Economic value of language

  • Nation
  • Thursday, 23 May 2019

NO one thought that China would one day become a super power.

My parents certainly didn’t, and like many Malaysians in the 1950s and 1960s, they enrolled their children in English medium schools.

My father had no qualms sending the three of us to St Xavier’s Institution, a premier Catholic school in Penang. My eldest brother, who was in a Chinese school, fared badly, further prompting my father to ensure we went to English medium schools.

He is not at all sentimental when it comes to Chinese language and culture. After all, he was born in Langkawi, Kedah, and is a proud second-generation Malaysian.

Although my dad studied in a Chinese school, he taught himself English. His Bahasa Malaysia is excellent, with a thick northern accent, in fact.

England was, back in the day, the centre of the universe, so to speak. It was a major economic power house and is still important.

The result of my dad’s decision of placing me in an English medium school is that I am what is known

as a “banana” – a term used to describe a Chinese person who is heavily influenced by the western environment and is more inclined towards the western culture and values.

I am probably a misfit and an utter disgrace to Dong Jiao Zong, our very vocal Chinese education movement as I can’t even write my Chinese name.

I won’t regard myself as an Anglophile, but yes, I do like Britain a lot.

I can’t speak Mandarin, and worse, I only speak Penang Hokkien – not even the more-used southern Hokkien (which is similar to that spoken in Taiwan and Xiamen in China) – and my Cantonese is admittedly atrocious, even though I am Cantonese by blood.

My point is this – will I get a job in a local company that is required to use Mandarin as it deals with clients, whether in Malaysia, China or Taiwan, which prioritise this language?

Frankly, I wouldn’t even dare to apply for such a job even though I am by birth a Chinese, simply because I don’t know the language. It has nothing to do with the colour of my skin.

Likewise, my friends in the Chinese media would not even think of hiring me although we are good friends because I am of no value to them.

And on the other hand, no Malaysian company, which uses English widely in its office or with their clients, would hire graduates – regardless of their race – if

they are not proficient in the language.

For that matter, any business owned by a Malay or Indian that needs to use English isn’t going to provide jobs to those of their own race if they are not competent in the language.

Businessmen are in the business of making money, not one of winning votes or of fanning racial anger.

So, if you are in London, Paris or Milan, you will find that many brand outlets there have hired Chinese speaking shop attendants because they know it’s the Chinese tourists who are spending big.

Major airports around the world are using Chinese in their public announcements and even signs to welcome Chinese tourists.

The GDP of the United States last year stood at US$20.4tril (RM85tril), in the No 1 spot.

But by 2030, China is expected to take over the pole position with a GDP of US$26tril (RM108tril), according to HSBC estimates.

China now has the largest Internet population globally and has overtaken the US as the largest smartphone population worldwide since 2017.

And since 2016, China’s outbound tourism expenditure has crossed US$261bil (RM1.09bil), according to the World Bank against the US’ US$161bil (RM673bil). And astonishingly, only about nine per cent of its population have passports!

There is no denying the importance of doing business with the Chinese (or risk being left behind) but the reality is that English remains the most important international language. Even the Chinese mainlanders understand and accept this.

But Chinese has become an important language, with great economic value, simply because of the staggering Chinese market.

Everyone who has done business in China realises that you win over their hearts if you eat, drink and socialise with them.

Which is exactly why Malaysia has the biggest advantage here, among all the Asean competitors.

Let’s face it – Singapore is too small and has always been eyed with deep suspicion by the Chinese because of its clear preference for the United States. And this is no secret.

Similarly, the close relationship of the Malays and Indians here with two huge markets – Indonesia and India – gives us a very significant edge.

The three main Malaysian communities enjoy a close relationship with each other but there are politicians out there who have myopic racist sentiments, who can’t see beyond their narrow and shallow mentality.

They cannot see the positive values and advantages we have but prefer to wallow in their pathetic prejudices or biasness.

It makes perfect sense for businesses to have a multiracial and multi-lingual staff.

This is especially so during our festive seasons where certain races need to take leave of absence from work, and operations are still run efficiently and uninterrupted.

No sane or rational businessman would pick and choose his customers, according to their race, religion or gender.

All customers are treated as kings, and for sure, it’s even better if the owner or his staff speak the language of their customers.

Unfortunately, there are politicians who will use all languages in their greetings and campaign materials during elections, and loudly tell their voters that “everyone is equal” but after they get elected, they seem to have forgotten who their audience is, and they go back to being their ugly selves.

Some even think that they are the boss – and not the people, who put them there in the first place.

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