English as the medium of instruction

My old school friend, Kee Thuan Chye, wrote an interesting piece below on English proficiency that had appeared in the Free Malaysia Today news portal. I am in agreement with his point of view but I would also like to add my own two cents’ worth of comment.

In my opinion, teaching science and mathematics in English alone will not be the solution to become proficient in English and bring our nation forward. But I suppose it is the next best thing to making English the medium of instruction in school.

I had also voiced my opinion a long time ago to people like Dr Toh Kin Woon when he was still an Executive Councillor in the Penang government pre-GE12 that as an experiment, we should press for English to be re-introduced as the medium of instruction for designated schools around the country.

Do it and then gauge its response before expanding the move to more schools. However, looking at the political situation in this country, I wouldn’t hold my breath to see this becoming a reality any time soon.

Thuan Chye’s article continues:

It may be only three years away, but a short deadline can sometimes be as effective as a longer one, if not more so. It’s all about having the will to do it. And speaking of will, students are more likely to find the will to improve their English when they are pushed to do it than when they are led to believe that English is irrelevant to their daily lives or even harmful to their own culture and identity.

Even so, supporters of English are sceptical, and understandably so.

Uppermost on their minds is whether standards might not be compromised to ensure that the percentage of students who fail is kept to a minimum. We have heard stories of the passing mark for difficult subjects like Additional Mathematics being pushed down to as low as 15 or so; would this not be done for English as well? And if it were, what would be the point of the must-pass exercise then?

“If too many students fail, the Malaysian Examinations Board lowers the passing mark as a matter of course,” my friend, a retired English-language teacher, assures me. “Our SPM certificate is now not worth the paper it is printed on.”

She says if we were to look at a sample of the SPM English paper, we would realise that a pass counts for less than nothing by international standards. “That is why candidates with distinctions in English who turn up for job interviews cannot answer simple questions in English.”

Another friend attributes the malaise to what he calls the “rottenness” of our education system. He says it has become rotten because it has been made subservient to political agendas.

“The entire Education Ministry is filled with ‘yes men’ who merely implement policy,” he explains. “One day, I was at a meeting in the ministry and it was suddenly called off because the officers and heads of department had to put in place the machinery to implement a policy that they had read in the morning papers being announced by the minister.

“They were learning about it for the first time and already they had to work out the policy’s implementation! No research, no study, no academic rigour goes into it. No statistics, no projections did they quote to support this latest move. Zero. That’s how things work in our country!”

He fears this may be the modus operandi for implementing the English must-pass policy.

Yet another educator-friend feels the government is rushing things to start the policy in 2016. He thinks everyone will not be ready by then because many teachers are not equipped to teach English – and certainly not properly. This is simply because they themselves are not proficient in the language. Many who graduated with a Teaching of English as a Second Language (TESL) degree can’t even get the basics of the language right.

Learning grammar

Last month, a parent complained to me that her son spelt the word “heavy” correctly but his English-language teacher marked it wrong and insisted it should be spelt “h-e-a-v-e”!

When I was editing the page ‘Mind Our English’ for the newspaper The Star, one of the most unforgettably hilarious – and most depressing – letters I received was from a parent telling about an English-language teacher saying to the class, “Chindilella very pooth thing.” Try and figure out what that teacher meant, and think of the scary prospect of having someone like that teach your children English. If your children don’t know better, they are likely to end up with half-past-six English.

Of course English-language teachers need to be well selected. But for a long while now, it seems that many people do not want to study to become English-language teachers. Most people mark other fields of study in their applications for university entrance; it is mainly those who can’t get into courses of their choice who end up studying TESL.

At one time, our universities were accepting TESL candidates who obtained as low as Band 3 (signifying a modest grade) for their Malaysian Universities English Test (MUET). The highest is Band 6. One would think that TESL candidates should get no lower than Band 5. In fact, this should be the measure for applicants from now on to ensure that standards are maintained. We cannot simply accept students for TESL because they don’t know what else to study or are unable to get into other courses.

I think part of the problem with our current generation’s lack of proficiency in English is due to the emphasis being given to teaching English primarily for communication, as opposed to the traditional method of teaching grammar and vocabulary. This has been going on for at least three decades, and it has produced learners who don’t know the basic building blocks of the language. Without such knowledge, they often can’t string correct sentences together.

At a writing workshop I conducted recently, I was appalled, although not surprised, to discover that Malaysians in their forties and younger were not sure what an adjective or an adverb was. Don’t ask them what a phrasal verb is; they didn’t even know the basic sentence structure comprising subject, verb and object.

I admit that learning grammar may be dry and boring to some, but there is no substitute for learning the language well. How else would they be able to understand, say, the confounding, confounded past perfect tense?

My Canadian friend disagrees, however. “In a perfect world, teaching grammar may be the right thing to do,” she says. “But in this country, at this time, with these people in power, with these demographics, I believe that the communication skills needed in most workplaces today – clarity, organisation of thought, collaborative problem-solving, clarification-seeking, concise e-mail writing, etc – are not as dependent on grammar and rich vocabulary as many believe. Confidence and a sense of the language as a mere tool to be used are much, much more valuable.”

Right implementation

And how would they gain this confidence?

“When they are exposed to and motivated by the power of what language is supposed to be: a vehicle to exchange important, interesting and useful ideas,” she says.

I suppose if this is to be accomplished, the Education Ministry must think of innovative and creative ways of immersing our students in English.

It will certainly take more than the number of classroom hours allotted to the subject. It should also include promoting the habit of reading English texts. And what better than texts culled from the rich storehouses of literature written in English – not just from England but also from other parts of the world, including Malaysia?

When I was in lower secondary school, my classmates and I were introduced to literary works in English. I recall reading, as part of our syllabus, abridged texts of novels and poems from the anthology entitled Poems for Pleasure.

Many of us derived pleasure indeed from reading these, and I for one improved my English while doing so.

Much, then, has to be done to improve Malaysians’ standard of English proficiency, and that does not stop with just passing the subject at SPM. But I still maintain that we’re on to a good start by making that compulsory.

It’s important for the government to finally show that it recognises the importance of English, because in a society like ours which is feudalistic, such recognition must come from the top before the minions will accept it.

Now comes the hard work of implementing it right.

Kee Thuan Chye is the author of the new book The Elections Bullshit, now available in bookstores. This article first appeared in November 2013 issue of Penang Monthly

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FSA2013: Consent or no consent?

This is a short excerpt from my blog post yesterday on the Financial Services Act 2013:

“I am saying this because the policy owner have to understand when consent is needed from the new trustee and when consent is not needed. For example, there are certain circumstances which still do not require the new trustee’s consent when a nomination is changed.”

Let me offer you four examples of insurance nominations, as related by Rockwills Trustee Berhad at a presentation to us Rockwills Estate Planners on the new FSA2013.

Case One: Policy owner originally nominated wife to receive 50%, son to receive 25% and daughter to receive 25%. Policy owner now wants to remove wife and replace with mother. Consent is needed as the mother is other than a spouse or child.

Case Two: Policy owner originally nominated wife to receive 50%, son to receive 25% and daughter to receive 25%. Policy owner and wife now divorced, wants to remove ex-spouse and replace with new wife. Consent not needed as the new wife is now considered as his spouse.

Case Three: Policy owner originally nominated wife to receive 50%, son#1 to receive 25% and daughter to receive 25%. Policy owner now wants to wife’s share to 30% and give the 20% to son#2 who is illegitimate. Consent not needed as long as can be proofed that son#2 is his child.

Case Four: Policy owner originally nominated wife to receive 50%, son#1 to receive 25% and daughter to receive 25%. Policy owner now wants to remove wife’s share and increase son’s share to 50% and daughter’s share to 50%. Consent not needed because these are still the same groups of people, that is, spouse and children.

However, we were cautioned that this was only Rockwills interpretation and policy owners should seek the final advice from their insurance companies as each company may still look at the FSA2013 differently.

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An alarmist approach on the Financial Services Act 2013

Three months down the road, the situation hasn’t changed much. I was told me a few days ago that the life insurance companies in Malaysia are still taking it easy with regards to the Financial Services Act 2013 which had come into effect on the 30th of June this year. One fellow in the industry told me that very few insurance companies have yet to inform their policy owners about the implications of this FSA2013, which is very true because, as fair as I am aware, only MCIS Zurich has bothered to send letters out.

To compound the lackadaisical attitude, some insurance agents have been going around to tell their clients and prospects that the FSA2013 would affect only new policies and not the old ones which were purchased while the Insurance Act 1996 was still valid.

(A more preposterous story heard earlier what that an agent claimed that the FSA2013 would not affect him because his insurance company had not informed him about it. This is just like the three monkeys who see no evil, hear no evil or speak no evil, but the evil is there all the same.)

The problem with this misinformation or half-truth is that their clients are deceived into believing that nothing had changed and everything was still all right with their policies when in fact, they will hit certain obstacles later when they try to do a few things with their policies.

I have written about this earlier that one of the effects of the new Act would mean that a policy owner is no longer the trustee of his own policy, assuming that he had bought the policy before 30 June 2013 when the IA1996 was still in force. Of course, if you buy a policy now with the FSA2013, you simply cannot be your own trustee. At the risk of repeating myself, let me expand on this.

If the policy owner had bought a policy then, and nominated his spouse, child or parents (if there was no spouse or child at the time of purchase) as the nominee or nominees under Section 166 of this IA1996, he would have created an insurance trust with himself normally appointed as the trustee of his policy.

Under Schedule 10, paragraph 5(3) of the FSA2013, this trustee appointment is now invalidated. If he was the trustee then, he cannot remain as the trustee now. So who can be the new trustee of his old policy (or trustee of his new policy under the FSA2013)?

The FSA2013 lists down three classes of persons who can be the new trustees of an insurance policy, in order of priority.

  1. The first class are the competent nominees in the policy. For example, the spouse and the adult children would be considered as competent nominees. Children below 18 years old would be incompetent nominees.
  2. The second class are the parent of incompetent nominees. For example, if the only nominees in an insurance policy are all minors, then the other parent of these children will be next in line to be the trustee of the policy.
  3. And the third class is the Amanah Raya Berhad or an appointed trust company such as Rockwills Trustee Berhad. It used to be that Amanah Raya Berhad was the sole choice if there are no parents and the children are minors, but with the FSA2013, well, there is now a choice.

I’m not going to say much about what paragraph 5(3) of Schedule 10 of the FSA2013 means to our insurance policies but I believe all of us who have bought insurance before 30 June 2013 must ask ourselves these questions and have them answered satisfactorily:

  • Does the policy owner know who is the new trustee of his insurance policy?
  • Does the policy owner trust this new trustee enough to use the money for his beneficiaries?
  • Does the policy owner have control of the appointment of the new trustee?

I am saying this because the policy owner have to understand when consent is needed from the new trustee and when consent is not needed. For example, there are certain circumstances which still do not require the new trustee’s consent when a nomination is changed. I shall talk about this in tomorrow’s post. However, his new trustee’s approval is clearly needed if the policy owner wants to vary the terms of his policy; if the policy owner wants to surrender his policy, he will also need his new trustee’s consent; and if the policy owner wants to assign his policy, he too must seek his new trustee’s consent.

Normally I would assume that there should be no problem but if the new trustee (spouse or adult children) happens to be away for a considerable period – on holiday perhaps, or is now working overseas, or cannot be contacted, or senile or even dead – how long is the policy owner prepared to wait for resolution?

You may say that I am an alarmist but the fact remains that all of us should be well wary of Murphy’s Law which suggests that “if anything can possibly go wrong, it jolly well will go wrong.” Yes, we may get caught up in it one day, and then it will be too late for regrets.

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Elements of a valid Will

If you don’t already know, Downton Abbey is a critically acclaimed British period drama television series. This series, set in the Yorkshire country estate of fictional Downton Abbey, depicts the lives of an aristocratic family, the Crawleys and their servants in the post-Edwardian era with great events in history having an effect on their lives and on the British social hierarchy.

I must admit that I’ve only managed to watch two or three episodes of this television series but I have friends who watched the shows diligently to follow the complicated lives of the Crawley family.

Just today, an article in the Moneywise website caught my eye:

Luckily, this was only a make-believe situation that you would normally find in a television show, because according to the same news article, Coulson explained that a valid Will must comply with Section 9 of the Wills Act (we are talking about the British Wills Act here) which stipulates that a will must be in writing, signed by the testator who should intend by his signature to give effect to the document, and witnessed and signed by two witnesses.

In Malaysia, we have our own Wills Act 1959 which is modelled after the British Wills Act 1837. As far as the validity of a Malaysian Will is concerned, the document must still be in writing, signed by the testator to give it effect, and witnessed and signed by two witnesses.

The Moneywise website had also revealed on 7 Oct 2013 that more than half of UK adults don’t have a will. The percentage in this part of the world would definitely be even higher. As far back as 1996, Rockwills Corporation and other smaller will-writing companies that emerged later had always suggested that the percentage in Malaysia could be as high as 90 percent.

Although the awareness for estate planning in this country has grown by leaps and bounds in the 16-plus years since then, I would surmise that the percentage of people without a Will would not have dropped much at all.

Without a Will of their own, the assets of the non-Muslims in this country will be subjected to the Distribution Act 1958 (amended 2006), which would mean that when a non-Muslim dies without making a will, his assets will be distributed under rules laid down by the government in this Distribution Act.

If you die intestate, the distribution would very much depend on how much assets you own, how they are held (movable or immovable) and the make up of your family. While you are alive, it is easy to believe that your family would not dispute their portion of the assets but really, the only way to make sure that your assets go the way you intend the family members to inherit is by making a Will. As simple as that.

Rockwills Corporation has a solution for everybody that wants to make a Will. As a Rockwills estate planner myself, I can be contacted at ssquah-@-yahoo.com (but please remove the two hyphens from my email address before you email me. Thank you.)

Finally, I just want to quote two further pieces of advice from Coulson which are also applicable here in Malaysia:

“A will not only ensures your wishes are followed but also provides clarity to those left behind, and reduces the possibility of family arguments. There is a real misunderstanding, particularly among married couples or those in a civil partnership, that everything will pass to a partner or spouse. That is not necessarily correct and can leave all sorts of difficulty for the survivor.”

“Making a will can be very emotive. It can be thought-provoking but it doesn’t have to be difficult. As long as the document complies with the formal requirements of making a valid will it could be written on a scrap of paper. However, it is very easy to make mistakes or to inadvertently write something that might cause real trouble.”

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Should you sell off your family home?

I met up with a client about a week ago. Owing to some developments in her family, she had some doubts about re-writing her Will. Originally, she had included two of her children as beneficiaries but now, she wanted to include her eldest child too. However, her husband wasn’t keen on doing that. I won’t go into the details on this matter.

But what I want to say is, my client and her husband had thought about liquidating all their assets. That would include their family home which was solely in her husband’s name. And the money from the liquidation would be placed in a joint bank account.

I came home from the meeting somewhat troubled and thinking about their plans. By and large, I came to the conclusion that it would be a very bad idea. I’ll tell you why.

First, as the children all leave the coup and carry on with their separate lives, it is important that the husband and wife have a place of their own to stay independently. Especially, if the housing loan or mortgage is already paid up, the unencumbered house will provide the couple with security in their remaining years.

Second, not owning a house means that the couple will have to either stay with one of the children or look into renting a smaller house to stay. However, relocating oneself from one rented premises to another can be such a big hassle. Trust me; shifting or moving is no easy task or laughing matter. It can be problematic and consumes a lot of your time to look after the nitty gritty of the move.

Thirdly, having liquid assets about you means that you are always susceptible to your children touching you for money. Parents tend to be very forgiving and accede to their children’s request. Therein lies the danger. If the problem is not nipped early, very soon the well will be milked dry.

Fourthly, the old adage that property is the best hedge against inflation is still true. In the long term, there are more chances for capital gains from property than interest earnings from cash in the bank. Moreover, as one grows older, it is best to curb whatever appetite for stock investments or mutual fund/unit trust investments. It is a matter of stretching your dollar as far as possible, and no longer the time to gamble away your savings.

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A warning about plastic

Reproducing here part of an article that appeared on Rodale News.

5. Eating and drinking plastic
Toss your plastic water bottles into a recycling bin. According to a University of Cincinnati study, the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) found in hard plastic food and beverage containers can produce an estrogenlike molecule that mimics estrogen’s effects, creating a heightened risk for heart disease in women. Dr. Alvarez says BPA “could create too much estrogen or block the effects of its benefits.”

Do this. Replace # 7 plastic food containers and water bottles—that’s the type likely to contain BPA—with stainless steel, glass, or ceramic ones. If you’re not ready to banish other types of plastic containers, be sure you never heat them up, since this can cause other chemicals to leach into their contents.

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New EPF rule to impact on unit trust investment

From The Malaysia Insider today, a news report about an impending change to the EPF’s rule regarding regarding a contributor’s use of his EPF savings for investments in Unit Trusts:

“The EPF will revise upwards the basic savings quantum of its members to RM196,800 by the age of 55 effective January 2014, to ensure enough savings to finance members’ retirement needs,” EPF general manager, Nik Affendi Jaafar told The Malaysian Insider in Kuala Lumpur over the weekend.

He revealed that under the old scheme, which was launched in 2008, members’ targeted savings of RM120,000 at the age of 55 was not sufficient for them to maintain their lifestyle during retirement.

But the new amount will be equal to RM820 a month for 20 years from age 55 to 75.

The new rates are said to be benchmarked against the minimum pension for public sector employees, which is currently at RM820 a month, so that the monthly retirement income does not fall below the poverty level.

Following the revision, members need to have more in their Account 1 to be eligible for the EPF Members Investment Scheme, under which savings are invested in unit trusts. Currently members can use 20% of their balance in Account 1 to invest in approved unit trust schemes.

To illustrate the change, if a member is 40 years or older and has basic savings of RM80,000 in Account 1 at present (2013), his excess will be RM36,000 (derived from RM80,000 – RM44,000). He can then use only RM7,200 (20% of RM36,000) to invest in any approved unit trust. To further protect EPF contributors, withdrawals for unit trust investments are only permitted once every 3 months.

With the new EPF rules in 2014, at RM80,000, the excess will only be RM11,000 (RM80,000 – RM69,000). One can then only use RM2,200 (20% of RM11,000) to invest in any approved unit trust.

An official from the Federation of Investment Managers (FIMM) who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that the unit trust industry would be severely affected by the new ruling.

The RM326 billion unit trust industry comprises some 50,000 consultants who earn commissions ranging from 1% to 3% from unit trust investments.

The new ruling would also result in many EPF members, who were previously eligible to invest in unit trusts, no longer being qualified.

One of the leading Unit Trust Management Companies, Public Mutual (a subsidiary of Public Bank), derived one-third of its non-interest income from its unit trust operation. In 2012, less than 10% of its net profit was from its unit trust business. – September 9, 2013

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Snippet: Love what you do

We often say to “do what you love” but recently, a very wise person told me that it was sometimes equally important to “love what you do.” There is a lot of wisdom in that statement as there are times when we have to learn to “love what we do” in order for us to grow as well.

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Trustee for life insurance policies

I see that the Financial Services Act 2013 is starting to garnish comments from players in the financial services industry. This one below is from Rockwills Corporation, the leading company in estate planning. What Saw Leong Aun is stating in this newspaper report is that the Rockwills Group of Companies, in particular, Rockwills Trustee Berhad, is best placed to provide life policy owners with a completely viable and safe alternative to appointing a third party as the trustee of the policy owners’ insurance policies. do contact me for further details. Meanwhile, here’s the story:

“So, if the policy owner dies and his children are still minors, the policy moneys would automatically be held by Amanah Raya Bhd (as the country’s public trustee) until the children reach 18 years of age or unless there is a competent trustee available to take over.

“Also, when there is no proper appointment made, the risk is that the new trustee who takes over is not the one the policy owner preferred or trusted,” he added.

Nevertheless, Saw believes that the new rule makes good sense.

“The new rule is good because how can you name yourself as trustee to manage the policy moneys when you are no longer around and before the (life insurance) claims can be effective? Thus in a way, the change in the law is correct but is a small inconvenient (to existing policy owners),” said Saw.

“And at least the objective of buying an insurance, that is, to ensure your insured moneys reach the hands of your children and family is met with a trusted or licensed trustee appointed.”

Still, the new rule is relatively unknown to most policyholders as insurance companies and their agents are only beginning to communicate this with their customers.

An insurance agent, who only wants to be known as Anthony, said so far no timeline has been set for insurance companies to comply with the new rule.

“So, the onus is on the respective insurance agents to contact their customers to notify them of the change in the law,” he told SunBiz.

Meanwhile, Saw sees a business opportunity for Rockwills Trustee Bhd to become a trustee to policy owners’ life policies by setting up insurance trusts.

“Licensed trust companies like Rockwills Trustee will follow instructions as instructed by the person who created the insurance trust. This way, the beneficiaries won’t be able to squander the policy moneys or be cheated of their inheritance.

“We also have full-time in-house legal advisers to support and check all trusts,” said Saw, adding that the awareness on insurance trust among Malaysian policyholders is still low.

What is the fee? Saw said Rockwills Trustee charges a once off fee of average RM1,500 to RM2,000 to set up an insurance trust, which may include as many life policies as you wish.

“And where the policy owner dies and we act as trustee, our fee is 0.75% of the total insurance moneys or a minimum fee of RM2,000 a year during the holding years. We normally put the balance policy moneys into fixed income investments such as fixed deposits and the money market, and any interest earned will go back to the trust fund and the beneficiaries,” he added.

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Financially, Malaysia’s debts are on shaky ground

I had attended this public talk by Cheah Cheng Hye of Value Partners yesterday at the Wawasan Open University in George Town. He sounded an ominous financial warning for Malaysia, saying that the Malaysian government debt against GDP is at an unacceptable high, well above the accepted level of 55 percent.

Here is the report that appeared in one of the national dailies today. It is only a gist of what Cheng Hye covered in his talk. You had to be there to listen to him, and understand the gravity of the situation.

GEORGE TOWN: A global financial crisis bigger than the one in 2008 is conceivable in five to 10 years.

Value Partners Group chairman and co-investment officer Cheah Cheng Hye said the crisis, which would not be V-shaped in nature, would bring about capital flights, volatile markets, rising inflation and social unrest.

“The global financial crisis would have to do with the very serious deficits that cannot be financed. Developed and developing countries have over the years accumulated such deficits by making promises that cannot be realised in order to get re-elected.

“These deficits would sow the seeds of future social and political unrest,” he said at a public lecture entitled From Journalist to Fund Manager, which was officiated by Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng.

Also present was Penang Institute chief executive officer Zairil Khir Johari.

On Malaysia, Cheah said Value Partners was not bullish about the country.

“Malaysia’s Government and household debts are higher than those in Indonesia, China and Thailand. Half of the country’s government bonds are held by foreigners, who would be the first to run in a crisis.

“The Malaysian workforce is now less productive than the workforce in Thailand and the Philippines. Malaysia is also importing more oil than selling it,” he said.

On making investments, Cheah advised investors to have well-diversified portfolios.

“They should have investments in gold, real estate and a high level of cash of at least 25% of their savings to prepare for future uncertainties,” he said.

Cheah attributes his success to being at the right place at the right time more than the decisions he chose to undertake.

Born in Penang, Cheah, 59, has been dubbed the “Warren Buffett of the East” by the media in Hong Kong.

A Penang Free School boy, Cheah had worked as a journalist in The Star in the early 1970s.

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