English can help launch Malaysia to next level of growth

I WAS in a hotel lobby in Singapore when I received an SMS that the Government was reverting to using Bahasa Malaysia in the teaching of Maths and Science in Malaysia.

That announcement did not really come as a surprise, given the posturing that was being made in the weeks leading to that decision, but receiving the news in Singapore made me realise the potential consequences from such a move.

In one generation, Singapore has made a leap economically – the ringgit and the Singapore dollar were at parity until the late 1970s – that Malaysia is trying now to achieve.

People in the city state now enjoy one of the highest per capita incomes in the world and live in a city that is honestly a model for many a country to emulate.

Millions of Malaysians have helped make Singapore what it is today and while I was there, I spent some time catching up with my old friend who has found financial success and now settled down in the city state.

During the course of my trip there, I spoke with a man from Kedah who told me that all his siblings had emigrated to Singapore.

And as I was leaving for home, two security guards at Changi airport proudly told me they were Malaysians.

The one thing all three people had in common, apart from being in Singapore seeking a better-paying job, was their ability to speak English.

That advantage, apart from having the right policies that made Singapore a high income economy, has allowed Singapore to separate itself from a number of countries in South-East Asia. It’s an advantage, apart from having a high level of human capital, that was needed for a country that is devoid of other natural resources.

Proficiency in English too was an advantage Malaysia could have wielded but, sadly over the years, that cornerstone of the country’s attractiveness had whittled away at the expense of political gain.

Today, the country is in a tug-of-war, trying to move away from the low cost of production model but finding it difficult to launch to the next level.

Realistically, Malaysia – with its relatively small population in South-East Asia among countries that are seriously considered to be viable places to invest in by foreigners – should have used the language as a launchpad for more.

But are we too late?

I would like to think that if Singapore can make a complete makeover to its economy in one generation, we can too.

Politicking has to be put aside to ensure the country grows, as there are numerous examples throughout Africa and Asia where countries have stagnated economically through one misstep after another.

In this regard, the teaching of Maths and Science in English should not only continue but be enhanced. Bolstering the proficiency of English by increasing the number of hours that the language is taught is also the right move forward.

Here, policymakers must not waver. Hire the necessary number of teachers from native English-speaking countries.

And since there is little conviction without compulsion, the next step is to make English a compulsory subject whereby students must pass the subject before getting their SPM certs.

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