JUNE 23 — Last week, I was surprised to see a foreigner managing a food truck on his own; selling bottled beverages and local delicacies.
I was even more surprised to hear him speak to me in English as I bought a drink. He appeared to be Bangladeshi.
In contrast, when I recently lodged a police report in the upper middle class neighbourhood of Taman Tun Dr Ismail, a couple of cops who interviewed me could not speak a word of English.
If a foreigner can speak English, why can’t Malaysians?
While politicians fight to be the loudest champions of the cash-strapped rakyat, none of them — either from Barisan Nasional (BN) or the Opposition — seems to actively advocate the strengthening of English-language proficiency among Malaysians.
The BN government did not go through with making English a compulsory pass subject for the Form Five SPM exam, although the Education Ministry said last month the policy was under consideration again.
Pakatan Harapan, on the other hand, opposes the Dual Language Programme (DLP) that allows schools the option of teaching science and mathematics subjects in English or Bahasa Malaysia.
Only 2.9 per cent of primary and secondary school students are part of the DLP, the Education Ministry said last March.
It’s pointless in the long run to continue harping on about welfare policies like cash aid and price controls of goods because those do not increase people’s income and only makes them more dependent on the State.
Malaysia can’t be a true welfare state either, with free tertiary education and health care, because our income tax rates are too low and only one in 10 citizens pays income tax.
English proficiency opens up a world of knowledge and enhances prospects in the job market. Recruitment agency Jobstreet.com said Malaysia’s English proficiency falls behind that of Singapore and the Philippines.
If we want graduates to get higher-paying jobs in the corporate sector, instead of being restricted to the civil service, then they must all be forced to learn English. This is especially pertinent if we want the private sector to be the engine of growth in the country.
Of course, at the same time, Malaysia should enact legislation against discrimination in both the public and private sector so that in the corporate sector at least, English-speaking citizens who have the necessary skills and qualifications will not be discriminated against because of their race.
And they will all have equal opportunities to climb the corporate ladder and to earn a comfortable living.
There are no ifs and buts.
None of us made the rules and decided that English would be the world’s lingua franca. But because it is, we just have to accept it and make do.
It is also ridiculous to make excuses about how we don’t need to learn English to be good at science and math because Korea and Japan did fine with their own languages. Local research is hardly groundbreaking. If we want to produce quality work, then we have to learn from international studies and research, most of which are in English.
Most of the Internet, which enables us to seek information on practically any subject, is in English. Malaysia’s high Internet penetration rate shouldn’t just be used to read fake news on WhatsApp or mindless articles on Facebook, or to surf porn.
Nationalists and mother tongue advocates may complain if the government of the day focuses attention and resources on improving English proficiency.
But this isn’t an either-or thing.
The national language is obviously important. However, Bahasa Malaysia is already the medium of instruction in national schools and in Chinese national-type secondary schools (SMJK).
It is the working language of government and administration. A pass in Bahasa Malaysia in SPM is also required. So what else can the State do?
It’s really down to individuals to embrace and to treat the national language with respect.
We cannot call ourselves Malaysian if we look down on the national language. So all of us must be able to speak Bahasa Malaysia, if only because unity is important, besides making money.
As for mother tongue education, I would argue that it is up to parents and to the community, not the State, to teach and to preserve their native language. The community can, however, work with the government to place more teachers in national schools to teach Mandarin and Tamil.
Additional languages taught at national schools will benefit students in general. At my Mandarin class, most of my classmates are Malays and Indians.
The government’s job is to make sure that all Malaysians can speak English and Bahasa Malaysia. Currently, a lot more can be done in the former.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.