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Focus on English – a voice of reason from Malaysia’s education minister

Article by Jacqueline Arnold @ TwentyTwo13 (23 January 2024)

I had planned for my column this week to share my wish list as a public relations (PR) consultant from a consultancy standpoint. However, one of my wishes was already granted over the weekend.

I’m referring to the announcement by Malaysia’s Education Minister, Fadhlina Sidek that improving the quality of English language education is the top priority for her ministry this year.

I was the last batch of the MCE (Malaysian Certificate of Education) with mathematics and science still taught in English. My schoolmates and I would always be complimented on our English proficiency when we travelled abroad.

Riding on a bus in London in 1983, a perfect stranger sitting behind the three of us leaned forward to enquire where we were from because we spoke such good English. Well, that was the last of the glory days of English.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not diminishing the importance of Bahasa Melayu (BM). Language proficiency, any language, is always a plus point. The appreciation for dual-good language skills was ingrained in me from childhood and throughout my school life. To this day, I regret not learning a third language.

However, today in the PR profession, we observe a decline in proficiency in both English and BM. I’m referring to proper command of the language, not ‘bahasa pasar’.

Generally, the fresh graduates we interview cannot speak, construct proper sentences, and articulate in either language. They also have little or no understanding of English idioms. An already bad situation is also being made worse by the popularity of WhatsApp language (also known as text speak) and the widespread use of Google Translate.

I’ve received email applications for jobs and internship positions written in WhatsApp language. I just use the delete key.

Say what you like, English is an international language with more than 1.4 billion speakers worldwide, who speak English either natively or as a second language. English is the language of business. It’s also the language of science, technology.

If Malaysia aims for progress and economic success, regaining our ability to communicate fluently and confidently in English is key.

The number of non-native-speaking English-speaking countries that are striving to improve English proficiency is ever-growing, and the list includes The Netherlands, Austria, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Belgium, Portugal, South Africa, Germany, and our closest neighbour, Singapore.

I would like to end on a positive note. Two years ago, during work, I met a student from a secondary school in Alor Setar, Kedah. She came from a middle-income family, her parents were civil servants, and she studied in a ‘Sekolah Kebangsaan’ (national school). She spoke and wrote perfect English. I do not doubt that she is the result of the combined efforts of her parents and teachers, as are my old schoolmates and I.

I’m the eternal optimist. I hope for a better Malaysia. If we keep avoiding anything challenging, we might as well return to living in caves while the rest of the region (not to mention the world) marches on ahead of us.

We need only to apply ourselves and strive to do better. While policies at the ministry level are good, parents also need to do their part, and individuals must be educated to see the possibilities and potential of having a good command of English.

“It doesn’t matter where you come from. It only matters where you are and where you want to go.” – Dean Graziosi.

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