Hornbill Unleashed

June 4, 2013

Let young Malaysians learn and speak English well like we used to before

Education gap wideningHussaini Abdul Karim

Like some Malaysians, I had my education, right from primary school to pre-university between 1959 and 1970, in Singapore and I was taught in English all the way.

When I was in the last two years of secondary school and during the period I was at pre-university, my mother and sometimes, my aunt, took me to visit our relatives in Parit Jawa, Muar in Johor regularly and during every visit, I would meet with some of my cousins who were studying in secondary schools in Muar at that time.

There was a cousin, among the few that I have, who was in Form Four, who was in the science stream and who was very good in mathematics and science (physics and chemistry) and, since we were both taught in English, we would discuss those subjects and exchanged notes. I was then in Secondary Three, the equivalent of Form Four in Malaysian schools. I learned a lot from him and he also gave me some very useful tips on how to solve maths problems. Then, the only way to communicate with each other was through letters as telephones were too costly for us and at that time there was no Internet so, on some occasions we would correspond and exchange notes through letters.

I also noticed that schools in Malaysia and Singapore used exactly the same textbooks and it was no surprise to me.

Most, if not all, textbooks were imported from England. Except for Malay, which I took as a subject, I do not remember using any local textbooks for science, mathematics, English language, literature, history, geography, music and even art. I believe then that the primary and secondary school syllabus and perhaps, curriculum too, for both Malaysia and Singapore were similar and as such, the general standard and level of education of students in Malaysia and Singapore then was the same. We all sat for the same Cambridge Overseas School Certificate O-level and the Cambridge Overseas Higher School Certificate A-level.

I also remember watching debates between students from Malaysian and Singapore schools and there was no difference in the way they all spoke and argued their cases, either for or against the motion, in English. Whenever we went for visits to Malaysian schools and or when we were acting as hosts to students from Malaysian schools, we all spoke English to each other, so did the teachers.

Insofar as vernacular languages such as Mandarin and Tamil were concerned, there was also no problem on both sides of the straits as they were offered as options. In some Singapore schools, like in the school that I attended, foreign languages such as French, German and Spanish were offered. Students could also go for private tuition in any foreign language if they had wanted to sit for the subject in the O-level examination. I believe it was the same in some Malaysian schools. In my case, I took Malay as an optional subject.

Later, when I was studying in Australia and when Malaysians and Singapore students met, all of us would always speak English to each other, even between people of the same race. We, Malaysian and Singapore students, never felt any less compared to local Australian students and insofar as language (English) was concerned, we were able to discuss and argue with them at the same level and that was how good our command of English, both Malaysians and Singaporeans, as students was then.

Unfortunately, while Singaporeans still maintain their standard, Malaysians are now, generally, very weak in English and I cannot speak about Malaysians’ prowess in the use of English language in the same tone that I used before. The situation has been such since the ‘80s and getting worse which, I strongly believe, authorities such as the PM’s Department, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Information, Communication and Culture and also schools, colleges and universities should do something about quickly and try to regain our ability, especially among the young, like we used to before.

I was speaking to a very senior Malay Malaysian diplomat who was seated with me at a wedding reception last Saturday and the many people around us, Chinese, Malays and Indians, at that event, I was told, were classmates of the father of the bride when they were students at one of the top schools in Sungei Petani, Kedah and all the men and the women spoke in English to recall the good old times. Most of the people in the group, if not all, I was informed, graduated from either local or overseas universities around the mid-Seventies.

When commenting about young people in the administrative and diplomatic service and in particular many of the young people who are now in the foreign service, that senior Malay Malaysian diplomat told me that their command of English is very poor so much so that even at official meetings and conferences, they choose to remain quiet as they could neither speak nor understand the language well.

Every time I watch CCTV programmes and documentaries on Astro, I am most impressed with the Chinese presenters, both their men and women, whose command of the English language is excellent and I believe it was only fairly recently that the emphasis on English was given by the Chinese government to get their people to be good in English. It was done when they realised the importance of English language as a global language. To them, Mandarin alone, which is also a global language now, is not enough. Many learned language nationalists here are continuously arguing that Bahasa Melayu (Malaysia) (BM) has the potential to be a global language but from the past many years the stance still remains the same and also the arguments still remain the same. BM still remains a potential global language and no one knows when that potential will be realised.

So, let us all be realistic, embrace English whilst not ignoring BM and the other vernacular languages, and lift the standard of our people, especially our students, and make them be at par with the rest of the English-speaking people throughout the world As Malaysians, we should be proud of our national language and must be able to speak it well. If we want to advance as a nation, we too have to be pragmatic. Much as we want to position BM on the world stage, we must face the reality before us. Who are the people beyond our shores who would want to read or speak in our BM? By the same token, if our graduates are only competent in BM, their worldview is very likely confined to that of Malaysia.

So, please let our young Malaysians learn and speak English well like we used to before and stamp our mark in this era of globalisation.



    Comment by kamaruzaman zainal abidin — June 4, 2013 @ 6:37 PM | Reply

  2. BM is only for Malaysia. Even Brinei and Indonesia speak different Malay. English, on the other hand, is a globalised language that is used internationally. Even Mandarin, Spanish and French are much widely spoken than BM around the world.

    Comment by Sharpshooter — June 4, 2013 @ 10:36 AM | Reply

  3. BM is not a pragmatic language outside Malaysia, apart from Brunei and Indonesia. Despite independence for Britain some 57 years ago, the laws and medicine are still taught in English in Malaysia. It’s almost impossibe to translate all those technical terms into BM, unless the government wants to adopt thousands of words from English. Just take a look at BM itself-how many words were incorporated from the lingua franca? I do share the same experience with the writer and I totally concur with him. In the salad days, our standard of English was at par with Singapore, but now the disparity is too wide to narrow especially if Muhyiddin does not want to buck up and keep up with the Jones. Also, BN must realise that countries like South Korea, Thailand, China and Vietnam are now placing more emphasis in English which will keep the people abreast with the world’s latet technology and Science. However, status quo, Malaysians will fall off the bandwagen if the stereotype leaders do not realise the importance of this universal language. They must up their socks now and amke English the medium of instruction with immediate effect!!!!

    Comment by Geronimo Miller — June 4, 2013 @ 5:16 AM | Reply

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