Malaysia prides itself on being a harmonious multiracial society, tolerant and low on violent protest. So it was a surprise last month when pictures of what looked like a riot in the capital of Kuala Lumpur dominated the Sunday papers. The road from the National Mosque to the National Palace was a battlefield as police fired tear-gas to disperse 5,000 demonstrators on their way to present a petition to the king. These normally placid people were lured on to the streets by a desire to stop schools teaching maths and science in English.
In 2003, the then premier Dr Mahathir said maths and science would be taught at primary and secondary levels in English, rather than the Malay language, Bahasa. The universities had been doing so for 10 years, and there was a strong feeling that schooling in the same language would ease the transition from school to university. At university level, little material is available in Bahasa. Key books and articles are in English. So, it was argued, let's introduce English early to enable university students to cope better.
The admissions officer at our school, Lisa Ambrose, was taught those core subjects in Bahasa before going on to read plant biotechnology at university. She believes being taught in English would have helped her greatly, despite having a strong English-speaking background at home.
"When I got to university, it was very difficult because all the references and journals were in English," she said. "There are very few journals in Malay. Even with a good English-language background at home, I found it difficult so I cannot imagine what it must be like for people who don't have that background."
But to the protesters, using English to teach these core subjects in national schools smacks too much of Malaysia's colonial past. Dato' Dr Hassam, chairman of the movement dedicated to its abolition, denies the rationale behind Mahathir's 2003 decision: "Saying that Malays will not excel in science and maths if they are not taught in English is the talk of ignorant and stupid people. Look at other races like the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans. Do they not excel in science and maths, though they are not taught in English? Are maths and science professors teaching these subjects in Malay stupid or less able than those who teach them in English?"
Official reaction to the dispute has so far supported continuing with English. In 2008, the then education minister Hishamuddin dismissed as "baseless" concerns that teaching in English would diminish pride in the national language. Malaysia is a progressive country and its leaders recognise the need for the next generation to compete in a world market dominated by English.
After the riots, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak said the government would continue to ensure Malay was the official teaching language, but gave no sign that there was any intention to change the current policy for science and maths. His statement is unlikely to pacify those who took to the streets last month.