Monday, September 12, 2005

"There is a Need to Master English"

And this advice is coming from none other than our former Prime Minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. He believes strongly that a simple acquaintance with the language alone is not enough for new technologies to be learnt.

We share the same sentiments when we fear that the language nationalists and protectionists attempts to reduce the role played by the English language in a misguided attempt to "preserve" the mother tongue languages.
"It is unfortunate perhaps for the language nationalists but that is the reality today. They must not blight the future generations by objecting to the mastery and usage of the English language. They must not obstruct Malaysia’s progress and development."
In the report published by the New Straits Times, Tun Dr Mahathir also commented on the "lack of self-confidence among graduates" as well as their "poor communication skills".
"Their communication skills are so poor that sometimes they cannot even relay what they want to express in their own language. There is absolute silence when an interviewer asks them questions... how is anyone going to employ people like that?

"If you show a blank face to the person who is interviewing you, then you are not going to get the job... it will not matter if you have a Master’s degree."
I definitely cannot agree more. There are a significant number of strong candidates of which the above issues do not apply. However, unfortunately, it applies to the large majority of graduates in Malaysia - irrespective of whether they originate from local or foreign universities. Even many of the top students, including those that I employ (who are excellent in their technical skills, by the way) are very poor in their language and communication skills. My managers will often "complain" to me that they cannot understand the emails from these graduates.

Tun Dr Mahathir lamented that the poor communication skills is "almost cultural" - and I will tend agree. Unfortunately, I also think that this "culture" is one of the serious negative side effects inculcated by the authorities in their attempt to curb dissent and open discussions at our Malaysian schools and universities.

The constant attempts by the education authorities and university administration to restrict the activities of the students, both political or apolitical have resulted in the culture whereby it's "better" for students to keep their opinions and voices to themselves to avoid unnecessary issues and complications that may disrupt their pursuit for their degree qualifications.


Bran said...

The sad thing is that this has been said before. I remember there being one drive a few years ago to implement an educational English policy.

Our educational institutions either turned a deaf ear or simply didn't put a competent effort into teaching English and making sure that everyone could speak, read and write fluently.

Talk is cheap.

There isn't much we can do for grads, aside from further education through the SLG scheme. But we can make fluent English a mandatory entry requirement for acceptance into technical courses, at least. It can even be a requirement of entering 2nd or 3rd year.

An oral test/interview with a written exam. Force undergrads to make themselves fluent.

Anonymous said...

Reading these comments. I just realise how ethnocentric Malaysia is become in the 21st century!

They sit in parliament to make laws, head ministries who they themselves have no confident in, fail to raise it above level and send their own children to overseas because they know, the quality of education in Malaysia is not good.

First, Malaysians……….you have been cheated by BN politicians and second, Malaysians……….the BN leaders sucked you, they use your tax money to finance their children overseas but your children have been neglected…………double fool.

Have commented that malays including intellectuals want non-meritocracy and NEP to stay or implemented. Even malay intellectuals distrust feelings against multiracial parties even though they are against Umno.

They believe that only Umno can protect malays rights. Therefore it is imperative that non-malays vote opposition to change the present system otherwise non-malays will continue to send their children overseas for education because they have no choice, whilst malays politicians and wealthy ones will continue to send their children overseas because the education standard here is low.

How ironic.

MAS case is only the tip of the iceberg. The whole country administration machinery, privatized or not privatized, is governed by a bunch of incompetents.

We can't trust our schools and universities as the BN leaders also send their children overseas to study, as they themselves also can't trust the education system.

In case of sickness, our BN leaders also rush to Singapore or overseas to seek treatments, as they themselves also can't trust our own medical system. The only thing we can hear is the boastfulness everywhere in this Bolehland.

If we correct from our mistakes we are still men. But the trouble is that we keep on repeating mistakes, and instead of correcting, we keep on fining excuses.

Worst still we want to imagine that we are great, sending astronaut to the space using other people's spaceship.

In the end, the money come from the taxpayers again to fund these losses while the political leaders and top management get away with huge pay packages, and to make matters worst, they will just run away with it.

Yes, this is the secret recipe called 'Boleh' - only available in Bolehland!

Anonymous said...

This is the path to a better command of english.

First you need to WAKE UP! Read more english books. Learn a new word a day makes a lot of difference. Write more english essay. When watching english tv programmes, don't look at the subtitle, try to listen and catch what they are talking about. If you missed, does not matter, try again, soon you will not need the subtitle. Speak more english with your friends and children. Okay to make lots of mistakes. Accept criticism, correct yourself. Exposure is the key!

If you don't get yourself expose now, you will never do it later. If you don't suffer now, you and your generations will have to suffer for you later. If you don't catch up 5 times harder now, your next generation will have to catch up 100 times harder later.

Don't wait, do it now. The faster you get yourself exposed, the faster you master the language! Do it now for the benefits of the future, your future generations!


Golf Afflicted said...

No Totoro, I'm pretty certain that students do not take an English paper equivalent to 1119 for their SPM.

I'm of course prepared to eat humble pie if proven otherwise, but I'm pretty sure that at least 75% of the students in our secondary schools will not be able to cope with it.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of encouraging people to learn English by reading more, I was wondering why books from foreign publishing houses are so expensive in Malaysia and so difficult to find. (How does the publishing process work and where does the money go?) I was quite shocked a few years ago to discover that many books cost the same in Malaysia as in the US.

It's easy to say 'read more in English', but where are people going to get these very expensive English books? (Yes, there are newspapers, which I don't think are a good solution, but that's another topic for another day.) As a child I often took the Green Bus (from Ayer Tawar) to the Sitiawan public library and slowly read through the small collection there. Recently I visited the library and was dismayed to discover that almost no new books have been purchased since I left in 1998 and perhaps even before.

What can private citizens do to improve this situation?

Anonymous said...

Huh? I thought we take our normal English paper and then we have a second grade based on the marking scheme standards of 1119? Which is why sometimes you can get an A2 for English but a C6 for 1119

Anonymous said...

If i'm not mistaken, 1119 English was last offered for SPM examinations in 1996. Students could opt to take both the 322 and the 1119 English papers. Subsequently, they merged the two into a 1119/322 English paper that was much easier than the original 1119 ones. Not sure about the latest format though... I remember taking 1119 English tuition and loving those classes more than the English classes taught in school simply because it brought English literature alive for me...

Anonymous said...

All of those that have posted comments on this topic are undoubtedly concerned about the dismal standard of English in Malaysia. Being concerned is definitely a good first step towards bringing greater change.

And so I laud those that brought insights to the matter and those that proposed solutions to rectify the situation. I was optimistic that at the very least, those that read this blog with enough interest to post comments and to give suggestions would possess a greater command of the English language than the Malaysians whom we are talking about.

Why is it, though, that I grimace at the many grammatical errors within some of these comments?

We are social beings, and I had the hope that a good second step would be to teach by example.

Perhaps someone else has a brighter idea.

Anonymous said...

Pushing the envelope,

One sees this sort of thing ('Why everybody else their English so bad ah?') in most conversations about the standard of English in Malaysia, not only on this blog. The same thought has occurred to me many times, but I have thus far refrained from saying anything for several reasons: a) We all make grammatical, idiomatic and spelling errors occasionally. b) I've noticed that many native English speakers at top US universities also do not seem able to construct sentences properly either. c) I assume that the posters you mention are making their best efforts. Can we really ask for more?

No, I don't have a brighter idea. I suppose the problem to some extent is Malaysian English. I'm not sure that we need to eradicate it and all start speaking the Queen's English with BBC accents at the pasar malam. Manglish is a unique phenomenon and that would be a huge cultural loss.

What is necessary though is to expose people to the world of 'standard' or 'international English', to use an ill-defined term. I say 'the world', because I mean not only the language, but also the global conversations that are happening about culture, economics, society etc. Perhaps this is too much to hope for.

Most Malaysians and Singaporeans I know who have lived for a while in the West end up having two different kinds of English, one that they speak among themselves and another for use with foreigners and in writing. Is this the model we want to move towards for the whole country? Is it viable?

Just some random thoughts and no real answers.

Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous,

a) Indeed, we all do make grammatical, idiomatic and spelling errors occasionally, but I stress the word occasionally. I do not expect 10 or more errors within a paragraph of 10 sentences. That's an average of 1 error per sentence. At this rate, it no longer becomes an 'occasional' phenomenon, but a chronic one.
b) I attended a so-called "top"-5-in-the-world university (According to who? The THES and the Institute of Higher Education, Shanghai Jiao Tong University. Yes, we all know rankings are unreliable etc., but I cite them to give you a sense of what I mean by "top.") Also, I am only bringing this up because you mentioned of your observation. Forgive me if I am naive, but throughout my studies there, I noticed that, contrary to your observation, native speakers of English, can write well and speak fluently. They might make the _occasional_ error, but even then, if one asks them to proofread their work, they will be able to correct their mistakes.
Well, even if what you say is true, that "many native English speakers at top US universities also do not seem able to construct sentences properly either," why should we use it as a reason to justify ourselves or others?
c) Yes, we can ask for more; wherever there is room for improvement. It is not my intent to put others down. I point it out only after sincerely lauding them for their insights and proposed solutions. I am proud that they can think critically and rationally on this matter. Again, it's a good first step. I would think that a good second step is to hone one's presentation skills (be it in writing or in speech). One of the posters said that one needs to be able to accept criticisms. If there are only silent teachers in the world, one can only imagine what would become.

That said though, I agree with you that the demise of Manglish would be a huge cultural loss (and agree with you even more so on your thoughts on "the world of 'international English," except the part about it being "too much to hope for." I shall not elaborate further, but I quote Eleanor Roosevelt: "He who loses money, loses much; He who loses a friend, loses much more; He who loses faith, loses all." We also need to ask ourselves, "If others can, why can't we?").

In my opinion, Malaysian English is NOT the problem/issue. Is it not those who speak it? I would dare say that those who speak Manglish know that it is ungrammatical (if we choose English as the yardstick. Manglish is perfectly grammatical as is, i.m.o.). They either did not have the proper education (formal or informal) or they are so used to Manglish that they cannot revert and accommodate accordingly. (There are other theories and explanations I'm sure.)

I would not be concerned if Malaysians are able to switch from Manglish to English and vice versa appropriately (ie. an interview vs. hanging out with family and friends). That said, the "Why everybody else their English so bad ah?" in conversations does not bother me as much. I assume that they are speaking casually to friends, and if they are able to revert when appropriate, I see no worries. But time and again, we've heard of interviewers being embarassed by the interviewee's language skills (and vice versa).

With regards to the two different kinds of English, I think it is a viable solution. Manglish is akin to Ebonics. A little story: I was at a bus stop once and an African American guy was on his cell phone, speaking in Ebonics. I assure you that it was completely unintelligible in my ears (I did not eavesdrop on purpose. I did not even understand him, but the language intrigued me), but when he got off the phone and chatted to me for a bit, I understood him word for word. On the same note, some Brits can not comprehend Manglish (my close friend's personal experience).

If our foreign policies change, and we cut-off all contact to and from anyone outside of Malaysia, Manglish would suffice. But as we all know, things are quite the opposite. Speaking and writing in grammatical English does not mean that one needs to possess some fancy foreign accent. It is merely asking that one abides by 'standard' English grammar rules when constructing sentences to enable an international audience, who abide by the same/similar rules, to understand him/her.

I don't believe we need to focus or put blame on the language itself. Perhaps more so, focus on the people and put emphasis on versatility.

P/S: I am no expert on this matter. Just some thoughts that I'm willing to alter if I see fit.

Anonymous said...

Pushing the envelope,

(I think I'll stop being 'anonymous'. It's rather discomfitting somehow. :-))

After thinking about your experience with the Ebonics-speaking fellow and mine with my friends, it seems that the fundamental problem is a lack of opportunity for most Malaysians to be in environments where it is natural to speak and think in 'standard English'. Immersion is the only way to really learn a language. Both the African-American and my friends have to interact with two different sets of people who speak two different kinds of English.

In my case, even though I spoke only Manglish before going off to varsity, I read quite a bit and that was my 'standard English' world. Having the World Service as my 'maths homework' radio station probably also helped.

The question is how to create opportunities for Malaysians to enter into the 'international English' world. That is why I'm so concerned about the Sitiawan public library: it was my gateway to that world, though at the time I had only the faintest idea of how the people I was reading fit into larger historical and literary contexts. It really made me very sad to see the state of disrepair the place has fallen into.

Having said that, and while I would still argue that it would be a good thing to do, simply doubling the size of that library doesn't mean that the whole of Manjung is suddenly going to start speaking perfect English. Something else has got to be done and I'm not sure it's Newspapers in Education. Maybe distributing shortwave radios and World Service frequencies...but that's probably just wishful thinking on my part.

Probably the only thing that's going to have any major impact in the long run is changing the medium of instruction of some or all subjects to English. I say this because *empirically* people's command of English is a strong function of when they were in school: people who are 'English Ed' generally speak the language fluently regardless of what their mother tongue is and there is a dramatic decline after the switch.

What about television? Are there possibilities there?

What do you think? Are there other things that could be done, perhaps some that are 'bottom-up' rather than 'top-down'?

[Also, even though this is a tangent, I'd like make another observation, which is that the negative effects of vernacular education disproportionately affect the poor in rural areas. It's all right if one speaks English or even Mandarin at home and has the choice to send one's kids to schools that get donations from tycoons, whatever the goverment may or may not hand out. In fact, I would defend people's right to have that *choice*. The problems that vernacular education leaves in its wake are most severe for kids who a) are working class b) speak a dialect (not Mandarin) at home c) live in a kampung where the only primary school teaches in Mandarin d) may go to a 'bantuan separuh' secondary school that doesn't even have money to fence the school field. These kids drop like flies out of schools like SMJK (Shyr Tien) Ayer Tawar every year. When I was there (SPM 1999) the dropout rate from Remove to Form Five was about 50%. You can imagine the employment prospects of people who leave school with a couple of SPM passes and a smattering of Malay. What for some is a matter of rights/choice for others is a matter of simple economic survival.]

Anonymous said...

First of all, do we have leaders who consider themselves as Malaysians first, and have the confidence to convince their followers to think as Malaysians as well?

But as long as we have leaders who wish to gain as much as possible for their own communities, the concept of a Malaysia with compatible policies and systems will continue to be a dream.

And unfortunately, I must admit that glancing at the present leaders and the various stances taken by them, I am pessimistic that such a Malaysia is possible.

The truth of the matter is that polarisation in Malaysia is caused by the discriminatory practises of the government - especially after the NEP - rather than vernacular education.

What I am saying now is that further polarisation of the Malaysian people along racial lines is an inevitable side effect of the NEP. This is indeed a Malaysian dilemma. This side effect transcends across all sectors, not only education.

I sympathize with those that have benefited from the NEP, but the bad news is that the price he pays for his progress is much higher than what he pays for his benefit.

Even if the government one day chooses to heavy-handedly abolish vernacular schools, racial disunity would only manifest itself in other forms if there is no level-playing ground. Our unity would only be superficial at best.

The face of Malaysia is changing and in a decade the ethnic Chinese in Malaysia will merely represent 20 percent of the country's population. The Indians well below the 10 percent mark. The minorities in Malaysia will have virtually no voice in a country that uses racial politics to govern the country.

With this fact in mind, if Malaysia continues to allow the Barisan Nasional system of governance wherein each ethnic group is represented by a political party in the coalition, then the MCA and the MIC will have a much lesser influence in the BN government.

Alternatively, Malaysians may begin to realise the dream of a new Malaysia.

But of course, the present ruling elite drunken with wealth, will continue to fight this dream to ensure that Malaysia is kept divided so that BN can continue to rule.

The role of government is to ensure a level-playing field for all and to ensure that there are laws to protect free trade and commerce. The role of government is not to enhance the life of one particular political party.

Let all Malaysians be a real part of the country. When everybody feels that they are wanted in this country, man-made barriers like vernacular schools and special rights will cease to exist automatically.

Now is the time to walk the talk, and to show greater resolve in the face of growing resistance to change. The country does not need a crooner on corruption and the crooked. It needs a leader courageous enough to translate his chorus against corruption into concrete reality.

It is time for the 'tell-me-the-truth' PM to show us the truth.

Anonymous said...

Actually, the joke but was done by none other than the leaders of Umno themselves although it was not in April.

Remember in the last election, we were promised the following:

1) Investigate the 18 'corrupted' top officials and to bring them to book.

2) The promise to build more Chinese schools.

Strangely, I don't believe anyone is laughing. Are there anymore 'April Fool's' type of jokes to be told at the next election?

This Umno administration came in with one of the highest mandate ever given in history. Yet as far as delivery is concerned, it is disappointing. Initial expectations of better efficiency and a greater fight against corruption have also been met with disappointment. Other issues especially in education have been even more disappointing.

Come the next general election, we must certainly remind ourselves that words and promises are the most powerful tools used by politicians. But they are only tools. To them, there are no facts, only interpretations. All elected governments are the combined result of the people’s wisdom and majority’s folly.

In a 2003 survey, Transparency International compiled a 'Corruption Perception Index'; in that list Malaysia was ranked 37th, Singapore 5th and Thailand 70th, i.e. countries with lower perceptions of corruption were given higher rankings.

Switzerland and Singapore are rich societies that have no less a reverence for the Money God but do we hear that they are enmeshed in a web of seamless graft?

Alas, the news is too good to be true.

It is an open secret among Malaysians that there is certain long-standing ministers who are perceived to be on the take. After one year in office, the public cannot help but feel cheated that having given the new prime minister a huge mandate in the last polls, many tainted ministers are still in office.

Our ministers and top guns should understand that they are not above the law as history shows that those who remain in power for too long will suffer a fate worse than death.

Remember Suharto of Indonesia, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Marcos of the Philippines and one can see that those who abuse power while in office will be shown to the door by the Almighty if they don't reform and change their old ways of doing business.

In the meantime, one can only hope and pray that our country will not follow the road taken by despots of the third world who had plundered the state assets to amass wealth's beyond their wildest dream, and make the country and people suffer for their folly.

At the end of the day, leaders whose feet are made of clay tend to act as they please in order to remain in power. Eventually, they will follow the same road taken by other despots.

Sometimes, the malay language ultras really surprise me.

There are many good reasons to learn Chinese - for pride, for economic gain, for cultural heritage, etc. However, there are no good reasons not to learn Chinese. The worst reason not to learn Chinese or go to a Chinese school is because some ultra told you not to.

We don't have to wait for the prime minister to say okay. I have always been a big believer in free markets. If there is tremendous demand for Chinese schools, someone will set up affordable private schools that will give a great education using the Chinese medium.

Pak Lah has as prime minister. From almost day one after having taken over, he has been telling us to tell him the truth.

But to date, many of us must be wondering 'Does Pak Lah really want the truth?' Many of us have been trying to get his attention but there has been little or no response and even if there has been, they have come from his proxies.

A press, which is free and not beholden to the powers-that-be is most important for the PM, if he really and truly is a keen seeker of the truth. But over the past of his stewardship, little has been done to liberate the gagged local press.

Is there any reason why this man who wants the truth fears being involved directly in opening up the 'locked gates', which imprison truth? Somebody once said: 'The truth is truly out there. But those seeking it may fear doing so as the truth may not be what they truly seek.'

Let us all vote for fairness and meritocracy.

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Anonymous said...

I'd like to ask a question. I would like to take the elective paper for literature in english and yet, many of my teachers are discouraging it and more importantly, there are no available teachers to coach me as none have the syllabus and there are no reference books provided...