English the language of only the elite?

How wonderful it is to have another eminent Malaysian taking up blogging!

Tan Sri, Malaysians and Malaysian blogsphere urgently need more thoughtful blogs such as yours to discuss issues other than divisive politics.

Oops! Pardon me. For a moment there I forgot that Malaysian education is now as divisive as Malaysian politics.

Our education system is now a battlefield of passions and fierce contentions. Fifty-two years after Merdeka and 46 years after the formation of Malaysia, our education system is directionless and devoid of innovative ideas, and our dear nation is slowly but surely slipping backwards into Third World mediocrity.

The primary cause is an education system that is shaped more by political expediency and interests than a deliberately designed long-term master plan to build human capital that will enhance the country’s ability to compete confidently and competently with the best in the world.

The recent decision to drop the use of English to teach science and mathematics is yet another painful example of expediency triumphing over good sense.

Plus the inevitable flip-flop.

First, the new ruling was that from 2010, students who have been learning the two subjects in English from primary through secondary school up to form three would switch to the use of Bahasa Malaysia in forms four and five. And, should they decide to continue their studies in form six, they would revert to English for the two subjects.

Now, after a public outcry, the Cabinet has decided that students who started studying mathematics and science in English can continue to do so until the end of their secondary education.

What’s going on here?

Is this another experiment involving Malaysian students after countless other vaunted experiments introduced in the past had failed and not mentioned any more?

If the message communicated by the government is not sufficiently confusing, now it is asking the public to propose ideas to improve the standard of English command in primary and secondary schools.

What a magnificent effort, indeed! But forgive me if I hold back my congratulations.

The thought uppermost in ordinary Malaysians is that decision-makers must have known the importance of the English language to this country. They travel abroad more frequently than most ordinary Malaysians and they should have been aware of the use of English everywhere they went in the world.

If they are still ignorant of the powerful global influence of the English language, or they think it is some sort of Western imperialist propaganda to entrap and enslave our minds, let me run through a few facts about what is really happening in the world today.

For better or for worse, and whether the world likes it or not, English is in effect the official language of Planet Earth. It is the most commonly used language of international commerce, politics, science, diplomacy and international flight and it is the primary pathway of global communication and global access to knowledge.

Some one billion people speak it as their first or second language. About a third of the world’s population are in some sense exposed to it and, by 2050, it is predicted that half the world will be more or less proficient in it.

More than 80 percent of home pages on the World Wide Web are in English. The next greatest, German, has only 4.5 percent and Japanese 3.1 percent. The estimates of the percentage of email messages composed in English vary between 60 percent and 85 percent.

Scientists as far back as 1989 published an article in the influential ‘The Scientist’ magazine that declared English to be their lingua franca.

Today, if you wish to be successful in international business, learning English is a must. We know English is already the language of corporate Malaysia.

In many places in Asia, Africa and South America, knowledge of English determines who will improve their living standards and who will remain in poverty.

So why are our decision-makers calling for ideas to improve the standard of English only now?

Do our leaders know exactly what has been happening to our country? Do they know that for many years young Malaysians have been denied the opportunity to learn the English language?

The education minister himself was reported in newspapers in June this year as being shocked to learn that national schools no longer taught English grammar. He was also surprised that English is not a ‘must pass’ subject in the SPM.

I wonder whether the ignorance of our leaders could be the product of their isolation from the reality that ordinary Malaysians have to confront on a daily basis.

The children of many of our leaders who study within the country are enrolled either in private school or private universities where the main medium of instruction is English. If not, they have been sent overseas for their education.

The elite running this country and members of their families all speak English which proves that they have confidence in the language and know its importance in their lives.

Yet, they have stood by while English standards fell down the cliff and damaged the economic future of entire generations of Malaysian youths.

According to figures provided by a newspaper editor in his column, there were about 60,000 unemployed Malaysian graduates at the end of last year. A major reason for their predicament is that they can’t get employment in the private sector because they don’t speak or write good English and jobs in the public sector are limited.

Whose mistake is this?

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About Tan Sri Lim

Tan Sri Dato’ Sri Paduka Dr Lim Kok Wing, the Founder and President of Limkokwing University of Creative Technology, does not fit into any ordinary mould that would describe most entrepreneurs.

His journey has been closely linked with the economic and social development of Malaysia.

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The G-20 group of countries, which directly and indirectly controls global economic affairs, represents only 10% of the countries in the world but collectively accounts for around 85-90% of the world’s GDP.

The Star, October 2009

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