Emi in higher education in malaysia the Dilemma of the State and Agents of Implementation

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EMI IN HIGHER EDUCATION IN MALAYSIA The Dilemma of the State and Agents of Implementation

  • Invitational Symposium 2006 Language Issues in English-medium Universities Across Asia 8-9 June 2006 University of Hong Kong

  • Saran Kaur Gill

  • Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia

This presentation is based on the following forthcoming publication.

  • 2006 Gill, Saran K. Medium of Instruction Change in Higher Education in Malaysia: The Reality of Attitudes and Implementation. In Advances in Language Studies. Edited by Giandomenico Sica. Monza: Polimetrica Publisher. Forthcoming.


  • Bahasa Melayu since 1957 has been the national and official language

  • Since 1970, actively implemented in the domain of education - at all levels from primary to tertiary and for all fields

  • Used in domain of government administration

  • Domain of business - ?

Sudden Change – Language of Instruction

  • announced in the mass media on the 11th of May 2002.

  • (Mahathir Mohamad, New Straits Times, 11 May 2002:1)

  • led to a reinstitution of English as the medium of instruction for science and maths in the national schools in a staggered fashion – beginning with Primary One, Secondary One and Lower Six.

  • took place within a period of six months from the timing of the announcement to implementation in the school system.

Public institutions of higher learning

  • have played a pivotal role in the development and use of Bahasa Melayu as the language of knowledge

  • had to prepare themselves for 2005 (last year) when the first cohort of students who would have studied in the English medium for science and maths subjects in the school system would enter the public universities as undergraduates.


  • To explicate the reasons for and attitudes towards the change in language policy in higher education in Malaysia

  • Understanding both the state’s and implementer’s positions are crucial dimensions for the implementation of language policy


Two year govt. funded research project 2003-2005

  • “Language Policy and Planning in Higher Education in Malaysia: Responding to the Needs of the Knowledge Economy”

  • (Gill, Saran Kaur, (head) Hazita Azman, Norizan Razak and Fadhil Mansor)

Voices that constitute the data for this Research

  • The former Prime Minister representing the voice of the State - interview

  • The members of academic management (DVC Acad. Affairs, Deans of faculties of S&T, Engineering and Computer Science) from all 9 public universities

  • (37 in all) - interviews

  • The lecturers of the faculties of science and technology of the 9 public universities (670 in all) - questionnaires

  • The literature and documentation delineating the factors that spurred the change





  • Influenced by:

  • “sociolinguistic settings, and the nature and scope of the planning can only be understood in relation to the settings.” (Ferguson, 1877: 9)

  • Settings comprise political, socio-cultural, economic factors and the science and technology ideology agenda

  • (Kaplan & Baldauf, 1997: 154; Martel, 2001: 35; Tsui & Tollefson, 2004: 2)

CHANGE IN MOI FOR KNOWLEDGE ACCESS Lecturers’ Responses (9 public universities)

Why do you think the government needed to change the medium of instruction from Bahasa to English for the field of science and technology?

  • (Interview conducted with a Deputy Vice-Chancellor on 3/8/04)

  • “We have to be advanced in S & T for us to be a developed nation. Development is driven by S & T. Social science will not create new businesses or economies. We are now just swallowing S & T information available to us. We do not have the capability to churn out ideas. In France, Germany, Korea and Japan a lot of books are available in their native language as their translation efforts are tremendous but that is not the case in Malaysia as our translation rate is comparatively slow. We are still not producing or generating ideas.

  • (Interview conducted with a Dean on the 6/8/04)

  • “It is just a political statement. There is no change in policy. The issue of (problems with) soft skills, communication skills, its’ too biased towards English. This is not true. Their ability to express ideas to convince people I don’t know why they have problems with these, maybe it is their upbringing, maybe our school teachers destroy their confidence.”

  • (Interview conducted with a Dean on the 21/9/04)

    • “For us, we have been teaching in the Malay language for a long time. We found it not impossible. There are problems along the way but we have carried out teaching in Malay in engineering for 20 years and we have managed.
  • I think when the government decided to change to English for S & T subjects, they say that it is on the assumption that that will improve the students’ ability to communicate in English. That is the what we understand, the main reason and also they are able to understand the technology or technology literature easier , direct understanding. To be honest I’m not sure whether this claim is something that has been proven. I’ve also seen literature by people who claim otherwise.”

Tun Mahathir’s Viewpoint

  • “Education is for the purpose of acquiring knowledge. The most important thing is the acquisition of knowledge. If you have to use a language which makes the knowledge more easily accessible, you should use that language. Historically, the Europeans learnt Arabic in order to access the knowledge of the Arabs ….. but because of their work they also learnt Greek in order to access the language and knowledge. … so if you want knowledge you have to acquire the language in which the knowledge is available.

  • Our education system is like any other education system. It’s meant to enable us to acquire knowledge. If we have the knowledge available in the national language, by all means, go ahead but the fact is that in science the research that is being done is moving at a very fast pace. Everyday literally thousands of papers on new research are being published and practically all of them are in English. To translate English into Bahasa, would require a person with 3 skills. Skill in the 2 languages and skill in the subject that is to be translated and we don’t have very many people who are qualified to do that or who wish to do that. That is why it is easier if you learn English and the students can have direct access to all the knowledge that is available in English.”

  • (Interview conducted by Gill on the 16 June, 2005)

Reasons for Change: Documentation

  • Gill, Saran K. Sept. 2005. “Language Policy in Malaysia: Reversing Direction” in Language Policy. Vol. 4 No. 3:

  • 241-260.


How does Malaysia hold up to the need to develop knowledge workers needed for Vision 2020?

  • The P-economy demands a brawn-intensive, disciplined workforce. The K-economy demands a brain-intensive, thinking, creative, innovative and disciplined workforce. Malaysia today has a world-class workforce for the P-economy. But we have a poor workforce for the K-economy. Unfortunately, with the rise of the K-economy, ….. there has been a fundamental structural shift whereby economic value will increasingly come from knowledge-intensive work and increasingly less from physical production (although this will remain important). The shift from a poor K-economy workforce to a world-class K-economy workforce has to be rapid and dramatic. There is little time to lose.

  • (A Report on the National Brains Trust on Education, 2002: 1)



  • 2000 - only 14% of the labour force in Malaysia possessed tertiary education qualifications and this will have to be significantly increased in order to meet the needs of a knowledge- based economy.

Impact of rapidly developing private higher education industry on public universities

  • “The bifurcation has serious social and political consequences.

  • First, private universities are more expensive than public universities, which are heavily subsidized by the government. This means that students enrolled in private universities are usually from middle-class families, whereas those from working-class families can only afford to enroll in public universities.

  • Second, the majority of the students in public universities are Malays, whereas the majority of the students in private universities are Chinese. As a result, undergraduates are divided not only along socioeconomic lines but also along ethnic lines.” (Gill, 2004: 147)

  • “….. the private sector became the main employment choice for graduates, but here the most important linguistic proficiency was in English. …. Graduates from the private universities were more sought after by the companies in the private sector, largely because of their competency in English. This situation would have led to serious social and economic problems for the nation.” (See Gill, 2004 for further discussion)

  • “Medium-of-instruction policy determines which social and linguistic groups have access to political and economic opportunities and which groups are disenfranchised. It is therefore a key means of power (re)distribution and social (re)construction …. ”

  • (Tsui and Tollefson, 2004: 2)

Tun Dr. Mahathir’s Voice

  • Bahasa, we still learn for the other subjects. We will still be very fluent. For Bahasa to be really accepted as a good language, it must be the language of a very knowledgeable people, very successful people. If the Bahasa is of a people who are very poor, backwards, who have no knowledge, nothing at all, then the development of Bahasa will be very stunted and people would not want to learn Bahasa. Why should they learn the language of a very backward people?

  • (Interview conducted by Gill, 16 June 2005)

Tun Dr. Mahathir’s Redefinition of Nationalism

  • “We need to move from the extreme form of nationalism which concentrates on being a language nationalist only, not a knowledge nationalist, not a development oriented nationalist. I feel that we should be a development oriented nationalist. We want our people to succeed, to be able to stand tall, to be respected by the rest of the world. Not to be people with no knowledge of science and technology, very poor, very backwards, working as servants to other people. If we have no knowledge we will be servants to those with knowledge.”

  • (Interviewed by Gill, 16 June 2005)

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