On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

We need to be more marketable

MANY Malaysians have long complained about job vacancy advertisements that require applicants to have compulsory knowledge of written Chinese and spoken Mandarin.

For job-seekers who are only proficient in Bahasa Malaysia and English, such advertisements must be frustrating, particularly if they feel they are qualified for the jobs offered.

At a glance, Malay and Indian applicants would seem to be the ones discriminated against, but English-educated Chinese are also in the same boat.

Many Chinese can speak their Cantonese or Hokkien mother tongues, but like their Malay and Indian brethrens, they would be rejected by such employers who must have their reasons for insisting on the ability to read and write Chinese.

On Tuesday, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak urged the private sector to stop the practice of making it compulsory for local graduates to be proficient in Mandarin.

The Deputy Prime Minister said the private sector should be more open in accepting and training local graduates without imposing certain requirements.

Employers who insist on hiring only a certain race and gender have long infuriated Malaysians. Often, these are not even offers for high positions but simple clerical or supermarket jobs.

Employers must realise that it makes good management sense to have a balanced staff of various races. Not only would they have a larger pool of applicants to choose from, but the company would also be able to deal effectively with a larger market of customers. Managing leave for staff would be easier too.

For government agencies where Malays make up the majority of the staff, it has always been a nightmare during Hari Raya Aidilfitri. If there are more non-Malay civil servants, such manpower problems would not exist.

Advertisements that impose conditions on language and race should not just be stopped for job vacancies but also those relating to rental of apartments or houses.

There is absolutely no need for employers to state such conditions openly, although there is nothing to stop them from culling candidates who do not meet their expectations in the selection process.

As a Chinese, I fall into the category labelled by some as xiang jiao ren (literally banana people: yellow on the outside, white inside – a Chinese who does not speak Chinese).

When watching Cantonese dramas or movies, I rely on the subtitles. When on holiday in China with tour groups, the English-educated ones like me find ourselves unable to comprehend what the guide is saying.

Most Malaysians are bilingual, but next to those who attended Chinese schools and who can speak three languages, we are at an obvious disadvantage.

But we have to be practical. We can either whine about it, pretend we are not affected by our lack of language skills, or we can learn these languages because of their economic value.

While people like me may find it late to start learning to read and write a new language, there is nothing to stop the younger set, especially fresh graduates, from learning Mandarin, Arabic or Spanish.

As Najib stated, the number of graduates have almost doubled from 45,000 in 2000 to 85,000 last year, but a recent survey showed that 32% of graduates today have yet to secure jobs after completing their studies last year.

No one is surprised by the figure.

The slowdown in the economy has not helped. Employers have become more cautious of escalating production costs, thereby imposing stringent rules on recruitment.

For job seekers whose degrees are not in demand in the job market, they become even more unmarketable when interviewers find that they have a poor command of English.

For many local graduates, that inadequacy is already reflected in their application letters – if they can't string together a proper sentence in English, how can employers have faith in them putting up a decent sales presentation?

This poor command of English is evident among many local graduates, regardless of race. They are victims of an education system that has neglected English. If anybody is to be blamed, it's the politicians. But unfortunately the damage has been done.

The elites can send their children for education overseas but most Malaysian parents cannot afford to do so. If one is living in a kampung, new village or estate, the children have little exposure to English, putting them at a disadvantage against urban kids.

Even in China, employers have begun to insist on fluency in English among fresh graduates in the market. If you want to do business in India, it's still English.

The reality is that English, Mandarin and Arabic would become more important in the coming years because China, India and now the United Arab Emirates have emerged as big markets.

A local company with plans to set up office in China, Hong Kong or Taiwan would insist on Mandarin-speaking candidates. A Chinese Malaysian who can only speak Cantonese or Hokkien would lose out to a Malay who speaks Mandarin and write Chinese.

Likewise, a Mandarin-speaking job applicant is useless for a company doing business in Dubai.

Good English and Arabic would certainly be an asset. Tour operators for Arab visitors to Malaysia would hire Arabic-speaking graduates.

In Belgium, Switzerland, Sweden and Austria, most people there can speak at least three languages, but in Malaysia and Singapore, we do not seem to have that skill despite our plural set-up.

In Singapore, many speak English and Mandarin but cannot speak the Malay language, while in Malaysia, most of us are merely bilingual but the trend is that many are becoming monolingual, which is something that we need to check.

Nobody owes anyone a living. We should not expect the Government to give us a job as a pegawai in the civil service, simply because we are graduates.

What we should do is improve ourselves to become more marketable and adaptable to the requirements of a demanding world.

Learning does not stop once we step out of school or university. Learning is, to borrow a phrase, a "lifelong" process.