ENGLISH IN MALAYSIA: PAST, PRESENT AND OPPORTUNITIES
Prepared by the International Council of Malaysian Scholars and Associates (ICMS), Singapore Chapter
Hanis is a Material Management Executive originating from Johor. For many years she has studied, worked and lived in Singapore, enjoying the opportunities that the nation-state just across the border offers. As a candid observer of Malaysian affairs, she notes how English fluency is paramount in the globalised working world. In her interview, Low, an undergraduate at the National University of Singapore concurs with this sentiment, making a bold claim.
‘Change the education system, prioritise the English language.’
This is echoed by the late former Singapore Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew who attributed Singapore’s success to widespread English use. English is the language of the global community (Lee, 2009). It allowed for the blossoming ties with the West which has brought multinational companies, investments, and most importantly, jobs, to Singapore.
This is by far not a localised phenomenon. According to Harvard Business Review, countries with better English proficiency have higher Gross National Income (GNI) per capita, which is widely used as a measure of a country’s economic performance. These countries also tend to have higher standards of living with no country having ‘medium or high English proficiency’ falling below ‘Very High Human Development’ on the Human Development Index (HDI).
Having established the benefits of English, what does this mean for Malaysia and Malaysians? English could be a way of escaping the Middle-Income Trap . It would certainly attract more investment from the West and even the Chinese who is embracing the English language (Ward & Francis, 2010). It would help to instil higher language competencies and allow Malaysians to shine on the world stage. It might even help with national unity as the English language does not ‘belong’ to any ethnic group. Yet, what is stopping Malaysia from adopting the English language?
English in Malaysia: A brief history
The Malaysian public education system consists of three different types of schools, each teaching in its own mother tongue . This was set up when the British left Malaysia. The Chinese and Malay communities opposed any plan for English to be the mainstream medium of instruction (Tajuddin, 2012). In 2003, efforts were made to adopt the English language in the teaching of subjects related to Science and Mathematics. This forward-looking plan was however scrapped by the former Deputy Prime Minister who was also the Education Minister, Tan Sri Dato’ Haji Muhyiddin Yassin in 2012, citing poor pass rates in these subjects. This was then replaced by the “Upholding the Malay Language, Strengthening Command of English” (MBMMBI) policy, which downgraded the role of English.
Vision for the future
In the wake of this policy reversal, what happens next? This article recommends that we tackle the core reasons for the policy reversal. The poor pass rates due to the change of language is a necessary pain for the future economy. What we could do is to educate in English even before the primary level. The foundations of language are best learned during the pre-schooling years. Hence, there will be better returns to investment if we could focus on the English language education at a younger age.
Rural residents is another target group. Much light has been made of the rural community being disadvantaged. They have less exposure to the English language. A concentrated effort targeting the very young in rural areas would spark much positive change. In the long run, this narrows the rural-urban education gap (an oft source of resistance for widespread English usage), thereby allowing the country to reap future benefits.
Nationalists however argue that adopting English would erode our cultural and ethnic identities (Gooch, 2009). These strong feelings must be acknowledged when embarking on any new policy direction. Traditional Malay, Chinese and Indian culture must be preserved and taken care of even with the widespread use of English. Families play a crucial role in passing down traditions and their native languages. What is important is that the government creates a conducive environment for the use of English language and ethnic cultural values to co-exist.
By realising the benefits of English, Malaysia can make quantum leaps in terms of economic progress. Yet we must respect the historical forces of resistance that has prevented this from happening. Everyone should realize that it is not a zero-sum game where the English language progress will destroy our cultural roots, when in fact with proper policy we might strengthen them instead. Only when we acknowledge the various valid concerns, backed with the courage and conviction to stick to our guns will we create a better Malaysia for all Malaysians.
Kuan Yew, L. (2009) One Man’s View of the World.
McCormick, C. (2014, August 07). Countries with Better English Have Better Economies. Retrieved May 25, 2017, from https://hbr.org/2013/11/countries-with-better-english-have-better-economies
Ward, C., & Francis, E. (2010, November 15). Ganbei!! China Embraces English Language. Retrieved May 25, 2017, from http://abcnews.go.com/WN/China/china-pushes-english-language/story?id=12154435
Gooch, L. (2009, July 08). Malaysia Ends Use of English in Science and Math Teaching. Retrieved May 25, 2017, from