KUALA LUMPUR – The declining standard of English in Malaysia has once again drawn public attention, this time after Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad said top government officials would have to take English competency tests.
In announcing this on June 6, the prime minister said senior civil servants must have a good command of English to enable them to communicate and negotiate effectively with foreign parties.
This, as expected, has triggered fresh debates on social media platforms and also in coffee shops over whether or not it was necessary for Malaysians to improve their mastery of English.
The issue has cropped up time and again. In the education sector, for instance, there was much polemics after the medium of instruction in the teaching of Mathematics and Science was changed from Bahasa Melayu to English in 2003.
However, the teaching of the two subjects was reverted to Bahasa Melayu in 2012 due to the shortage of teachers qualified to teach Science and Mathematics in English and the poor performance of students in rural schools.
While attending a function in Melaka in 2014, Dr Mahathir had said that improving one’s proficiency in English did not amount to rejecting Bahasa Melayu or making Malaysians more westernised.
“The thing is this language (English) is the gateway to knowledge… there’s no point in having a lot of gold under our house if we don’t know how to take it out,” he had said.
Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) de facto leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim said last month in order for Malaysia to become a developed nation, the people have to be proficient in English.
While giving his assurance that the position of Bahasa Melayu as the national language would be upheld, “We must be open-minded if we want to succeed and strengthen our command of the English language,” Bernama had quoted him as saying.
On June 9, Education Minister Dr Maszlee Malik said the decision to make it compulsory for senior government officials to take the English proficiency test will boost their self-esteem when communicating with foreigners.
“A lot of people (foreigners) will want to ask and learn from Malaysia but if our officers can’t communicate in English well, it will mar the reputation of the country,” he was quoted as saying by Bernama.
Even former Melaka Chief Minister Datuk Seri Idris Haron had in 2016 lamented over the lack of fluency in English among state government officers from Grade 41 and above. He had said that the situation was worrying for the state government as it was striding towards establishing Melaka as an international port.
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Social activist Tan Sri Lee Lam Thye, when contacted by Bernama, said while government officers, in general, have the ability to speak in English, they could do better if they improved their fluency in the language.
In order for them to communicate effectively with foreigners, it is vital for them to speak English fluently without making grammatical errors.
“It will be beneficial for Malaysia if we have government officers who can speak and interact with their foreign counterparts in English and can also participate in negotiations without having to use the services of an interpreter,” Lee said.
Urging civil servants to master at least three languages, including their mother tongue, he said this would help Malaysia to come across as a skilled nation that was rich in multiracial and multicultural elements.
“We don’t have to be like Japan which practices a one language policy. It has become a custom for Japan and China to use interpreters.
“Since Malaysia is multiracial, Malaysians like to be proficient in other languages as well,” he added.
Institute of Translation and Books Malaysia (ITBM) chief executive officer Mohd Khair Ngadiron, meanwhile, said it was pointless to focus on improving one’s competency in English without mastering knowledge and content as well.
“Let’s not lose our direction and put too much emphasis on the question of medium (of communication) because English is just a tool to communicate.
“Don’t just focus on improving your fluency in English at the expense of enhancing your knowledge. When one’s knowledge is weak, one cannot contribute anything (even if one speaks English well),” he said.
Pointing to Dr Mahathir’s recent visit to Japan, Mohd Khair said his speech in English had to be translated into Japanese.
“Japan is a good example of a nation that has progressed hand in hand with its mother tongue,” he said.
According to the website of the National Institute of Public Administration (INTAN), the institute has an English Language Proficiency Assessment (ELPA) programme which has been in existence since 1998 and to date, 10, 000 officers from Grade 41 and above have been assessed under ELPA.
The programme was introduced to assess the English competency levels of administrative and diplomatic officers in the management and professional group.
The assessments are conducted by INTAN’s English Language unit and the programme was developed in collaboration with experts from the United Kingdom-based University of Reading.
The ELPA programme has three components, namely reading, writing and communications that are designed to gauge the government officers’ grasp of English. – BERNAMA