Part 3: Policies for Unity

In Part 2 of this article, Superdiversity and Bangsa Malaysia, I reviewed the background of the rift and the makings of policies, as well as its intentions. Now let’s review the policies, implementations of it and its failures, and how just like some languages in this country, forgotten and moribund policies, which are created for the purpose of social unity. 


The New Economic Policy (NEP) was put in place to solve the socio-economic imbalance between the communities of different ethnic groups and geographical locations in the country (Mahmoud & Mitkees, 2017). While the NEP provided the two decades of Economic Refurbishment in the country (Mahmoud & Mitkees, 2017; Rao, 2009), the process introduced affirmative policies in tertiary education which did not sit well with the non-Malays. The NEP introduced the quota system in which university entries should not only reflect the academic achievements, but should also parallels the total make-up of the population as a whole (Rao, 2009). This system is viewed by the non-Malays to be discriminatory and unfair, and it resulted into a segregated university lifestyle that lasted up until the 21st century (Rao, 2009).

While the NEP was in effect, at the school level, several efforts to promote unity amongst vernacular schools, which only has a small number of Malay students, with the national schools, took place and swiftly met their ends. It began in 1985 with the Integration School Program where vernacular and national schools would be placed in one area, this program was swiftly opposed by the Chinese Education Representative, Dong Jiao Zhong and ultimately replaced with an almost similar program where students of these schools will only have joined extra-curricular activities (Center for Public Policy Studies, 2016).

The NEP ended and was replaced with Vision 2020 at the approach of the millennium, the then Prime Minister was propelling the country towards economic prosperity, hence the educational policies were more geared into producing a generation of more marketable human capital for the sake of economic prominence in the global scale (Mahmoud & Mitkees, 2017; Rao, 2009). However at the same time, the efforts in creating a more unified concept of Bangsa Malaysia was still not abandoned; the Vision School was introduced in 1995, similar to the integration school program, this Vision School program was to put all two types of vernacular school with a national school in one compound where the students will share facilities such as school field, canteen and joined extra-curricular activities (Center for Public Policy Studies, 2016). However, this program was soon abandoned after facing yet more opposition from the Chinese community and was soon abandoned after the Prime Minister was replaced (The Indian Malaysian National Daily, 2010).

For the sake of creating a more marketable human capital, the then Prime Minister emphasised the importance of English in Malaysia Education, hence the introduction of English for the Teaching of Mathematics and Science (ETeMS) in 2003. The introduction and the implementation of the policy, whilst welcomed by certain factions of society, was met with huge opposition by both the Malay and the Chinese community (Albury & Khin, 2016; Rashid et al., 2017). Since the process of phasing out English as a medium of instruction in 1956, English has served as a second language status in Malaysia education system (Thirusanku & Yunus, 2017). However, the complicated relationship where it is seen as a threat towards the sovereignty of other languages in Malaysia is always apparent, to some, the language served as a constant reminder of an uncomfortable colonial past (Albury & Khin, 2016). While to others, it is perceived to imply superiority in comparison with the National Language or the Chinese Language (Rashid et al., 2017) and also a threat to their identity (Yang & Ahmad Ishak, 2012).  Hence, the protest that came with the introduction of ETeMS was expected, but the huge volume of the protest was astonishing.

Interestingly even Malaysians famous novelist and poet laureates banded together with the protesters claiming that ETeMS was a threat towards the sovereignty of Bahasa Melayu (Yang & Ahmad Ishak, 2012). In one of the few rare moments of unity, the Chinese educationists shared the Malay community’s disapproval of the policy as they claimed that ETeMS is a threat to their language and identity (Albury & Khin, 2016; Rashid et al., 2017). Ultimately ETeMS was dissolved as it was claimed to be ineffective in aiding the learning of science and mathematics (Rashid et al., 2017), however there had been studies showing that ETeMS was indeed effective in improving the understanding of the two subjects (Lai & Lai, 2012), hence this shows that that the reason behind the abolishment was the sheer volume of the protests against it. The MBMMBI, which is acronym for Memartabatkan Bahasa Melayu dan Memperkesakan Bahasa Inggeris came swiftly to replace the ETeMS in making sure that Malaysian human capitals are equipped with English skills in order to be marketable in the global scale. Since the language is proved to be an economic lingua franca globally (Albury & Khin, 2016). English is seen as a sought-after quality in a candidate to be hired by a competitively global industries (Education First EPI, 2019). The MBMMBI required schools to increase the number of outside-classroom activities in English and also increasing the number of contact hours for English class in a week (Ministry Of Education, 2013). However, even this was faced with backlash from the Chinese communities to the extent that the expansion of contact hours is not applied in Chinese vernacular schools in Malaysia (Rashid et al., 2017).


The evolution of policies since Malaysia gained its autonomy in 1957 is always influenced by socio-economic factors. It can be seen from the review in the previous section that any and all efforts put in accommodating integration and unity is always seen as a threat to certain communities. Even moving into the 21st century, any effort to aid a united sense of Bangsa Malaysia is faced with severe protests from one faction of society or another. For example the introduction of Jawi script as a component of Bahasa Melayu in 2019 was met with huge protest from the non-Malay community (Sukumaran, 2019). This shows that the concept of Bangsa Malaysia under the umbrella of Rukunegara has not been achieved even after more than 60 years of independence from the British. This also shows that the constants introduction, implementation and abolishment of policies may have been one of the reasons of the failures in the effort of nation building. At the same time, any efforts to give English a more prominent place in Malaysian Education system is seen as a threat towards the sovereignty of Bahasa Melayu as the national language. Which goes to show that the state of Bahasa Melayu is not completely secured as the National Language if the effort to keep up with the global world is seen as a constant threat to its sovereignty.

The idea of national identity had recently been reiterated by the Malaysian Education Blueprint (2013-2025); the blueprint had outlined the Malaysian education philosophy in the form of six students’ aspirations, in one of the aspirations, it described the national identity as an unshakeable sense of national pride tied to the principles of rukunegara (Ministry Of Education, 2013). The aims are to not only understand diversity, but to embrace it and be proud of it as one unifying identity (Ministry Of Education, 2013). Simply put, as long as there will be factions of society who will never respect the sovereignty of Bahasa Melayu as the national language, and as long as there will be educationists who actively work against any efforts of integration, and as long as the Malay community is not able to be confidently secured with Bahasa Melayu as national language, any policies that will be introduced in the future will always be met with protests and backlash which will in the end serves the purpose of the policies to be null and void.

*Facts and Statistics in this article are carefully researched to support the author’s opinion, list of references are given below for fact-checking. 

Further Reading and References

Albury, N.J. & Khin, K.A.  2016. Malaysia’s National Language Policy in International Theoretical Context. Journal of Nusantara Studies 1(1): 71–84.

Center for Public Policy Studies.  2016. Vernacular Education in Malaysia.

Education First EPI.  2019. EF English Proficiency Index: A Ranking of 100 Countries and Regions by English Skills. Report No.

Lai, J. & Lai, P.Y.  2012. Revealing the Reality of PPSMI.

Mahmoud, M.S. & Mitkees, H.  2017. Malaysia’s Vision 2020 and the Role of leadership in Economic Development. Asian Social Science 13(8): 49.

Ministry Of Education.  2013. Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013 – 2025. Ministry of Education.

Rao, S.S.  2009. Globalisation, Affirmative Action and Higher Education Reforms in Malaysia: A Tightrope Walk between Equality and Excellence. The Asian Scholar 5: 1–26.

Rashid, R.A.B. … Yunus, K.  2017. Reforms in the policy of English language teaching in Malaysia. Policy Futures in Education 15(1): 100–112.

Sukumaran, T. Chinese Dissent in Malaysia Over Jawi Script in Schools Raises Alarm in Mahathir’s Government. South China Morning Post, 24 December: 1–6.

The Indian Malaysian National Daily.  2010. The Vision School Plan.

Yang, L.F. & Ahmad Ishak, M.S.  2012. Framing controversy over language policy in Malaysia : the coverage of PPSMI reversal ( teaching of mathematics and science in English ) by Malaysian newspapers. Asian Journal of Communication 22(5): 449–473.

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