time to graduate. At my end, it took me to be besides them for appreciable hours revising all over again the basics of mathematics and science to the extent I read and explained to them words by words in my attempt to impart the skills of independent learning in them.
None of this would be necessary if our students were made guilty to skip the storytelling of the books, not encouraged to focus only on the simplistic lecture notes and not trained to go straight to the examples and drilled themselves with it for the sake of exams, as soon they stepped into the university. Instead, they would have understood the knowledge and produced worthy scientific output as well as innovations much quicker. In the world that is exponentially changing; to be quick but legit is the most important virtue of a person and a society. With my students, after all the hardships, we finally succeeded in producing engineering software that is equivalent to the foreign ones. Almost 200 unit have been sold at less than quarter the price of the foreign ones. Such an achievement only highlights the capability of Malaysian in being innovative and economically competitive, provided that we are accomplished by proper learning process.
Therefore, the recovery from our present malady would have been quickened by PPSMI but since it has been abolished, let its spirit come alive in our universities. The spirit of PPSMI is about making domestic changes, it is about domestic mass production of local world-class scientists and their scientific and innovative products. We send about ten per cent of our best brains to overseas but the rest remain. While the lucky ten per cent have the luxury of listening to the lecture of professors which knowledge bear their name, the remaining ninety per cent must resort to books for better understanding and they have to read them alone. The spirit of PPSMI is about allowing those that remain in the country to read their books lonely but quickly.
Thus, the spirit of PPSMI is about the new strategy, a special recipe injected after the strategy of sending and awaiting those sent to overseas to come back has brought us to a stagnant state (if not lagged) due to the fact that those around us have picked up a greater pace and momentum. They don’t call IT Revolution and Information Boom for nothing. While others are speeding up, the spirit of PPSMI should have been the reason for us to have a chance at overtaking those already ahead of us.
I therefore hope that this compromise of letting PPSMI be bygone and its spirit come to alive in our universities will be well accepted even by those fought for the abolishment. I hope they will not against it by positing the same old argument asking why the Japanese, the Mainland Chinese, the Koreans and other English non-speaking countries like Germany are using their mother tongue at their universities.
The people of these advanced societies are in the positioned of using their own language because, as many have not realized, they were in the same pedestal with the English speaking people in pioneering the modern mathematics and sciences.
How can we put the Japanese and us in the same pedestal when they have constructed their warplane, the Zero, independently during the 30's and 40's at time our forefathers still fishing with the net in the Selat Melaka? They had Shimura-Taniyama conjecture in the 50's, the conjecture used to proof Fermat's Last Theorem, to stress my point.
And if we look at the mainland Chinese, they have flocked into Cambridge and Oxford as early as the 19th century, leave alone their 5000 years old civilization and the Koreans, being sandwiched by these two great nations would then be influenced by them both culturally and intellectually.
On the point of the Germans, great scientists were Germans, from the time of Leibniz (contemporary of Newton) in the 17th century until now. Yes, there were times when they translated Arabic articles into Latin then into their language and now resorting back to English for scientific publications. But this only highlighted the domestic events taken place in Germany, events that shaped their culture, their mother tongue. It highlighted the dynamic of Germany's domestic.
But this was the time when there was no globalization, this was the time when everybody, the English, the Germans, the Dutch and the French were taking pace almost at the same time and size, and this was also the time when the superpower, the Abbasiyah, was crumbling down. In other words, this was the time of "no rushing".
But the spirit of PPSMI is about now, it is about the strategy that takes into account that the world is exponentially changing. Just about a decade ago we seized to use typewriter and had bulky low ram and small hard disk computer on our desk which could not even play movie on it but today we have computer in the palm of our hand and we are seeing Apple suing Samsung who are happened to be Koreans and we are also seeing China is building their own space station out of anger after being neglected by the international community in the development of the existing ISS.
It should not be a wonder to us why the world we live in is governed by these advanced societies for they were and still are the pioneers of sciences and technologies. It should come to us as no surprise just by looking at the world’s rank of their universities at time ours are stuck at 200-300 places. What the rank manifests is the rate of understanding and the mastery of mathematics, science and engineering and it is apparent that we still have a long way to go. But there are no cutting corners and short cuts; we must pass through the path of the greats, which is by acquiring the purest understanding of the subject matters but pass this path quick because as I said, we don’t have the luxury of those in the enlightenment era; there was no globalization back then.
On the argument that we should do translations, which part of the statement that we have international students in every class, that we don’t understand? Which part of the statement that the body of knowledge has evolved so deep, so wide and gone through revolution so quick that the available books are ten folds greater than the number of our translators, leave alone the facts that almost every day there will be new scientific findings published in English, that we don’t understand? Which part of the statement that the world is exponentially changing that awaiting for translation is not an option because our students must read their book now, quick and lonely, that we don’t understand?
So below is the list of actions our academia should take in letting the spirit of PPSMI to come alive in our universities.
1. All lectures must fully be in English. The reasons for this are two folds, to make the students to become familiar with the scientific phrases, to be found in textbooks and to prepare them for future encounter and engagement in scientific discussions and communications. Listening is a very important learning skill.
2. All lectures must use worldly established standard textbooks as major learning materials. Teacher’s lecture notes, if any, must be treated as secondary materials to include books authored by local teachers even if they are written in English unless it is shown that the quality and magnitude of the books able to meet the standard of the universal ones.
3. It is compulsory for the students to read the whole storytelling within the textbooks and no skip to the examples.
4. It is compulsory for the lecturers to describe the whole storytelling to include the philosophy of the subject matters, the history, the reasoning, mathematical derivation from first principles, the related physical laws, principle and assumptions as well as the state of the arts. Like the students, the lecturers should not skip to final equations, given tables and established procedures and of course, no skip to examples.
As a summary, mathematics and sciences are mental constructs thus must be delivered and understood in words and in a storytelling manner, through good teachers or through good books. However, as far as independent learning is concerned, whilst we cannot have our teachers at all times, we can always have our books. This was what PPSMI all about but since it has been abolished, why don’t we let its spirit come alive in a new realm that is our academia; the place where PPSMI should have mattered in the first place. - October 4, 2013.
* Dr Airil Yasreen Mohd Yassin is a senior lecturer and computational mechanicist at the Faculty of Civil Engineering, UTM Johor Bahru.