Poor English skills bad for economy

by Stephanie Sta Maria
Free Malaysia Today
January 18, 2011

KUALA LUMPUR: A nation’s economy is only as good as its education system. So powerful is education that even the subtlest tweak has the propensity to either elevate or relegate a nation on the global stage.

Policy-makers therefore tread with great care when proposing policy amendments, acutely aware of the staggering impact their decisions would have on the country’s future.

Malaysia’s policy-makers, however, appeared to have lacked this attention to detail when deciding to reverse the teaching and learning of Science and Maths in English (PPSMI). And that move has placed Malaysia’s economy on shaky ground.

Cheong Kee Cheok, a Senior Research Fellow with the Faculty of Economics in Universiti Malaya, expressed grave concern over the system’s failure to produce the human resources needed to propel the country forward. And this, he warned, would severely cripple the flow of foreign direct investment (FDI) into Malaysia.

“One of the benefits a country reaps from FDI is the acquisition of technology,” he said. “But we can only acquire it if we speak the language of technology, which is English. Unfortunately, we are losing out to the Thais, Vietnamese and Chinese in our ability to communicate in English.”

“We have enjoyed FDI for 30 years but what technology have we acquired? To a certain extent, piracy is a key indicator of a country’s technological prowess. China is able to pirate almost anything whereas our piracy is limited to DVDs.”

The inability of a nation to acquire a certain strength leaves it no choice but to be dependent on other nations. This stagnancy will gradually reduce its competitiveness and eventually ease it out of the economic supply chain altogether.

“Our lack of technological expertise will dissuade technologically capable industries from investing in Malaysia,” Cheong said. “Right now we are still locked in a supply chain but our position will shift as other nations become better.”

Fear of backlash

Another professor, who declined to be named for fear of backlash from the Education Ministry, revealed two other flaws in the education system. Both are related to the Public Service Department scholarships.

The first flaw, she said, was a shortage of scholarships for physical sciences. The second – and more alarming – flaw was that these scholarships were being awarded to students who either didn’t have the aptitude or the interest to pursue a career in physical sciences.

“Malaysia produces less than 20% of physical science graduates,” she stated. “Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and China produce 30% to 40%, which increases their preponderance for acquiring technology.”

“And because most of our graduates weren’t interested in physical sciences in the first place, they carve careers in other industries upon graduation, which further dilutes our already limited resource pool.”

She blamed the political powers for handicapping the country by using its education system as a political tool, especially in the PPSMI reversal.

Pointing to Vietnam and China as examples of governments with foresight, she said that both countries had each launched an all-English government university.

“Their governments recognised English as an international language, not a colonial one,” she emphasised. “And they essentially told their people that if they didn’t like it, then they didn’t have to come. But that opportunity was there for those who did want it.”

“Malaysia has a myopic vision. We look inwardly to see how fast we have improved without taking into account how our competitors are faring. Our education system is not producing people who can think, which is fundamental to a country’s growth.”

But it is not just the science and technology industries that are suffering the butterfly effect of the PPSMI reversal. Even the food industry is fearing for its future in the global market.

English terms

At a recent public forum organised in support of PPSMI, an entrepreneur who only wanted to be known as Mazidah related the struggle she faced in her food-processing business.

“Our previous interns weren’t exposed to Science and Maths in English and had problems understanding industry terminologies,” she recalled.

“Their working papers were downright embarrassing. I recently found out that many have opted not to pursue a career in the food industry after all because they can’t cope with the English terms.”

Her recent batch of interns, however, underwent the PPSMI and she marvelled at the difference in their capabilities. According to her, they understand the industry requirements, have better communication skills and are on top of advancements in the industry as they are able to read books written in English.

“The food industry can be very difficult if you’re not exposed to scientific terms in English,” she stressed. “And we’ll drop very far behind if we don’t do something about our education system now.”

The other issue that greatly aggravates her is the Health Ministry’s decision to hold two separate workshops on food safety management systems – one in English and one in Bahasa Malaysia (BM).

“The ministry officials told us that the BM workshop is meant for the local market and the English version is for those who wish to export their products,” she said. “But this is ridiculous! Not only will it widen the existing class divide but it will also hamper our global competitiveness.”

  1. #1 by raven77 on Wednesday, 19 January 2011 - 12:46 am

    Do you know that Chinese New Year is about 3 weeks away…

    Look around you….it’s queit….real queit

    Our economy went to sleep ages ago….

    And those who know English well….are already out in another country….

    Goodnite Malaysia

  2. #2 by Jeffrey on Wednesday, 19 January 2011 - 7:15 am

    One learns how to speak by speaking, just as one learns how to write by writing. It comes with practice and usage. Even teaching Science and maths in English does not help proficiency, what more reversing now to Bahasa once again!

    Lacking manpower in physical sciences and losing out in FDIs is one thing. The more insidious effect is lack of confidence.

    Coming out into the work environment local graduates fear to express in English. They tend to revert to national language. They fear others would discover their secret–that they are dumb. They may well not be in the sense that they have knowledge in what they say. However because of the lack of English proficiency they dare not speak up and end up being perceived dumb in both metaphorical and literal sense. So they retreat further into their shell.

    Whenever one came across a difficult problem or idea, he would give up easily because he thought that he was “too dumb” to ever understand it. The belief he was “dumb” caused him to give up too soon. If he had believed he had the ability to solve the problem, he would have persisted and solved it.

    Although whole generations have been afflicted by this malaise since the marginalisation of English beginning from the switch in the 1980s the problem is more acute with Malay Malaysians. Non malays, especially those in urban setting and from middle class economic background seem to acquire better skills to buffer the debilitating effects of English marginalization.

    It is incongruous to see a Malay sales marketing person, tasked to make a presentation and sales pitch on a product, bringing along (say) a non Malay engineer to help out, ending up with the engineer who knows less about the product trying to describe and sell it!

    Little wonder that the Malay executive will soon feel more secure to leave private sector and join the civil service if he lacks perseverance to overcome this handicap and feel private sector offer little prospects. Govt departments that use the official national language become safe havens from the threatening world outside. This in turn makes the civil service not only bloated but also mono-racial and cultural, which is one of the first sources of our problems. This is because when they implement national policies it is from that mono-cultural perspective whatever the PM may say about 1 Malaysia. The segregation of race in relation to economic function is hardly reversed by NEP but exacerbated by it.

    Lack of self confidence is a self fulfilling and vicious cycle. The more they feel incompetent in English and feel better esteem in native language the more they resist policies giving English more of its due practical importance as international lingua franca and the language of acquiring new knowledge including technology.

    They will use the importance of National Language – and its allegedly unifying effect – to justify lobbying for and perpetuating the marginalisation of English that has proven amply the folly of its neglect. The NEP is defended at all costs because it allegedly levels the playing field against Non malays more competent in that language. Politicians, especially those vying for power with ambition to take over the position on top, pander to these sentiments to get popularity and votes in the struggle for power. We cannot break from this vicious cycle.

  3. #3 by Jeffrey on Wednesday, 19 January 2011 - 8:02 am

    The marketing context I cited earlier is at least not life threatening.

    One of the dreaded scenarios is that when one is in a plane that gets into difficulties mid air or otherwise has to make an emergency landing – and proficiency of English on pilot’s and cabin crew part is essential for survival!

    The pilot has to refer to the flight manual to see what to do in certain uncommon emergencies. It is not easy to translate technical jargon and flight protocols in such manuals to Bahasa!

    Or for example in an emergency when communicating with ground traffic controllers who speak in English, and split second precision, deciphering meaning and nuance of the language makes the difference between life and death – controllers ask where’s the captain and second pilot says, “he got out when one of the engines quit”. Controllers hesitate and wonder surely he didn’t mean the pilot had jumped off from the plane in parachute when what is meant is that he went down the aisle or toilet!

    There are recorded cases. In 2008 Lot 282 Boeing 737 with 93 passengers aboard came within seconds of a midair collision. The plane was being piloted with two Polish-pilots who were not proficient in English. The plane was flying into Heathrow Airport when the controllers had advised them with instructions after their instruments became unreliable. The pilots could not understand the controllers’ instructions with the kind of precision necessary to address the situation.

    Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) investigated and reported The crew of Lot 282 were not able to communicate adequately the nature and extent of their problem . . .The commander, who was making the radio calls, was not able to understand some of the instructions . . . the initial error by the co-pilot . . .was compounded by the difficulty of obtaining information from the pilots because of their limited command of English ” .

    Earlier on March 27, 1977 a PanAmerican 747-121 and a KLM 747-206B collided on the runway not so much due to in low visibility but mainly the Dutch pilots miscuing or misunderstanding air control traffickers instructions in English – “We are not taking off” is different from “We are now at take off” and further different from “stand by for take-off”!

  4. #4 by Thor on Wednesday, 19 January 2011 - 8:47 am

    We no speak English ‘cos we’re malay first!
    We want people who come here to speak malai..yu ‘cos this is malai..sia!
    You wanna us speak like those “mat salleh”, phaark off!
    You “a*rse” me who am I ?
    I’m “Moo hee tin”!!!
    Takut ke…???

  5. #5 by HJ Angus on Wednesday, 19 January 2011 - 9:01 am

    Yes having a good education system is KEY for Malaysia to progress.
    But looking at the Ministry of Education from the “I am Malay first” Minister to the “you must vote BN” state education director, it is not difficult to understand why Malaysia has gone down the drain for investments.
    We are also seeing the effects of the significant brain drain and soon the high-tech industries will move out.

  6. #6 by undertaker888 on Wednesday, 19 January 2011 - 9:08 am

    mrs clinton accompanying moohead-din and jarjis on a tour in a very advanced computer lab.

    C: Moo, this is our most advanced joystick. do you have this in Malaysia?

    M: Jarjis, dia itu duk cakap apa?

    J: Puan clinton kata, ini batang gembira amerika. malaysia ada batang gembira macam ini tak?

    M: ooiiii, gatainya puan clinton. hehehe. hang cakap sama puan clinton, malam ni aku boleh tunjuk ketuanan batang gembira I.

    J: mrs clinton, our deputy PM like to show you his joystick tonight. would u care to see it?

  7. #7 by boh-liao on Wednesday, 19 January 2011 - 9:37 am

    English no know nevermind, but know how 2 collect free coins on highway veri good lor
    Welcome 2 Malas Sia, a land where money grows on trees n roads paved with gold
    Finders keepers (losers weepers), LOL

  8. #8 by boh-liao on Wednesday, 19 January 2011 - 9:51 am

    “Please remember Malaysia. Don’t forget to come home because the country needs you as well,” said d 1st lady at a hotel in Oman
    Confused between come n go; may b she comes too often
    Even with poor English skills, d lady PM goes overseas n gives talks 2 syiok diri

  9. #9 by dagen on Wednesday, 19 January 2011 - 10:44 am

    Teaching science and maths in english does to some extent raise the level of one’s english language skills. It is not a fantastic way but it still gives students the necessary exposure to the language in a formal environment (i.e. classroom) which will enable them to overcome their inhibition; or their fear of or discomfort with the language. Now even this little advantage was taken away.

    Sitting under the rambutan tree strangely may also help one to improve one’s english. Of course, this is my theory. The fruit must possess some magical properties, I suspect. Otherwise cintanegara would not be so passionate about it. And umno would not bother to claim ketuanan rights over rambutan trees. (I take it that cintanegara represents umno.) Obviously umno does not want the rest of us to enjoy that special benefit. So muhideen told us that the malay language can become a mainstream language of the world (yea yea) and that english language is not for progress (again yawn yawn). I say carry on umno. Well done. Just carry on digging your grave.

    I was in Plaza Low Yat recently to get a new computer. I had the occassion to the backroom office of the vendor (somewhere in the upper floor of the building). Guess what I saw? There are about 6 admin staff there and 4 of them are burmese. They could handle the computer and they could communicate well in english. Now this is worrying. And again I say, well done umno.

    Bravo to all those who elected umno.

  10. #10 by Bigjoe on Wednesday, 19 January 2011 - 10:46 am

    If we strip away all the emotional baggage with languages, there really is only two argument for not doing PPSMI.

    1. Malay children in rural areas have difficulty with English because they lack exposure, and not just at young age. There are proof that learning Math & Science in native language at early age helps improve the learning.

    2. Learning Math & Science in English for those that are poor in English does not help students improve their English.

    Here is the problem with the above argument. English is NOT a foreign language in Malaysia. Firstly, Malay written form is latin-based – the same base as English. Secondly, almost all of us speak some English even in the villages and jungles with TV. In fact, more percentage of us speak English then say in India and Philippines where the working and education language is in English. English IS a NATIVE LANGUAGE in this country.

    So the first argument that its harder for rural students who don’t have that much exposure in English, its the same as asking an padi farmer to work in a semiconductor manufacturing plant – the answer is he got to start with skill training or in this case exposure. Not run away from it. It feel foreign inititally but if you can take unskilled labour and put in semiconductor plants, rural kids will get it once they understand its just a distant cousin language.

    As for the second part about Math & Science in English not helping to improve English – that is absolutely true but so? Learning in BM does not help improve both Math & Science AND English. Its painful to unwind wrong policies which we have lots of experience. This is no different. Once English improve in the rural areas, then the issue does not exist. The price has to be paid unfortunately and its better to pay the price upfront than later. Its unfair but that is life. The only thing that can and should be done is to be charitable with those who are more likely fail. Its urgent to pay attention to those who are inherently disadvantage by sending in more and better English teachers to the rural area with smaller classes and more material and programs to work with the students and provide extra classes.

    But then again we are talking about logic here, not politics. When you add in politics, the logic all goes out the window..

  11. #11 by k1980 on Wednesday, 19 January 2011 - 11:12 am

    Poor English skills is not only bad for the economy, but it also makes retards out of those who do not possess those skills.

    An example—- for years I have been wondering wtf the term GOP means. Newspapers and magazines mention the term GOP in American politics but do not give its meaning. If not for the internet, I would be still clueless about its meaning today. I googled it and in 2 seconds I got its meaning– the US Republican Party.

    Now take a poor sod who possesses a poor command of English. He will be missing out in acquiring knowledge about the world he lives in. He would be duped by umno propaganda such as Malaysia being the wealthiest country in Asia (!) and the prices of everyday commodities here being the cheapest in the world!

  12. #12 by tak tahan on Wednesday, 19 January 2011 - 11:32 am

    Yo Yo,monsterball.no more beautiful..and classic English ya.Serious..and good command of English is essential in daily requirement ok.No English no talk like no money no talk.Only chiak chiak chiak like umno the pirate putras as long can chiak but no speaking English.

  13. #13 by cintanegara on Wednesday, 19 January 2011 - 12:14 pm

    There is absolutely no doubt that English is the international language …In Malaysia, we have Bahasa Malaysia as our national language.
    Unfortunately, there are some in our society who feel that it’s not really important for them to be proficient in the national language

    Some of them refrain from speaking in Bahasa Malaysia and they have problems with their pronunciation and accent.

    Below is the instance of ungrammatical BM used in daily conversation.

    Venue – service workshop (shoplot)

    Mechanic – Apa hat lu punya keleta?
    (Correct Sentence – Apa masalah kereta Encik?)

    Customer – Kereta saya ada masalah dengan gearbox.

    Mechanic – Gearbox ??? Aiiya, itu manyak musat punya problem… ini hali wa tatak senang wo, keleta manyak mau lepair (repair)…Lu latang mali lain minggu la…
    (Correct Sentence – Masalah Gearbox ini adalah perkara yang besar dan memerlukan masa untuk diperiksa. Tapi hari ini saya sibuk kerana banyak kereta lain untuk diperbaiki Saya cadangkan awak datang minggu depan,)

    After five decades of independence, there should not be any excuse for the present generation to not be able to speak and write in the language reasonably well

    Meanwhile, Every time I go to France, i have problem to communicate with the locals… Most of French people don’t prefer to speak English

    Est-ce que tu me comprends?

  14. #14 by k1980 on Wednesday, 19 January 2011 - 12:48 pm

    Comment sont les ramboutans sur votre arbre, mon ami cintanegara?

    J’espère qu’ils n’ont pas été pourri

  15. #15 by undertaker888 on Wednesday, 19 January 2011 - 12:50 pm

    Cintanegara, NAH!! batang gembira untuk hang.

  16. #16 by tak tahan on Wednesday, 19 January 2011 - 1:39 pm

    Our environment is crea..ted in such a way to chiah chiah,makan nation resources,no need english and bahasa melayu one.You only know how to chiah Ah moh tan,cintanegara.YO YO!!!!

  17. #17 by TheWrathOfGrapes on Wednesday, 19 January 2011 - 1:50 pm

    Thank you, Mahathir!!!

  18. #18 by tak tahan on Wednesday, 19 January 2011 - 1:55 pm

    Omae ga hontoni bakayarou no konchikushou.Atama ga pinman no you desu..means your pea brain is like capsicum..inside kosong punya,cintanegara.Bahasa mela..yu tidak lagi dijunjungi kerana telah dicemari oleh lu punya olang.Penuh kata-kata racist,ketuanan yang tidak ada makna serta tiada lagi ada tata tertib punya bahasa.Ia akan lesap tak lama lagi di kanca dunia.Ma ma mia…here i go again..

  19. #19 by perampok cinta1 on Wednesday, 19 January 2011 - 4:12 pm

    The government had come up with the teaching and learning of Science and Maths in English (PPSMI) some time ago.

    I wonder who actually wanted this programme to be halted. If my memory serves me right, it’s the Pakatan.

    Now Lim Kit Siang suddenly brought up this issue, again. Flip flop thoughts? Even for the ‘great’ TPM to be Lim Kit Siang?

    Sometimes I guess the Pakatan has no more issues to attack the Barisan. Come guys, this is getting really lame loh ; )

  20. #20 by tak tahan on Wednesday, 19 January 2011 - 9:24 pm

    Datuk raper kuat cakap orang putih..tapi sombong dan tak bagi orang malaysia dan terutama melayu belajar orang putih.Hypocrite ichiban!Cakaplah orang mandarin.Dah lama cari makan dengan orang mca tapi bodoh.Saya cadangkan datuk belajar mandarin kalau tidak cina tak kan bagi business.Cina sana tak macam cina mca,faham tak.I also changed my mode,you know?Dickhead!How to be information and culture minister if not fluent in multi-languages.Sorry i changed my mode again.Bakayarou


  21. #21 by waterfrontcoolie on Wednesday, 19 January 2011 - 11:42 pm

    cintanegara, I have no doubt of your ability though you prefer to work around the rambutan tree and wait for it to bear fruits. The human beings by nature are very adaptable, within a generation or two, many would certainly have forgotten what their grandfathers had done for a living. Hence, it is not surprising that like waiting for the rambutan to ripen collecting ‘rent’ is equally easy; especially rent based on 30% margin. though the sad thing is those poors who are misled to support such scheme ended up collecting 0.3% of such rental crumbs. Since, you end up collecting 29.7% of the rental, your die-hard support for for such a system is expected. it would be stupid on your part, if you do not support it. At the moment, it is certainly not an issue, especially as long as Petronas can ooze out ‘black gold’. As a fellow human, my concern is after another generation, would you or rather your children be able to collect such rental? By then, no matter what happens, they will not be able to fend for themselves; it will be certainly too late to talk about MARUAH then!!

  22. #22 by tak tahan on Thursday, 20 January 2011 - 11:28 pm

    Hei..i went market today to buy fruits.You know,i saw rambutans fruits by one stall and greeted the seller.She similed at me and said pomp lap kun ‘meaning i love you’ so i gotta shock “what..the heck Thai girl selling rambutan..with her courting that will eat me up”So as usal i give in to her gentleness and bouht some home.Mind you all,taste nice andd juicy unlike the local one usually smells putrid,not kind and sweet.Phui…Phui…

  23. #23 by tak tahan on Friday, 21 January 2011 - 3:30 am

    I missed your voice la.beh tahan..you know..what thinking you man?Boh hami ua lu ai ka wa kong meh?Kong chio kong chio ok?Speak up la man,don’t worry about ur poor leg.I will help you as i just said.Carry you on my back still aia,sap soi la.Lawan tetap lawan!

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