O’ Levels. Press delete button.

Our locally styled English exam. 

First and foremost, let me assert that my stance on the matter of the GCE O' Level English is  not for. I feel that it is an extremely old fashioned form of examination to test language competence and its replacement to something more suitable and logical is long overdue.

Something suitable and logical would most probably be something that is not introduced in 1951, like the GCE O' Levels. When it was introduced, the GCE O'Level English Language, is designed specifically for a handpicked 20% of the student population who are deemed to be "high ability students". The rest of the population did another regional exam called the CSEs (Certificate of Secondary Education). Nowadays, everyone does another exam called GCSE and the last time anyone did a GCE O'Level was when *insert event that happened in 1985*.

Indeed that number of 20% is consistent to the fact that only a maximum of 16% of the student population in Brunei passes the English O'Levels exam every year. It was designed to be so. How can we expect all the 16 year olds in Brunei (who are speakers of English as a second language) to pass a paper which is designed for only 20% of the English-as-a-first-language, population in Britain?

Is it designed to encourage an academic career? Yes. Make no mistake.

That is why, we need a more "locally designed paper" as Liguist in BSB had put. We need a paper tailored for Bruneian students, or students who start being formally introduced to a limited amount of English at Primary Four and who do not have any absolute reason or obligation to speak the language outside of the school environment.

Another thing that needs to be addressed is that, probably only 3% of all English teachers are actually qualified to teach the subject anyway. See, the paper is designed for English as a first language speakers (I am refraining from using the word native speakers as it present to be politically problematic to me) and the majority of the English Language teachers in the nation was trained in/are being trained in *drumrolls* teaching English as a second language!

Let me not bring up the fact that no one under the age of 18 ever reads anything. But I digress.

The purpose of locally designing an exam is not to dumb it down. The purpose is to make it suitable in the context of a country using English as a second language and thus making it possible to actually pass with the help of hard work and solid determination.

20 thoughts on “O’ Levels. Press delete button.

  1. (For the duration that I am commenting on Maurina’s blog, I shall use the apostrophe O to spell O’Levels 😉

    Interesting insights Maurina. Leads me to wonder even more if we shouldn’t just do away with the O’Levels altogether. The fact that Britain has already moved away from the O’Levels is a pretty good indication that it’s time to move on.

    Just as important though is the context of preparation. If by locally designing the exam you mean to prepare students with the linguistic faculty that is just enough for them to scrape by in Brunei then I think we are doing students a disservice. The job market, even the consumer market, is no longer limited to Brunei borders.

    I don’t really believe in setting the bar lower for students who do not have the appropriate background because at the end of the day it is only fair to expect a certain level of proficiency from everyone. I majored in Computers in university but for my degree I had to take a business module and compete against the Business majors. No concessions were made for me because at the end of the course we were all expected to have acheived a similar level of competence. Of course I had to work harder but that should not mean things be made easier for me.

    Extrapolate this to the international arena where computer-majoring me represents Brunei and the Business majors represent the other countries of the world. If we’re to interact and do business with one another (thank you, globalization…) then we’ll need similar grasps of the English language.

    If there is a need to re-tool the current O’Level exams then by all means. But if re-tooling means making it easier then I hope it is because the current standard of English assessed by the O’Levels is too high.


  2. If by locally designing the exam you mean to prepare students with the linguistic faculty that is just enough for them to scrape by in Brunei then I think we are doing students a disservice.

    –> and INDEED we are! By locally designing I mean to TEST the competence in a more suitable manner. To be more specific, an example, the GCE O’Levels is concentrated on writing and the orals constitute only 10% of the total mark. Perhaps, enforce a little listening which carries 25% and actual conversation at 25%? This is how the IGCSE O’Levels are done, mainly because it is the proper way to test language competence. This is also how the IELTS is done and the good thing is, it does not only target 20% of the student population. It targets the whole 100% and it shows where they truly belong on the A-F scale (and I bet only less than 20% can get an A).

    Since this is still an international exam, albeit locally designed, the students are still required to attain a level sufficient for them to communicate/verse/write in first language countries like I’ve mentioned earlier, the IGCSE and the IELTS. Like I said, it is not setting the bar lower. Those two exams are not easier, they are also difficult, but they tell you how good you really are on a scale of 1-10, not on a scale of 1-2. It is making the exam more logical and not just targetting the 20% of the student population.

    Therefore to asnwer your other question, is there a need to retool the current O’Level exams? Yes there is, at least for the English Language paper.


  3. But isn’t the whole point of the English-medium system of education in Brunei to require students to be able to speak, read and write both Malay and English as a well as a first language speaker of both those languages would be able to? Surely to dumb down – and don’t doubt this, a locally designed English language paper would be dumbed down – is to defeat this purpose. Why is it that in the case of a high proportion of pupils failing the exam, the finger of blame is pointed at the examination itself? Surely the example of Singapore is adequate proof that the GCE O Level in English is not too difficult.


  4. I agree to the comment above. If Singpaore can do it, y can’t Brunei? We just have to make bruneians speak ENGLISH, practice more. DO whatever it is that Singapore did before.


  5. Ahhhh, there lies the problem Justin and nottoshabby. It is not a matter of Singapore can do it or not because, Singapore employs a purely different format of an education system. They have an intensively English-speaking curriculum that begins far earlier than that of Brunei’s, which begins limitedly in Primary 4. And technically they have a hell of a headstart. Not to mention the fact that the environment they live in is highly saturated with English speakers. Singaporeans are mostly, native speakers of the English language unlike Bruneians (English as a second language).

    Please don’t get me started on the 5.2 billion dollars allocated for the 19 pupils per class schools in Singapore. The thing is, they are better tooled, better financed, better motivated, better everything! I really won’t be surprised if the Singaporeans’ teacher’s shit does not stink!

    But isn’t the whole point of the English-medium system of education in Brunei to require students to be able to speak, read and write both Malay and English as a well as a first language speaker of both those languages would be able to?

    —> Nope. The whole point of the Sequential English & Malay Medium system of education is that Malay will take dominance over the English Language, and English will forever be a second language, which I can understand. There is a danger of Malay being extinct and all and Brunei is after all a negara melayu *ahem*. However, it is done in the expense of Bruneians’ English competence. I keep on thinking whether this is all worth it? The fact of the matter is, 90% of knowledge is undoubtedly in English and not Malay and depriving them of this competence in English is depriving them of knowledge.

    Well, herelies the dillemma. We live in fear that English will take dominance over Malay and everyone will forget Malay and thus construct the system that English is a second and very inferior language. YET we want everyone to read, write and speak it as if it is the first language, e.g. o’level English. The system is preparing the student for another exam, not this one.

    Fine, keep the English O’Levels. But for god sakes, do something about the system! Make it reasonable and logical.

    Unfortunately, however, policies are made by politicians. Not academicians.


  6. Here’s an interesting fact I learned after studying in S’pore for 4 years: the official language of the country is (wait for it) Malay! That’s right, despite the fact that a good 80%++ of the population is Chinese, the national language is in fact Malay. Check Wikipedia if you don’t believe me. If you think about it, this entire region of South-East Asia is natively Malay and indigenous groups such as the Ibans, Dusuns etc… There’s probably some historical reason why Chinese ended up on the small island south of the Malay peninsula but I’m not privy to that. I can say this though: most Chinese know next to no Malay. In fact, the only Malay most of them know is their National Anthem titled Majulah Singapura (yep, the entire anthem is in Malay. I remember listening amused to my Singaporean-Chinese friends fumbling over the words!)

    If I recall correctly, students are required to study English and one other language which for most of the Chinese means studying Chinese. Despite being the national language, Malay is not a compulsory subject. The emphasis on English is a pretty tell-tale sign of how Singapore views current (and future) knowledge: it is and will be encoded in English. In a way, Singapore is willing to sacrifice their national identity for the advancement of the nation. As a result, they are having a bit of an identity crisis (although they don’t publicise it much).

    I would just like to remind everyone that nothing has been done to the current O’Levels English examination just yet. All this discussion has been spured by a suggestion in a letter that appeared in the Borneo Bulletin Opinion’s page (I must admit though I am glad to see a thought-provoking letter in the paper for once) so don’t get your knickers in a twist just yet. But if you open your eyes and take a look around Brunei you’ll know pretty darn well that the government is keen on maintaining the country’s identity through Melayu Islam Beraja (Malay Islamic Monarchy). The current education system is in place no doubt to support this vision and if that means English will take a back seat then any change to the existing English O’Level exam can only be seen to further encourage a life within the borders of Brunei. And if we ignore the possibilities that exist outside the nation – and I won’t sugar-coat it – we’re pretty much screwed.


  7. We need more than just cater the O Level English to suit our local style. More dedicated teachers. Setting up a mind set for our students today that English is an important language. Setting the mind set Malay will be our first languange, but to go far to being a developed country lies within our education. It seems the system is just preparing students to sit for the O’ Levels as a second language rather than a first.

    A campaign to promote English? Now that’s an idea but again. Dedication from todays teachers which I can kinda see lacking? Yes? No? Im not sure..I for one can only see if you want to be able to speak, read and write good first language English, PRACTICE is a MUST!


    (am i making sense? just taking a break from studying)

    ps: hai dang *waves at maurina*


  8. Maurina: “Let me not bring up the fact that no one under the age of 18 ever reads anything. But I digress.”

    Why not bring it up? It’s not a side issue. It’s the key.

    As long as students don’t read English (or anything, really) on their own, outside of the classroom, they’re not going to learn correct word usage and grammar, expanded voacabulary, and all those random facts about Planet NotBrunei that students of other countries consider “general knowledge”.

    We can design the test however way we wish. But though we might set the bar lower to let more students pass, it won’t solve the main problem.


  9. 🙂 Well Bernie simply because it is a subject that is desreving of another blog post entirely! You didn’t think I’d let it go do u? 🙂 You are right, it is key. The master key I might add.

    Dee, the system prepares them for a foreign language Dee, not a second language.


  10. I never noticed that the O’level English is not in local context. It is? I took mine in 2003. Perhaps because I was in Maktab Sains and I was taught by teachers who are qualified to teach English excellently. Perhaps I had a higher-than-average English competence. I must’ve been lucky, because I find that English is not that hard.

    One reason why I’m saying no to dumbing down the O ‘level English is that it helped me communicate well with the diverse nationalities here in Brisbane, Australia. And one Australian friend of mine whose first language is English was quite impressed with my English she thought it was my first language.

    And mind you, this comes from a student who aced both her Bahasa Melayu and English in O’levels.

    We do need to ask the students sitting for O’levels for this issue, eh? 🙂

    p/s: Maurina, I like your articles! 😀


  11. I’m from Singapore. Honestly the english standard here is much lower than you’d expect. While students generally do well for the O ‘level English, it’s not because they speak it often, but the carefully constructed lessons that teach how to answer questions. No questions are asked. The efficiency of these lessons are shown when Chinese (PeoplesRepublicofChina) students here manage to secure a decent grade(say A2-B3) after a mere 2 year course. Singlish, a mix of english with bits of Malay,Chinese, Indian and other languages is widely spoken, highly discouraged.

    Singapore has 4 national languages, namely English,chinese,malay and indian, English being the 1st compulsory language. Students of different races take their respective mother tongues as a 2nd language.Malay for the Malays ect.

    To LSM
    Historical evidence shows that malays were direct desecndents of the Chinese. No offence but stop the indigenous nonsense if you want to talk history.Enough evidence has been gathered about this but for obvious reasons not many people know.
    “singapore’s national anthem is Malay”
    The one and only reason this is so was to please the Federal Government in KL when Singapore was part of Malaysia.


  12. Hehe..the first thing that I noticed was the grammar/syntax structure/error. Suddenly, a very weird question popped up in my head. Did Maurina type this out??? Hehe.. No comments from me regarding the contents. I think your readers have said all there is to say. *sits back*


  13. LSM, I don’t know if you’re ignorant, or simply in denial. Wikipedia’s information isn’t exactly accurate, ANYONE can edit it. What we must do is not dumbing down the difficulty of examinations, but improving the quality of the education in local schools so students will meet their objectives in passing their exams. I know this method will probably not solve anything, but it may help: check the education system of successful schools such as Jerudong International School, Makhtab Sains, and International School of Brunei(which uses the IB Criteria). Singapore is considered to be an advanced country with excellent education, health, industrial systems, so Brunei should learn from it without losing its identity!


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