On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Work on our English

Just ask around and you will find that a number of our politicians have sent their children to international schools or overseas, even at secondary school level. 

Don't they have faith in their own education system? Or they, too, think we have lost the quality. 

Something isn't right but we are not willing to talk about it. The rot didn't begin recently but more than 20 years ago. 

We did nothing to stop it. Instead, we let it continue while we deceived ourselves with the objective of turning Malaysia into an educational centre of excellence. 

So we talked about building world-class educational facilities without enough input on the contents. 

Last month, Higher Education Minister Datuk Mustapa Mohamed revealed that many lecturers in public universities lacked proficiency in the English language. 

He said preliminary findings of a recent ministry study found that the level of command of the language among students and lecturers had to be improved to produce graduates capable of meeting the challenges of a highly competitive global environment. 

Basically, Mustapa is saying what most of us already know – many of our students do not have a strong foundation in English grammar. Without knowing when to use past or present tense, how can our students be proficient in English? 

We have compromised our standards so much that we now find some students who scored a distinction in the language in public examinations are in reality of average level. 

Not many of our politicians and educationists are prepared to admit this but employers often come across graduates who are unable to draft a simple job application letter. 

First impressions matter most to employers, especially in the private sector. If school-leavers are shoddy, they are unlikely to grab the attention of job interviewers. 

Mustapa has suggested intensive refresher courses in English for lecturers. It is worth a try but those of us who studied English during the days of the LCE and MCE know that one cannot learn the language overnight. 

A minimum of 11 years of studying proper usage of English – and a pass in the subject was compulsory – was how one learned to speak and write English correctly. 

It was a time when a top student in LCE scored only 5A's. Failing Bahasa Malaysia, English or Mathematics meant having to re-sit the exam. 

Today, no student fails in an examination. Except for Bahasa Malaysia, there is no fear of flopping other subjects. 

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad decided to use English to teach Mathematics and Science during his final years as prime minister. He knew the level of English had gone down the drain. 

The move came too late. Unless we teach English seriously, using the language for these two subjects will not help much. Maths and Science are about remembering formulas, not grammar. 

It is strange to hear Universiti Malaya Vice-Chancellor Datuk Rafiah Salim reportedly saying that the lack of fluency in English among lecturers was not a major problem. 

However, she acknowledged that steps to improve the standard of English among lecturers "is not to give English supremacy" but because "Malaysia is a trading nation and needs to use this global language". 

We should have gone past that juncture years ago. We should stop worrying about whether Bahasa Malaysia would lose its status as the national language because it won't. 

In fact, we have come to the point where learning English alone is no longer enough because the Chinese language and Arabic have also become useful. While many of us are still struggling over the teaching of English, others have gone ahead to pick up languages with economic value. 

If our teachers and lecturers continue to have a poor grasp of English, we should perhaps hire teachers from India and South Africa.