Understanding Honda’s drive for English


Nazir: ‘English is the global language and as a nation we should declare English language proficiency as our top priority’.

Nazir: ‘English is the global language and as a nation we should declare English language proficiency as our top priority’.

We may be taken for a ride if we have poor language proficiency

DESPITE extensive research, nobody can tell how many self-described semi-retired bankers-cum-Chelsea football club fans in Malaysia have active Instagram accounts.

It’s safe to say it’s probably a small group – when compared with say, Manchester United supporters who use Twitter – but the posts of at least one of this minority group have made the news several times in recent months.

Then again, he’s Datuk Seri Nazir Razak, chairman of CIMB Group Holdings Bhd and brother of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak. Nazir’s career status and sporting allegiance aside, people are interested in what he has to say through the photos and captions he shares on Instagram, which seems to be his primary personal social media platform.

The latest example was a post on Tuesday on an article titled “Honda To Set English as Official Language”.

Mastery of English

The June 30 report is from The Wall Street Journal’s Japan Real Time blog, and it highlights the auto player’s plans to “switch its corporate lingua franca to English from Japanese by 2020”.

In response, Nazir comments, “Never thought I’d see this day. English is the global language and as a nation we should declare English language proficiency as our top priority.

It’s a traditional edge that our workforce is losing fast; we must reverse the deterioration now. (And no, it does not mean we have to neglect Bahasa!)”

Nazir has been one of the country’s most prominent corporate leaders for many years. When he expresses his views on what Malaysia should do about the mastery of English, the words carry a certain weight.

But before we consider further Nazir’s Instagram post, we should know more about the Honda decision, which is explained in its Sustainability Report 2015 issued on June 29.

Some observers consider it a wrenching about-face because in 2010, the car company’s then CEO Takanobu Ito said this: ”It’s stupid for a Japanese company to only use English in Japan when the workforce is mainly Japanese.”

He was commenting on the two-year “Englishnization” project by Rakuten, the e-commerce leader in Japan, to shift to English as its official corporate language.

The observers are wrong in believing that Honda now favours English only after Takahiro Hachigo replaced Ito as the CEO in April this year.

According to November 2013 news report by Bloomberg, Honda had made English the official language of global meetings in April that year, and it was Ito who announced it to the employees.

The article said the change was because the carmaker was transferring decision-making power from the headquarters to the regional units.

Also, it’s unfair to paint Ito, based on his 2010 quote, as somebody who disregards the international relevance of the English language.

He was in fact referring to the idea of adopting the exclusive use of English in operations within Japan; it wasn’t as if he insisted that all Japanese corporations must stick to communicating in Japanese wherever they venture.

So let’s be clear that Honda’s willingness to widen its use of English is not new. And the company is not proposing that every employee speaks English.

The exact intention, says its Sustainability Report 2015, is to position English as the official language in inter-regional communications.

“It is vital to develop an environment that achieves close communication between associates in six regions worldwide in order for the Honda Group to display its comprehensive capabilities while local sites are independent,” says the company.

“Therefore, Honda is working to set English as the official language when we engage in inter-regional communication by 2020 by using English in the documents used at inter-regional conferences, including the use of English for questions from communicators of information, and in interactions for the sharing of information.

“As part of this, Honda has implemented measures in Japan that include study programmes aimed at boosting English language skills and plans to make English language skills a requirement for promotion to management level in the future.”

Pragmatic

Honda is being pragmatic about its reliance on languages. Indeed, we can be reasonably sure that when a business decides on its use of language, it looks at practical factors such as cost, efficiency and effectiveness. Politics seldom comes into of the picture.

This brings us back to Nazir’s Instagram post. Most businessmen in Malaysia already acknowledge the importance of English in commerce and industry, as well as the position of Bahasa Malaysia as the national language.

The wide use of English here has long been a selling point for attracting investments. But as Nazir points out, despite the years of us lamenting and discussing the decline in the standard of English in Malaysia, boosting our proficiency in that language has yet to find a prime spot in the national agenda.

That has to change, and the sooner the better. We Malaysians need all the help we can get in pinning down the meaning of nettlesome and contentious words and phrases that keep popping up these days, such as conspiracy, credibility, integrity, tampering, political sabotage, evidence of wrongdoing, disappearance, prejudicial, unsubstantiated and whistleblower.

  • Lately, executive editor Errol Oh has been referring to the dictionary a lot.