Our glaring English deficiency is too big to ignore

Viswanathan Selvaratnam

Modified 28 Aug 2018, 3:42 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 upwards” 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 mismatch between the supply and demand of graduates in the labour market, and emphasises that the employability rates for graduates “remain poor and unimproved.”

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 universities.

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.