PPSMI: Myths and the Bogeyman

PPSMI or MBMMBI? After the hoo-ha, a decision was finally made… but hold on, that is too simplistic. Behind this balancing act, somebody’s watching and throwing in myths. PPSMI or MBMMBI? We aren’t going anywhere!

Too many myths are surrounding the PPSMI and many more to consecrate these surrounding myths. Myths after myths, brazenly, PPSMI is the celebrity Bogeyman [1] where political momentum was nurtured, dissipated, nurtured and dissipated. Now prostituted: He becomes the centre of mythic power, a mythic decoy.

The Bogeyman has clouded over the critiques. To re-enfranchise the muted critiques is to question His myths before one assumes the role of a critic. This essay is therefore taking a step backward for an analysis of those myths. However this essay must come on a par with His mythic quality, in which failing to lure Him will result in the same faith of the current dissension and risk the providence to be enveloped by His destiny of the mythic. The strategy is to produce an artificial myth [2] (since one mustn’t fight a myth with a non-myth).

This essay is especially dedicated to the prominent bodies of “critic” (currently mythic) such as PAGE, GMP, DJZ, IKRAM, JJM and other relevant bodies. It will begin with the attempt to problematise the mythic.

MYTH 1: on “Education should not be politicised”

Reality check: Because education is politics, it cannot become politics. The only possible transformation is to de-politicise which is beyond human ability.

A critic [3] believed that the government had employed this Bogeyman to “win them (the government) votes from a certain race” and criticised the government for turning the education into a “political game”. This is a muted criticism, as if the critic has said nothing, silenced by its fidelity to the dominant discourse – that education is politicised.

The critic has participated in the game without recognising the general constitution of the game. Likewise, for example, one cannot play Snakes and Ladders without knowing the sequence of numbers, the symbolic meaning of snakes and ladders and the anticipation of throwing a dice.

The critic becomes a handicapped player. He who plays Snakes and Ladders is but baffled by the numbers. Indeed, he knows not counting, knows not the pain of snakebite, knows not the utility of ladder and knows not the purpose of dicing. Yet, invited by the Bogeyman (the host), he has just begun to play the game. Grumbling about his uneasiness with the rules of the game, he misapprehended the entire system of meaning. He is battered, not by the Host, but by the rules of the game to which he makes no sense. And precisely, such incalculativity and ignorance have made him a permanent defeat.

With such premium condition of docility [4], the critic has enrolled into the political economy of details operating under the Bogeyman’s mechanism, the critic (already) surrendered and exhausted, he will not rise above the game.

MYTH 2: on Untranslatability

Reality check: If you understand a meaning in a language, you cannot de-understand it in another. Intellect is irreversible.

A translator is a mediator, giving birth to a hereafter, a post-production forever delayed. This hereafter-ness should not be underestimated. It is an advantage of the intermediate: by way of channelling information between two linguistic destinies to arriving at another end with renewed enlightenment. This intermediacy possessed the politics of intervention; to intervene a monoculture and call into question the autonomy of a language.

The intermediacy also provides a moment for deliberation, a pause. To be able to appreciate this interruption, critics must first accept language as necessarily historical and political. In this sense, the hereafter-ness of the translated is not inferior but experienced, refined and matured. If the original is a historical product, the translation initiates a historic produce [5], an investigation and a platform for intercultural negotiation.

Up to now, Walter Benjamin’s notion on afterlife and pure language in The Task of The Translator [6] are conceptually viable. To Benjamin, translation marks a “stage of continued life” and this afterlife perpetuates the original. On pure language, the preoccupation is that all languages are a priori emerged through intentions. Since an intention is concealed within the language, meanings can be realised “only by the totality of their intentions supplementing each other” (p. 74). That’s to say, cross-referentiality in translation may crystallise the latent meaning.

This conversion of languages therefore requires a certain degree of freedom and not fidelity. Because the autonomy of a language in translating, if swayed by the former authority, menaced the apprehension of intention:

A literal rendering of the syntax completely demolishes the theory of reproduction of meaning and is a direct threat to comprehensibility. (p78)


[I]t is not the highest praise of a translation…to say that it reads as if it had originally been written in that language. Rather, the significance of fidelity as ensured by literalness is that the work reflects the great longing for linguistic complementation. (p79)

Translation allows an intertextual reading that enriches understanding. Loanwords are such exemplar, and both Malay and English (and many other languages) contained a bountiful of loanwords [6]. Cultural appropriation and lexical borrowing are our appetites.

As of now, primarily, because language must evolve as knowledge develops, the process of developing knowledge must not exclude the process of developing a language. Similarly, acquiring knowledge must not exclude the process of learning a language. Secondarily, while confusion with translated jargons is real, it is a result of inadequate comprehension of the meaning and not of the translated.

Untranslatability is therefore another myth tampering with the Bogeyman to form a decoy barricading us from solving the real issue.

MYTH 3: on the Mirroring Future

Reality check: One cannot fight for the future. One can only think about the future. For a struggle to realise, one must fight for the present.

The last myth is demanding.

In Malaysia, the idea of future must entail the memories of the past. Forever stuck in the interstitial and loiter along the axis from was to will, Malaysia is sentenced to endless frictions and reconstructions. Inevitably, such preoccupation adumbrates the present; many are either fighting for the past (legacy, heritage, traditional value etc.) or for the future (economic prospect, globalisation, modernity etc.). Overloaded with projections of what-had-happened and what-will-happen, we are clamped in an unforeseeable present: what-is-happening. (?)

This “present” at stake is repressed and voiceless [8]. Laws [9], parents and NGOs in this mass-mediated hoo-ha have become the representative, determining the repressed’s past or the repressed’s future.

The repressed comprises: the children (material, spatial) and their future (immaterial, temporal). Further commanding the repressed is a mirror image (an imagined community or an imagining community) in which the representatives have, foremost, idealised and defined.

This repression becomes more problematic when it revolved around education: Has education become another institutional repression? What is the prerogative of education? What does teaching in Malay/non-Malay mean? Therefore it is only logical, if demythologising is permitted even among languages, to take reference from the very basic definition of the English word “education”, in Malay:

Root word:

didik (to educate)
ajar (to teach)

Here, the confix “pe-an” served to change the part of speech:

pendidikan (education)
pengajaran (lesson, teaching)

Peculiarly, the Ministry of Education (MoE) in Malaysia is currently named Kementerian Pelajaran Malaysia, as opposed to Kementerian Pendidikan Malaysia. The word pelajaran is often associated to mata pelajaran (subject of study).

Mata pelajaran can be a dictating term: the “subject of study” is crafted by elites and is suppressed. A “subject” is a condensation of different “studies”, where elites hold the mandate to decide on the choices of education. On this account, pelajaran connotes the soft power of authority. If we refer to the root word ajar (to teach) and putting it in comparison with didik (to educate), ajar implies a stronger authority. Pengajaran (lesson, teaching) also insinuates that discipline is at work, a necessary punishment for a prior action and will in future impinge on social behaviour.

On this approximation, ajar connotes the passion of influence while didik connotes the passion of mutuality. We can postulate that MoE understands education from the definition of its limiting label – ajar. This is also the biggest faculty of the Bogeyman: an institutional repression, the mode of education (pelajaran) must be instituted from an overseer.

Here comes the mythic figure: a Parent, an NGO, a Law, a Protector – the Feudal.

Solving the Wrong Crisis

As the 3 myths were partially debunked (hopefully), asking the right question becomes crucial. We can imagine a useful metaphor, the very moment where Dom Cobb was looking closely at the spinning top, the totem, before his children and the idealised future (the repressed) distracted him.

Realistic check: Are we facing the crisis of employing the tool of articulation (language), or the crisis of articulation per se (education)?

Language as a cultural product is conveniently jumbled together with ethnicity by the Bogeyman, it is a perfect booby-trap in Malaysia’s ethnic-based politics. The Bogeyman intends to galvanise all parties into action against an endless and vague yet pressing issue: an apparent mess to foreshadow an obscure crisis, keeping the Malaysian society preoccupied with issues highlighting clear-cut differences rather than shared values (a strategy to prolong the tension, to bypass the politics).

Amidst this inescapable preoccupation, the underlying educational crisis remains. The powerful stays in power, simultaneously, this unnecessary cultural conflict necessitates their political existence. We are booby-trapped in their ethnocentric nationalist lens (despite one’s political inclination). By keeping postcolonial ethnic-based politics relevant, He managed to preserve the current status quo.

By presenting Him, the government has successfully shifted our concern away from any potential structural reform in education, since all problems are attributable to the crisis of language and its implementation.

The Bogeyman is keeping us purblind. This overemphasis of language is a manufactured Plato’s cave; a simulacrum fascinated with clear-cut cultural differences (recently: language, Hudud and seksualiti). But He mustn’t enlighten us, for He fears losing His seduction.


These overloaded myths, if ever, presently defeated, only serve to mythologise the very idea to demythologise. The author hitherto must discredit himself because he has become part of the myth.


  1. Due to the mythic quality of PPSMI, the term “Bogeyman” will be used to replace “PPSMI and its problem” collectively, and rather abstractly, throughout the entire essay. In the law of the myth, a “Bogeyman” must stay loyal to the dominant historical narrative. Therefore necessarily this “Bogeyman” must represent a Man and not a Woman, as it upholds the patriarchal burden of: the politics of liberal humanism and English education (pre-1826 patriarchal elitism), the introduction of English education in Malaysia by the British colony; the 3 reactionary “national” phalli: Barnes, Fenn-Wu and Razak; the patrimony of Mahathirism as the father of PPSMI). With all these Man-made decisions, the “Bogeyman” bears the consequences of the Man. At times, I shall also refer “Bogeyman” with the pronoun “He”, “His” or “Him”.
  2. “Since myth robs language of something, why not rob myth?” asked Barthes.
  3. “Yes to PPSMI: ‘Don’t play political games,” Free Malaysia Today, October 22, 2011, accessed November 3 2011. [Link]
  4. Inferring Foucault’s docile bodies: instead of the mechanism of the battalion, the bodies now succumbed to the mechanism of mass-mediated politics (metaphorically, the game).
  5. “Produce” here functions both as a noun (harvest) and a verb (to harvest/harvesting).
  6. Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 69-82. Written as an introduction to Charles Baudelaire’s Tableaux parisiens. In this short but influential essay, Benjamin tried to redefine the task of a translator. The focus of this essay was on literary works, which are conceptually different to subjects like Science and Mathematics. But I wish to escape this narrow classification by dealing with the relationships (kinships) of languages and the “quality of text”, of what Benjamin referred to as translatability. This somewhat spiritual concept, he argued, is a “pure language” (devoted to pure purposiveness). This pure language communicates regardless of the poetic or the scientific.
  7. For relevant studies on loanwords in Malaysia, readers can refer to: 1) Chow Chai Khim, “The Study of Loanwords between Chinese Language and Malay Language in Malaysia” (MA thesis, National University of Singapore and Peking University, 2010); 2) Michael Ian Hartley and Wong May Kim, “Loanwords from English to Malay in the Field of Mathematics” (in Language and Linguistics, vol.1, no.2, pp. 63-78, 2000).
  8. Malaysiakini however has done a brief video interview in 2009 with a few students (the direct subject at stake) on the implementation of PPSMI. See Malaysiakini, 2009, PPSMI: What the student say, online video, accessed November 3 2011. [Link]
  9. Stated in the Preamble of Education Act 1996: …pupils are to be educated in accordance with the wishes of their parents.

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Posts by Tan Zi Hao

Tan Zi Hao keeps an eye on the discourse in Malaysia and looks for issues where the public and himself have overlooked. He writes about conflicts in the process of socialisation, identity formation and representation.

Posted on 18 November 2011. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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One Response to PPSMI: Myths and the Bogeyman

  1. HuaYong

    This is an interesting article, the interesting part is that after i read and re-read, i don't understand what exactly the article is trying to tell. Can the author 'translate' it to Malaysia English?