[lg policy] Our glaring English deficiency is too big to ignore

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Wed Aug 29 11:30:45 EDT 2018

 Our glaring English deficiency is too big to ignore
Viswanathan Selvaratnam
<https://www.malaysiakini.com/a?language=en&q=Viswanathan Selvaratnam>  |
Published: 28 Aug 2018, 10:38 am  |  Modified: 28 Aug 2018, 11:42 am

COMMENT | Malaysia aspires to transform itself from its present
middle-income trap to a tech-savvy, export-driven, high-income and
developed nation state by 2020 (now 2023).

The development trajectory’s main drivers are foreign and domestic capital,
and high-quality skilled and innovative human capital. To accelerate the
creation of a critical mass of a "balanced", skilled and innovative human
capital, former prime minister Najib Abdul Razak declared a motto of “*soaring
<http://www.intanbk.intan.my/iportal/dl/MinisterialTalk/idris_BM.pdf>” for
higher education.

The goal was to fast-track the supply of “a first-rate educated workforce”
to boost productivity and drive economic growth with high-wage employment
and living standards.

Both developed and developing nations, including Malaysia, have over time
empirically evidenced that their human capital can be actualised and
sustained only through a well-formulated, inclusive, efficiently
coordinated and well-funded national education system.

Students have to be invigorated with bilingual and numerical competency,
critical thinking, communication skills and core ideas, as well as nurtured
to be creative, innovative, technology-savvy and entrepreneurial in their
impending work culture.

Malaysia’s options to achieve developed nation status are limited,
primarily due to its small domestic market. Thus, Malaysia’s obvious choice
is to be a robust exporter of high value-added goods and services.

To hold and enhance its competitive edge in the export value chain with
other aggressive market players, students have to be continuously upgraded.
They have to be acclimatised on an upward scaled knowledge and skills
platform to maximise their employability and productivity.

Otherwise, the country will not be able to sustainably generate and
accumulate the productive capital assets to achieve developed nation
status. The question is, does Malaysia’s education system embed into its
students the critical and complex bundle of talents and skills to meet
these challenges?

*Poor competency*

Malaysia’s higher education provision is underpinned and driven by a
politically determined, structurally divergent and racially polarised
public-private higher education system.

The public provision is centrally controlled, highly subsidised and has
been driven by a politically resolute, race-based affirmative action
strategy with a dominant national language policy to purportedly maintain
national unity and political stability.

Since independence in 1957, English has been retained as a compulsory
second language in public schools. But despite this policy, the public
education system has in the last four decades been underscored by a low
level of English teaching, that has resulted in generations of students
leaving the education system with poor competency.

The outcome is that has drastically excluded the system from preparing
students to keep pace with the accelerating growth in new knowledge, as
well as the rapidly changing needs of the labour market.

The parallel, highly structured and overwhelmingly profit-motivated private
delivery system is also anticipated to meet the high-quality human capital
needs of the economy. However, both these public and private systems are
classic cases of credential and quantity over quality driven providers.

Can both these divergent structures, primarily reinforced by credentials
and quantity over quality, and inbuilt with overpowering political and
economic constraints, generate the high-quality skilled workforce needed to
achieve developed nation status?

Small countries like Malaysia have no choice but to be intertwined and
interlinked to the increasingly competitive global marketplace. To hold and
enhance their competitive-edge, Malaysia has to develop a skilled workforce
with the requisite cognitive, analytical, problem-solving, decision making,
communicating and interpersonal and management abilities underpinned by a
good command of English.

Graduates packaged with the above complex skillsets will command their own
value in the advancing knowledge-economy.

*The decline in quality education*

Unlike Singapore, that retained English as the medium of instruction at all
levels of its education structure, Malaysia made the national language the
main medium of instruction of its public education system in 1983.

The colonial administrative and education policies have truncated the
growth of the national language. Even after independence, the national
linguistic initiatives have not been able to develop the national language
as a bearer of a universal scientific tradition, unlike what has been
achieved in South Korea.

Although English was made a compulsory second language, nationalist and
patriotic sentiments conjoined with political exigency and the lack of
competent teachers, progressively gave way to the greater usage of Bahasa
Malaysia, while the use of English was allowed to significantly deteriorate.

This insular policy has contributed in the last 40 years to a drastic
decline in English proficiency in national schools, as well as among
tertiary students and the academic community.

The dominant shift in the usage of national language in schools occurred
despite the pre-eminence of English as the worldwide lingua franca in
science, scholarship, communication, trade and global affairs and
diplomacy. An overwhelming majority of academic books, research documents
and high-impact research journals, particularly in the critical Stem
(science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) programmes are
overwhelmingly available only in English.

Most non-English-speaking countries that aspire to keep abreast with the
globalising world have made it the first foreign language in their schools.
It is taught from primary level upwards in all Dutch, Chinese and Indian
schools. In China, the demand for competency in English is surging.

English is used as a working language in the whole of the European Union.
Malaysia’s Asean neighbour and competitor, Vietnam, has identified English
education as the key to improving the quality of its rapidly expanding
tertiary institutions.

In addition, the country says English is crucial to the larger aim of
modernising and internationalising its economy. Malaysia’s novel policy
drive towards technological and export-driven nation hinges on its human
capital development.

*Supply-demand mismatch*

The outcry from both the public and private sector is that the country’s
universities are not nurturing graduates with English language skills as
well as the mental building blocks to think constructively – a quality of
workforce that industrial and service sector employers are in dire need of.

As the private sector’s demand for better skilled workers increases, many
top firms are almost exclusively recruiting returning Malaysian graduates
from select overseas English-medium universities rather than from the
relatively more insular public institutions.

A lawmaker pointed out recently that thousands of local public university
graduates were unemployable by the private sector because of their poor
command of the English language. These unemployable graduates have no
choice than to be recruited into the highly bloated public service.

The concern over the failure of thousands of local university graduates to
secure employment due to their inability to “string a sentence together in
English” was once again reiterated by the former Sarawak chief minister,
the late Adenan Satem. To alleviate this serious and growing problem of
“graduates without a future,” Adenan (*photo*) decided to adopt English, as
a second official language for Sarawak.

The National Graduate Employability Blueprint 2012-2017 has
highlighted the *serious
between the supply and demand of graduates in the labour market, and
emphasises that the employability rates for graduates “remain poor and

The Malaysian Employers Federation also pointed out that unemployment among
graduates in the country is a serious problem. In a 2013 Jobstreet survey,
employers stated that there was a gap between their expectations of
graduates and the quality of graduates produced by the country’s

Nearly 70 percent of employers think that the quality of the country’s
fresh graduates is average, and they were lacking in cognitive skills as
well as in the ability to write correctly and communicate orally in
English. Poor command of English was singled out as the primary reason for
their growing yearly decline in their employability.

To boost the employment rate of public university graduates across the
country, the former BN government instituted the 1Malaysia Training Scheme
and the Graduate Employability Management Scheme. It is perplexing how
trained public university graduates need to be retrained, at the taxpayers’
expense, when corrections are not made to set right the deficiencies within
the school education system.

Something has gone seriously amiss in the Malaysian education story that
spends near six percent of its GDP on education. Can short programmes be
sufficient to enhance candidates’ glaring English language and other
work-related deficiencies to the required level to enter the increasingly
competitive graduate employment market?

The country’s glaring English language deficiency is simply too large a
fact to be ignored.

VISWANATHAN SELVARATNAM is an independent researcher with expertise in
educational policy, educational theory and higher education.

*The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not
necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.*


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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