Reverse decline in English

MALAYSIANS once stood tall in the Commonwealth for their proficiency in English but sadly, those days are long gone.

For at least two generations since our education system switched its medium of instruction from English to Bahasa Malaysia, the deficit in both spoken and written English especially among the young is all too obvious.

With the advent of social media, this deterioration has become even more glaring and infectious as seen in billboards and even official correspondence written in broken English. And the difficulty or hesitation among most in speaking the language.

One can often find mistakes in the use of English in the media, too. This is something that should be expected because, to quote Permaisuri Johor Raja Zarith Sofiah Sultan Idris Shah, "of the dramatic and drastic" decline in proficiency in the language among younger Malaysians.

Lest those in this age bracket feel they are being blamed time and again for this, rest assured that you are not, for we all know that you are just the product of the system.

In other words, it's too much for us to expect them to master this all too vital global language when the school eco-system right from Day One is not there or is not in their favour for them to do so.

Raja Zarith Sofiah has consistently been championing for greater and concerted efforts to create more opportunities especially for the young to master the language to take their place on the global stage.

"We should not rely entirely on the government to reverse this trend. We need English teachers, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and corporate bodies to band together to take pro-active action.

"My dream is to see young Malaysians pursue education in world-class universities like Harvard and Oxford and go on to become chief executive officers of global companies. To achieve such goals, they need to master the English language," said Raja Zarith Sofiah, who studied at Oxford University.

To be fair to NGOs like the English Speaking Union of Malaysia and the Malaysian English Language Teaching Association (of which Raja Zarith Sofiah is the patron); corporate entities; and English newspapers; they have done and are doing more than their fair share in this direction.

But by and large, with limited resources and outreach whatever their contributions it won't suffice because the real effort must be seen to be done in the schools and universities, particularly the government-funded or public ones.

Right from Primary One, or Year One, pupils ought to be exposed to English and more importantly sufficient hours should be allocated to speak the language in class.

Although this is easier said than done given the fact that we have over 10,000 schools in the country, and where the proficiency of English teachers is regarded even by the Education Ministry as not at the desired standard, much, much more serious attention must be given to address this gap.

As Raja Zarith Sofiah pointed out students were "afraid" to speak English in schools nowadays because of the fear of being mocked for trying to be a "Mat Salleh" or Englishman and that if they don't speak the national language then they are not proud of being Malaysian.

It's in the interest of everyone as we line up to join the ranks of a high-income developed nation that this outmoded thinking, if it still exists, be chucked into the dustbin of history.

In my extensive travels overseas in the course of my work as a journalist, I have met Malaysians studying in English-speaking countries and most admitted that they were finding it very tough to cope with their studies because the education system back home did not prepare them well, English language-wise.

In this internet age where the bulk of knowledge and information, say from Google and other platforms, is available in English, our students are losing out and struggling to access such sites because of the decline.
I cannot help but mention here the remarks made by the then Sarawak chief minister, the late Tan Sri Adenan Satem, who last year described as "stupid" any education system which sidelined English.

Adenan would have made a greater impact in putting more emphasis on English proficiency among Sarawakians but he died in January.

His successor, Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg, recently set up Sarawak's own Ministry of Education, perhaps to pursue Adenan's agenda.

I can only wish Sarawak, my home state, success in such efforts so that other states can follow suit.
The country is spending heavily on education – this sector gets the biggest chunk of our annual national budget – and everytime we talk about education, the emphasis must not just be about education per se.
It must be about quality education of global standards to ensure that the huge investments in human capital pay the desired dividends or in corporate lingo, the ROI (return on investment).

Without reversing the decline in English, one cannot see how we can do this. So we need to check the decline before it's too late.

We need not look too far, just set our sight across the Causeway to Singapore where English education has helped to ensure its human capital is always ranked among the world's best.

And without any natural resources, Singapore is internationally-recognised as one of the world's most successful nations.