An emphasis on the English language and a focus on Science and Mathematics will make national schools more relevant and accepted, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who has been fiercely campaigning over the years for a rethink of the education system, told MalaysiaNow in a recent interview.
The former leader, who served as education minister in the 1970s, also recalled a time when English-stream public schools were still allowed.
He said public schools were then popular among people of all races.
But today, he said, the emphasis on learning Malay and religious subjects had become problematic.
“In the end, students face difficulties in furthering their studies overseas as they must be proficient in English.
“Even if you want to go to Japan, you have to be fluent in English,” Mahathir told MalaysiaNow in an hour-long interview on various topics at his office in Putrajaya.
In the past, Malaysians were known for their English proficiency, he said.
“Now it is no longer the case.”
English-medium schools were a norm pre- and post-independence until the 1970s, when the government converted them into national schools with Malay as the main medium, as part of the National Language Policy.
The language change was gradual, but by the early 80s, all national schools were using Bahasa Malaysia as the main medium.
Mahathir clarified that he was not for the return of English-medium schools, only for science and mathematics to be taught in that language.
The former prime minister was a strong proponent of the Teaching of Mathematics and Science in English, introduced in 2003 during his first term in office.
The policy was suspended in 2009 and abolished in 2013.
Just before the fall of his government in February, Mahathir, as the acting education minister, announced that the policy would be revived.
It is something he still believes would work.
“Do not sacrifice knowledge because you want to prioritise a language. That is why I have always stressed teaching Science and Mathematics in English,” he said.
Mahathir said without English proficiency, Malaysia would be left behind in the field of science.
“Every day, thousands of studies and scientific research papers majoring in science are published. Without English language skills, Malaysia will not be able to excel in new discoveries.”
He added that translating papers into Malay was not a solution as translators should also be knowledgeable in the field.