Wednesday, November 01, 2006

It's the language, "stupid"

Not meaning to offend anyone, the above is a spin-off of the much quoted "It's the economy, stupid", an often used phrase during elections in the US. A reader, by the name of Kal, sent me this link to a short Edge interview with Piyush Gupta, the current CEO of Citibank / Citigroup Malaysia (at least I think that's who the journalist is interviewing). No great insights but worth comments worth repeating since he is the country head of a major banking group and his comments on Malaysia is likely to carry beyond our shores, now and also in the future.

His main take on the reason as to why some graduates find it difficult to find employment in the financial services in Malaysia:

The single biggest issue that the financial services industry has with graduates is language. The lack of English-language skills is a big impediment. If you find me a graduate who speaks English well, it is very easy to take him in and do the training in the banking context. We can find people with the thinking pro-cess, that's not really a problem, but language skills are a huge issue

His take on the disparity between local and foreign graduates:

There is, but a large part of the disparity is driven by language. Language refers not only to communications but also to confidence. The big difference is that graduates who come back from overseas are just that much more confident because they interact easily in the language and they don't have a problem communicating and speaking. As for local graduates, if you see them through the analytical thinking process — and I've done this — they stack up. But if you think of them as a performer in terms of being able to deliver, lead and manage people, they can't stack up. So, it is not an IQ [intelligence quotient] deficiency, it is an EQ [emotional quotient] issue.

I found it interesting that he referred to language ability in a more holistic manner - to include confidence, leadership and EQ.

Finally, his take on soft skills:

Aside from language skills, the other thing is the ability to weave a lot more professional development into academia. While I think that a general degree is good and broad, if you can overlay that with professional development like presentation and negotiation skills, it would definitely create a far more employable person.

Personally, I think this is an area which the US system really excels at. You're encouraged to speak out and present your ideas (even when they are not very good). At the graduate level, I'm amazed at the number of opportunities in which graduate students get to present their work to each other and to faculty in a setting which encourages debate, discussion and criticism. I'll be amazed if I can find a similar kind of intellectual atmosphere among graduate students in Malaysia or other parts of Asia for that matter.

So the conclusion to the matter? That our policies to teach English in our local universities (and before that) is leading to a dichotomy in employability between foreign and local grads.

I'll probably write a more extensive post on this issue later but for now the thoughts and insights of Mr. Gupta will suffice.

Caveat: Citibank employs many of its management staff from top universities in the UK, US and Australia so I would imagine that the quality of recruits would be better than the average foreign grad.


Anonymous said...

I would say some of it is due to culture. At the foreign uni I went to, we always had this atmosphere that we were there to achieve our next career goal, which is to get a good job. Which is why many things we did, including summer internships, were driven by this desire to open up our opportunities. In Malaysia, I see students lepakking during their holidays, even parents refusing to let them do any form of 'work'. The goal of university here is to get a degree but not necessarily to prepare for the next career stage.

Even communication skills is partly cultural. Asians in particular will have some difficulties in this regard. We are actually strong technically (because we do work hard) but what use is that if we can't 'sell' our ideas? My manager used to ask me to open my mouth more, even to the extent of emulating a rather annoying colleague who talks nonsense. Why? Keith Ferazzi, in his book 'Never eat alone' says 'invisibility is a fate worse than failure' which is actually true to a great extent, particularly if one works in a large multinational where there are loads of (smart) people who would gladly takeover the attention otherwise.

Anonymous said...

There is no doubt language and communication skill is a big issue with local graduate but I beg to differ that its a bigger issue than fundamental analytical skills. I believe the CEO of Citibank is being politically correct. Firstly as CEO of Citibank, he only interview and have data of only a highly selected group of local graduates - those that would do well even under a bad system. Firstly, how many want to bet that the pool of local graduate that gets interviewed seriously are overwhelmingly non-bumiputeras?

I have personally tested the local graduates in engineering, accountancy, business and there are many that do not have the analytical skills. I remember a couple of years ago, Genting had a test for IT workers and thousands showed up and only a few made it through.

Anonymous said...

Yes, the stark fact is a high percentage of our local public university graudates, bumiputra and nonbumiputra, are unable to speak, write, understand, and communicate in English.

On top of this deficiency, a high percentage of them are also lacking in relevant knowledge and analytical skill.

The sad truth is our national education system and policy, together with our local public universities, fail miserably in human resources and skills training. Period.

Anonymous said...

I thought I knew how to speak English. I spoke English at home, read english books easily and enjoy american movies.

When I went to USA, few people actually understood me! Take a guess why?

Anonymous said...

To 'your fellow anon', I guess it must be your good English and the accent. Too good that they cannot understand....

Anonymous said...

Your fellow anon, They dont understand yr perfect English maybe because you talk with strong javanese or kelantanese dialect?

Or perhaps you have halitosis?

Anonymous said...

I was wondering does CEO of Citibank in Japan, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Germany or France tell the same sad story about their local graduate as Mr Pishy Gupta?

Anonymous said...

Your fellow anon,
I'm from a similar background (English as a first language, read English books, watch English TV etc etc..) and I know what you mean about american locals not understanding you. I'm currently in Australia, and face the same problem. I do believe it is our accent. By switching to the Aussie accent, its amazing how much better they understand me! It's not the problem of English mastery ( believe me, their spelling skills can be pretty atrocious).

On a side note though, Tony, I'm curious as to the employability of graduates in the opposite situation? (i.e- speaks English only, or perhaps with just a rudimentary grasp of other languages) How do they stack up?

Anonymous said...

pls c wat our neighbour r doing. All i want to say is don't take steps that have been proved insufficient; sole emphasize on english would not work.

An asian who know non other than english will have the confident and EQ to 'function' as the competent n talented?

Anonymous said...

Yes, accent plays a role but I noticed Americans look for the choice of words and the intonation used. Their pattern recognition depends is culturally dependent.

Malaysian said...

it is the government