REALITY stares hard at us again. It hurts some and drives others, who occupy positions of authority and ride the popularity wave, to tread it cautiously. Taking a non-compromising and nonchalant stand is generally not advisable, as it may trigger a possible political reaction.
Therefore, we permit things to deteriorate into a delicate matter when it should not.
Regardless of where you are on the spectrum, the problem never seems to fully capture our attention or prompt action, and a lot of what has been planned and intended gets caught between reality and political decency.
In a most recent news report, a first-class engineering graduate was reportedly unable to land a job position due to the lack of proficiency in spoken and written English. There could be hundreds of others, if not thousands, who suffer similar fate.
In the private sector where English is the language of choice for commercial transactions with both domestic and foreign stakeholders, most people would also struggle to obtain employment. There is no running away from English, no matter how vocal and pronounced your voice on nationalism is.
Proficiency in English
The fact remains: of the over 30,000 young Malaysians who graduate annually from local and overseas universities, only those who are proficient in the English language are able to secure employment in the private sector.
The remaining ones either join the government sector, which has limited job opportunities, or venture into setting up their own business.
There are already over 50,000 unemployed people, and that figure is projected to rise as more university graduates join the employment market this year and in the upcoming years.
Thousands more would be left out in the cold, which would lead to a number of alarming societal concerns. This would be an additional topic that needs examination and critique on its own.
It is an unpleasant truth that, if left unchecked, will inevitably turn into a social issue of ever greater severity. Unemployable graduates rather than unemployment become the core issue, which can affect the productivity of the state and financially burden the community.
Even our leaders, many of whom were educated in the English medium, view the matter with serious concern and they have unashamedly admitted that proficiency in the English language has become a pre-condition for graduates seeking employment in commerce and industry.
The reason is simply that English is the language of trade and research.
The Premier, who have repeatedly spoken at length on the importance of the language in the global era of digital technology, has insisted that local graduates must undergo intensive courses offered by the public or private sector to enhance their proficiency in English. Experience has shown that more than 50 per cent of those who took such courses had little problem in getting jobs with the private sector.
Examining the past in retrospect, we see that a number of distinctive elements – mostly of a political and ethnocentric nature – had developed through time and affected the English language learning curve for the younger generation, as they attended schools with a Bahasa Malaysia-medium curriculum and used it as their primary language in official interactions.
But the students are not to be blamed entirely, or not at all, for their poor command of the English language. The root of the issue lies in the education system, where students are not given enough attention when learning English as a language, and even when it is, not enough time or money is available to meet the goal of developing English proficiency in the students.
Victims of a system
Hence, our students are victims of a system that pervades the entire formal learning process from primary school to university and it extends beyond that to public administration and major growth sectors. When they graduate, they also find themselves victims in the employment market of the private sector, where preference is normally given to those with good command of English.
We all know that the education system cannot afford to set aside the importance of the English language, given its global importance and the desire of Malaysia to join the league of developed nations in 15 years’ time.
Yes Minister, we also know that, amid the eager voices to reach out to the new world order, we are still trapped in our perceived fear of the political sensitivity that the extensive use of the English language may unleash.
We appear to have gotten ourselves entangled in the spokes of the wheel that we have created to push us forward.
It is not surprising, therefore, to find some decision-makers in offices of authority taking a roundabout approach to tackling the problem, which has now escalated into a major national issue, when it could be resolved objectively.
Ethno-religious centric circle
The call by some opinion leaders in the ethnic-religious centric circle for the use of Bahasa Malaysia in the teaching of Science and Mathematics in schools, a move to reverse the existing language mode, has caused some disquiet and uneasiness among some government leaders and parents.
Yes, Minister. It has all the signs of inviting politics and parochialism into the narrative and clouding the existing education policy on the use of English. Throughout it all, Sarawak has remained steadfast in its use of English alongside Bahasa Melayu as an official language, unfazed by criticism from language nationalists and patriots who are stuck in the past.
Yes Minister, the language issue challenges our leaders, especially those in the education authorities, to stand up to the reality of what education must mean for our young Malaysians in the global era – a stance to ensure that education must rise above the trivialities of parochialism. Most of them would not want to be dragged into making any public statement, even though the Sarawak government’s ruling on the matter is clear.
Obviously, sensitivity is the issue here. And whether the Federal Cabinet will finally decide to review the existing use of English in the teaching of Science and Mathematics in schools is now a cause of concern for well-meaning Malaysians.
While the ‘tug-of war’ between political sensitivity and reality on the use of English language is seemingly taking place behind the veil among some high-up authorities, the education providers, especially universities, are quietly but quickly moving ahead to get English to be used extensively in their undergraduate and postgraduate courses.
At least one Malaysian university has confirmed that it will be using English as a medium of instruction for all courses.
The reason? As a hub of learning, the university must provide an enabling environment for learning and inquiry that extends beyond the narrow confines of national boundaries, said the vice-chancellor, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The pre-eminent academic claims that proficiency in English is both a requirement, and an essential instrument for eradicating that artificial barrier and granting academicians and students the freedom to pursue knowledge on the broadest scale.
Many other local universities are said to be following suit, albeit in stages. For most university students, especially those with little English background, the switch to English as a medium of instruction can be a challenging and problematic task at the tail end of their Bahasa-medium education years.
Yes, Minister. There is no denying, therefore, that organised efforts to develop the desired level of proficiency in the English language among students must begin in their formative years in the primary and secondary schools. Such a suggestion, although well-meaning and forward looking, would not pass the first test as it lacks political decency.
Yes Minister, it takes a lot of political will to bring us closer to the reality that we envisage.
We must have the political resolve to rise beyond parochialism and popular politics to translate into reality what is good for the education of Malaysians.
And English must be given its rightful place.
Toman Mamora is ‘Tokoh Media Sarawak 2022’, recipient of Shell Journalism Gold Award (1996) and AZAM Best Writer Gold Award (1998). He remains true to his decades-long passion for critical writing as he seeks to gain insight into some untold stories of societal value.