On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Level the playing field

Even at the World Cup, the referees use English – not Mandarin, Japanese, Korean or German – in the field to tell the players how they should conduct themselves. It’s as simple as that.

MY Indonesian maid, Yuli, has worked in my home for over eight years. She speaks to us in Bahasa Indonesia but she has also learned to communicate in English, especially with the children of my relatives who stay with us.

The kids, in turn, are learning to speak in Malay, or more precisely Bahasa Indonesia, even though they speak only English with their parents. Yuli is also able to follow the Taiwanese drama series on Astro with my mother-in-law.

At a restaurant in Uptown, Petaling Jaya, I met a Cambodian waitress. She is able to converse in Bahasa Malaysia, English, Mandarin and Cantonese! Her employer told me that she is her prized worker. But she is worried that because of her worker’s language skills, she may be lured away by some other restaurant operator. Needless to say, the Cambodian is paid more.

Listening to her, I really feel inadequate. It’s a scary thought because I am a Cantonese but I am hopeless in this dialect, despite all my years in the Klang Valley.

It’s my family upbringing, I suppose. My father, who was born and raised in Langkawi, is more comfortable with Malay, while my Nyonya mother speaks Penang Hokkien, which uses many Malay words.

Being English-educated, I am unable to speak or write in Chinese. In this context, I am just as lost as the Malays and Indians when it comes to multiple language proficiency.

But the point I am making is this – why are Malaysians unable to master a few languages like the Swiss, Swedes, Belgians or Finns?

Calls to introduce English as an optional medium of instruction, I repeat, optional, are received with lukewarm response from our leaders, even though everyone admits that our standard of English has plunged. Many of us would even say that the standard has hit rock bottom.

While the ordinary people, especially those who benefited from English schools, have responded enthusiastically, those in the position to make it happen have come up with excuses ranging from the lack of teachers to the standard bureaucratic reply of “we need to study the matter first”. There is a lot of pessimism, with one reader even tweeting that it is probably easier to set up Jurassic Park in Malaysia than to see the return of English, even as an option, in selected schools.

No one is calling for a radical, overnight change of the school education system, nor do we dare to even suggest that English replaces the national language. It is unthinkable and all of us will single-mindedly agree that the national language is sacred. But what we are pointing out is that English as a medium of instruction is already available in our schools, but only in international schools while the language is emphasised in private schools that follow the national curriculum.

It is already here but the point is, why should such a privilege be enjoyed only by those who can afford it? If the elites in the cities can send their children to these schools, why shouldn’t the children of the fishermen and oil palm plantation workers get to study in such schools?

Given the rot we are already in, we are aware that the only way we can begin is to carry out a pilot project involving selected schools, preferably missionary schools.

The selected schools can be given a certain status – as in international schools – but they do not charge exorbitant fees. Bahasa Malaysia should be given the same status as English by evaluating the number of teaching hours. We can even include Malay Literature as a compulsory subject in these schools.

Since I made this proposal two weeks ago, I have received many e-mails, mostly encouraging ones, although there were also a few nasty ones questioning my motives.

I wish to repeat here that I studied Malay Literature in Sixth Form and sat for the subject in the examination. I also signed up in the Malay Letters Department in my first year at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.

It is well known that UKM is the cradle of the Malay language and it is used as the medium of instruction. But the fact remains that the reference books are almost all in English. For many undergraduate students, even during the 1980s, it was a struggle, if not an agony, to get through the various courses. More so for those who came from schools where the medium of instruction was primarily in Bahasa or Chinese.

It can only get worse now, regardless of which institutes of higher learning, for any student with a poor command of English. Even if they do graduate, the marketplace, which places a premium on proficiency in English, will not be so kind to them.

Meanwhile, the elites, including our leaders, who are not prepared to make any decision because it would be politically suicidal, would just continue to send their children to elite boarding schools overseas and, later, to the best universities.

Armed with such prestigious education credentials and exposure, many would shine better than other Malaysians. But if we give everyone, regardless of our financial status, a good headstart in school, it should level the playing field for everyone. All our children should be given a chance to do well in schools, universities and working lives.

We can argue about how some countries have done well in their own native languages but the reality is that the world will not wait for anyone who does not see the importance of English as an international language.

Even at the World Cup, the referees still use English – not Mandarin, Japanese, Korean or German – in the field to tell the players how they should conduct themselves. It’s as simple as that.