Strong grounds for using Bahasa Malaysia in STEM

REFERRING to the letter “‘E’ in STEM should be English” (The Star, March 5), I am sorry but I beg to differ with Tan Sri Omar Abdul Rahman’s suggestion.

Although English proficiency is important for communication with the outside world, I don’t agree that it should be used as the medium of instruction for Science and Mathematics instead of Bahasa Malaysia.

My objection is based on empirical evidence of our students’ performance in Science and Mathematics in the international ranking systems Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) and Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa).

Their performance in both TIMMS and Pisa was above the world average before the teaching and learning of Science and Maths in English policy (better know as PPSMI) was implemented in 2003.

Their performance dipped significantly in successive rankings during the PPSMI years.

They only performed significantly better in 2015, three years after PPSMI officially ended.

Our own scientists and engineers who are between the ages of 28 and 56 learned their Science and Maths in schools and local universities in BM and not in English.

They have made the country proud on many occasions for their excellent world-class scientific work.

Many former British colonies which use English in education and government since their independence have not become more scientifically advanced.

Former French colonies that continue to use French in education and government since their country became independent are faring even worse.

As a scientist, I value empirical data over nostalgia, feeling and emotion. And as I have said before, English is not the only scientific language in the world.

Many important scientific discoveries like quantum theory and relativity were in German. There were others discovered in French and Russian.

This means you could discover science in any language as long as the scientific terms in that language have been developed and are widely used in teaching and research.

Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, together with the five research universities in Malaysia, has been developing scientific terms in BM since the 80s. These are available on the Persuratan Melayu website.

English only became the de facto language of science communication in the 1960s because of American economic dominance and political hegemony and the taking over of almost all scientific journals by major Anglo-Saxon publishers who forced all the journals that used to be published in German or French, for example, to publish English articles only.

If anyone wants to dispute this, I suggest he/she reads the recently published book Scientific Babel by Prof Michael Gordin of Princeton University (University of Chicago Press, 2015) who has all the empirical evidence on this.

Since scientific talent, as proven beyond doubt by Prof Gordin, is not restricted to English speakers, it is more important for STEM or STREAM to be taught in the national language so that talented students from all parts of the country who are not proficient in English could be discovered and nurtured to be our future scientists.


Fellow, Academy of Science Malaysia

Professor of Chemical Engineering

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia


Letters , Science , Maths and English