A handicap we must overcome

By Wong Chun Wai, The Star

There’s no two ways about it – universities have to give importance to English if they want to produce employable graduates.

IT’S preposterous, really. Most Malaysians must be horrified upon reading that some Universiti Malaya students are angry with the Higher Education Ministry’s call for universities to give importance to English to enhance their graduates’ employment prospects.

The call is timely and certainly appropriate but students at the Academy of Malay Studies (AMS) are regarding it as a move to sideline Bahasa Malaysia. The students have submitted a memorandum to the university’s vice-chancellor, Prof Datuk Dr Ghauth Jasmon, demanding an apology.

The controversy began when Dr Ghauth told a gathering of 2,000 students that the ministry wanted all public universities to improve their students’ skills in English to increase their graduate employability rate.

He delivered the message because the AMS students had the lowest graduate employability rate in comparison to all other faculties six months after they completed their studies.

He made the call based on statistics provided by the ministry out of concern. But rather than accept the fact, the students have instead demanded that Dr Ghauth state his stand on the national language. Some individuals have even left nasty comments on YouTube, calling him biadap (recalcitrant) and khianat (traitor) for delivering the message.

But the good professor is sticking to his guns: he is prepared to clarify the matter with the unhappy students but he will not apologise to them.

Good for him. The demand is unreasonable. In fact, the students should be appreciative of the call by the ministry as it tells them what most employers already know – that the standard of English among many of our graduates is so poor it has become an alarming situation.

Many employers have adopted a pessimistic approach, accepting the situation as beyond repair because many school leavers and graduates are unable to construct a decent sentence in English. Many have no grounding in English grammar and are unable to even tell the difference between present and past tenses.

It is not just school leavers and graduates who are in this situation, as poor command of English can also be detected among university lecturers and teachers through their conversations and written work.

In fact, one deputy minister’s English is so bad, his writing has been circulated on the Internet as an example to show how bad the situation is.

He purportedly wrote a review of a play in English and posted it on his blog. With cyberspace being the open domain that it is, his weakness, unfortunately, was widely exposed. The horrifying part is that his portfolio is related to education and it does not help that he is also known for his anti-English stand.

The pattern seems to be that those who are the most vocal against the use of English are generally weak in this language. In their attempts to cover their weakness, they try to project themselves as nationalists and defenders of the sacredness of the national language. Denial syndrome, one may say.

There are, of course, those who speak impeccable English and would gladly trade our iconic teh tarik for English afternoon tea and scones but they project themselves in a similar fashion in the most hypocritical way for political expediency.

Most of us are sure that the problem is not confined to graduates of AMS alone. I dare say the problem of poor command of English has affected all faculties in all public universities. And, let’s be frank, it’s in private universities too.

It would also be most unfair to say that the poor standard of English is confined to Malay students. It is a problem among Chinese and Indians too because of our education policy, which has clearly abandoned English.

Young Chinese seem to have become almost monolingual. Walk into a shopping mall and, if you are Chinese, you will be approached by salesmen speaking in Mandarin or Cantonese. When you reply in English, they will struggle to converse with you.

Dr Ghauth has taken the right approach. He could have gained popularity by playing the racial card and told the AMS students how great they are and that they would be future leaders of the country. But he would be leading them down a false path.

When they remain jobless, like the thousands who already are, they will conveniently blame the government. They will also blame the private sector, claiming that they are showing preference for certain sectors of applicants. They will hope to be employed by the public sector which is increasingly bloated.

Many of our graduates have never been motivated to become entrepreneurs. Rather, the aspiration is to become civil servants. This is one serious area of concern if we wish to compete effectively with other countries. But this is another story.

In China, they are putting emphasis on the teaching of English. The young are being taught to pronounce English words correctly, whether the American or English way.

In India, English is still given priority even as nationalists there are trying to push Hindi.

Malaysians with a poor command of English are entering universities. There they find that the academic books are in English but the medium of teaching is in Bahasa Malaysia.

Many struggle to understand what they read and to help themselves, some turn to similar books in Bahasa Indonesia, which they again struggle to comprehend. Most of the contents in the Internet are in English and are therefore of no help to these students.

In cases where students are required to take an English course because their command of the language is so pathetic, these students try to memorise essays, hoping that the same topics would be in their tests. That’s how low we have sunk in our standard of English.

Unfortunately, most of our politicians are not brave enough to grab the bull by the horns to tackle the problem. Many of them, of course, would have sent their children to schools overseas to ensure they have a strong grounding in English.