IN the past decade, many top-performing students failed to score Grade A for the Chinese Language subject in the Sijil Peperiksaan Malaysia (SPM) examination, although they sailed through with top grades in other subjects.
History repeated itself on March 3 when results of SPM 2015 were released. For many, the SPM Chinese score stuck out like a sore thumb on otherwise enviable result slips with a string of As in all other subjects.
For academic achievers who aimed to win prestigious scholarships to study overseas, the failure to get all As on their result slips is a major setback, as it could undermine their dreams of pursuing higher studies overseas.
As expected, parents of top students went to the press to complain of the “injustice” done to their children whom they claimed had proven their mastery of the language in previous school exams.
One distraught parent, whose son, Lim Wei Lun, scored a B+ in Chinese and A+ in all 10 other subjects, announced she would demand for the Chinese paper to be re-marked, which is allowed under the present system with a payment.
“Last year, I told my son not to take Chinese but he was stubborn. Now, his result slip is tainted by this B+,” Lim’s mother said, as she burst into tears. Lim’s father said it would be a “regret in life” if injustice was not undone to this boy, who had a track record of scoring As in the Chinese subject.
The story of Wei Lun, a student from the prestigious St David’s High School in Malacca, hit the front page of China Press on Monday. His story mirrors the plight of many other students.
According to the SPM results released by the Education Department, the percentage of grade As scored in the Chinese subject had fallen to 12.4% from 18.3% in 2014.
Indeed, for reputable schools that have a track record of producing results with flying colours, the SPM Chinese results were a blow.
Kuala Lumpur-based Chong Hwa Independent High School – the most prestigious Chinese secondary school in the country – was one shocking casualty of the 2015 exam.
According to headmaster Chia Song Choy, students who scored A+ in SPM Chinese declined to five in the 2015 sitting from 43 in 2014; and those scoring an A plunged to 34 from 100. In the SPM Chinese literature paper, only one student scored A+ compared with eight in 2014.
“This plunge in results for the Chinese paper is an abnormal phenomenon. Chong Hwa, as a Chinese medium school, has always placed a lot of emphasis on the Chinese language, and we have put a lot of effort into teaching this subject well,” Chia told the Nanyang Siang Pau newspaper. The interview was posted on Chong HwAs official website.
Generally, however, Chong Hwa students delivered excellent results. Out of the 810 candidates, 193 students, or 23.8%, scored nine As and above. Overall, the passing percentage was kept high at 99.63%.
According to analysis, a major reason for a failure to score a good grade in the Chinese paper is the unconducive studying conditions in school that have led to a decline in interest and standards.
Chinese is an elective subject that is not included in the timetable of most schools, and is normally taught for only two hours a week after school, and this has affected the decision and efforts of students.
And the lack of qualified teachers to teach classical Mandarin, which may be boring and difficult to average students, is also another factor.
But Chen Chun Ping, president of the Malaysia Secondary School Chinese Language Teachers Association, disputes the suggestion that the standard of Chinese among Malaysians is low.
“The results for the SPM Chinese paper is abnormal. More students deserve to score A. The standard of Chinese in Malaysia ranks fourth in the world, after China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Moreover, many students here have learnt Chinese as a first language from the time they were young,” she tells Sunday Star in a telephone interview.
She believes the education examination board must have raised the A-grade cutting-off point for the Chinese subject to an “unreasonably high level”.
“If 33% of Indian students could score A in SPM Tamil, which is also taught under similar conditions in schools, I don’t see why Chinese students could not have a higher score than 12.4%,” says Chen.
Some commentators argue that if top Chinese students could score As in English and Bahasa Malaysia, it is difficult to fathom how they could not score an A in their mother-tongue subject.
In fact, there are now calls for the grading system to be transparent. In the 1970s, students knew that to get an A, they had to score at least 75%. But now, there is no reference point.
This trend in weaker Chinese results and a decrease in students taking SPM Chinese is causing concern among the Chinese community and the Chinese media.
Tan Sri Pheng Yin Huah, president of the Federation of Chinese Associations in Malaysia (HuaZong), wants the Education Ministry to review the whole examination system on the Chinese subject as similar complaints have been aired for years.
“The Education Ministry must get to the bottom of things, to see where all the problems lie and find solutions to the matter. We are concerned as this has implications for the future of our mother tongue and Chinese culture,” Pheng says.
Meanwhile, Pheng urges Chinese students to continue to take Chinese for the sake of their future.
“With the rise of China, it will be to the advantage of job seekers to master Mandarin. It will be easier to find business opportunities within China’s ‘one belt, one road’ initiative.”
Sin Chew Daily, which has the highest circulation among Chinese newspapers, launched a campaign on Monday urging Chinese enterprises to give preference to job applicants who have taken SPM Chinese. This takes its current “Save the Chinese Language” campaign to a higher and more intense level.
On Monday, the newspaper devoted a full page of comments to SPM Chinese. It also appealed to the Chinese community and students to jointly “save the Chinese language” via its Sin Chew-Plus pullout.
“We should not rely only on teachers to save our Chinese language. Support from our society is needed,” stated Sin Chew-Plus, which also commended those who had sat for the SPM Chinese paper despite all obstacles.
“Through this latest campaign, we hope to create awareness among parents that there is a social and economic value in the Chinese language.
“Many parents are very practical, they only care about their children’s scholarships and job prospects. We hope Chinese firms can show that there is economic value in Chinese,” says Chen Yoke Lin, deputy executive editor-in-chief of Sin Chew Daily, in an e-mail interview.
Chen notes that in the past 10 years, the number of candidates for SPM Chinese have been dropping, with a drastic plunge of 5,088 last year. In 2013, the number of candidates was 51,685; in 2014, it was 50,568; and in 2015, it was 45,480.
For the STPM (Form Six) examination, only 200 students registered for the STPM Chinese paper.
With the decline in students taking up Chinese, there could be a possibility that schools may close down Chinese classes. And as it is difficult to score in Chinese, some prestigious schools may stop students from taking the subject so that their overall SPM results will not be undermined.
To the Sin Chew Daily, these developments do not augur well for the Chinese community as it means the root of Chinese culture could be lost.
“As a Chinese newspaper, we will try our best to promote the learning of Chinese and safeguard our mother tongue. Sin Chew pays close attention to the number of people learning Chinese as it has implications for our future readership,” says Chen.
Having monitored the complaints for days, deputy Education Minister Chong Sin Woon says he is very concerned about the issue.
He tells Sunday Star he wants a thorough investigation and reform of the examination and grading system of SPM Chinese.
But as this exam issue may not be a straightforward education matter and might need political will to resolve it, there is no guarantee an easy and quick solution to this problem will be found.