M’sia brushes up on English as Asean single-market looms

Six high school girls dash into the almost empty carriage of a train in Kuala Lumpur, giggling as they crowd around a smartphone.

“I crush on him, lah,” one of the girls gushes, while the others look at her, wide-eyed in mock disbelief.

“But no handsome, lah,” one of her companions protests and they all laugh.

Sadly, dodgy English is not limited to schoolgirls in Malaysia.

A senior member of parliament recently apologised for serving a dish on the menu as ‘scissors salad’ at a parliament staff dinner instead of ‘Ceasar salad’.

A recruiter who asked not to be named lamented that as many as seven in 10 job applicants are turned down because of English so poor that they even struggle to say, “Hello, my name is...”

M Nachiappan, president of the Malaysian Medical Association Malacca chapter, said that as many as 1,000 medical graduates in the country last year opted not to pursue becoming fully fledged doctors due to their poor command of English.

Malaysia, a former British colony, used to have a high level of proficiency in English but its citizens’ command of the language has fallen over the years due to strident nationalism and government policy reversals.

Leaders have flip-flopped over the use of English in schools, in the face of a strong nationalist lobby. In 1970, the government changed the medium of instruction in schools from English to Malay to promote the national language and get people from the non-Malay minorities in the multiethnic country to learn Malay.

In 2003, then-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad ordered a reversal in the medium of instruction in schools back to English, but in 2012 the government ordered the use of Malay in teaching mathematics and science.

Prosperous neighbour Singapore stuck with English as the medium of instruction and has reaped the benefits.

Senior opposition leader Lim Kit Siang blamed said the decline of English was in part due to the fact that the Education Ministry is seen by many as little more than an entry-level gateway to high-level politics.

“One reason for this malady of the Malaysian education system is because the country has a series of education ministers who regard their portfolios as stepping-stones to higher political office - even the prime ministership,” he said.

“(They are) not really interested in their responsibility to establish an educational system for an innovative, creative, competitive and prosperous Malaysia for the future,” he added.

The decline of English is worrying the government as the country gears up for the opportunities of the impending single market with the 10-member Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean).

English is the official language in the regional group, which has a total population of more than 600 million people.

Leves of English vary widely

The levels of English in Asean vary widely, from Singapore, where children are mostly educated in English and the language is widely used in everyday life, to former French colonies with communist governments, where English has historically been less of a priority.

Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak recently set up a task force to study ways universities can boost English.

“Whether we like it or not, English is a prerequisite in the real world if we are to move forward and compete with the best in the world,” he told students during a dialogue session in Kuala Lumpur.

“We cannot be emotional and feel that we do not need English.”

Malay nationalists have strongly opposed the use of English, which they considered a legacy of the colonisers' tool, according to political analyst and newspaper columnist Terrence Netto.

“Some Islamic organisations also view English as a tool of American Zionists to corrupt Islam in Malaysia,” he said.

Rafidah Aziz, a former international trade and industry minister, pleaded with the government to stop politicising education and language.

“We must not be so parochial about language,” she said. “We must not allow narrow perceptions to prevail under the guise of nationalistic spirit.”

Noreen Hamed, an entrepreneur manufacturing snacks of crackers and layered pastries in Kota Kinabalu, said she is both excited and nervous about the prospects in the Asean Economic Community.

She said that mastery of basic spoken and written English is something entrepreneurs like her cannot afford to forego.

“We need to be on top of our trade or we might be swept away or pushed out of business,” she said.