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Poor English skills bad for economy

 | January 18, 2011

For a nation to move forward, its education system must produce people well-versed in the language of technology.

KUALA LUMPUR: A nation’s economy is only as good as its education system. So powerful is education that even the subtlest tweak has the propensity to either elevate or relegate a nation on the global stage.

Policy-makers therefore tread with great care when proposing policy amendments, acutely aware of the staggering impact their decisions would have on the country’s future.

Malaysia’s policy-makers, however, appeared to have lacked this attention to detail when deciding to reverse the teaching and learning of Science and Maths in English (PPSMI). And that move has placed Malaysia’s economy on shaky ground.

Cheong Kee Cheok, a Senior Research Fellow with the Faculty of Economics in Universiti Malaya, expressed grave concern over the system’s failure to produce the human resources needed to propel the country forward. And this, he warned, would severely cripple the flow of foreign direct investment (FDI) into Malaysia.

“One of the benefits a country reaps from FDI is the acquisition of technology,” he said. “But we can only acquire it if we speak the language of technology, which is English. Unfortunately, we are losing out to the Thais, Vietnamese and Chinese in our ability to communicate in English.”

“We have enjoyed FDI for 30 years but what technology have we acquired? To a certain extent, piracy is a key indicator of a country’s technological prowess. China is able to pirate almost anything whereas our piracy is limited to DVDs.”

The inability of a nation to acquire a certain strength leaves it no choice but to be dependent on other nations. This stagnancy will gradually reduce its competitiveness and eventually ease it out of the economic supply chain altogether.

“Our lack of technological expertise will dissuade technologically capable industries from investing in Malaysia,” Cheong said. “Right now we are still locked in a supply chain but our position will shift as other nations become better.”

Fear of backlash

Another professor, who declined to be named for fear of backlash from the Education Ministry, revealed two other flaws in the education system. Both are related to the Public Service Department scholarships.

The first flaw, she said, was a shortage of scholarships for physical sciences. The second – and more alarming – flaw was that these scholarships were being awarded to students who either didn’t have the aptitude or the interest to pursue a career in physical sciences.

“Malaysia produces less than 20% of physical science graduates,” she stated. “Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and China produce 30% to 40%, which increases their preponderance for acquiring technology.”

“And because most of our graduates weren’t interested in physical sciences in the first place, they carve careers in other industries upon graduation, which further dilutes our already limited resource pool.”

She blamed the political powers for handicapping the country by using its education system as a political tool, especially in the PPSMI reversal.

Pointing to Vietnam and China as examples of governments with foresight, she said that both countries had each launched an all-English government university.

“Their governments recognised English as an international language, not a colonial one,” she emphasised. “And they essentially told their people that if they didn’t like it, then they didn’t have to come. But that opportunity was there for those who did want it.”

“Malaysia has a myopic vision. We look inwardly to see how fast we have improved without taking into account how our competitors are faring. Our education system is not producing people who can think, which is fundamental to a country’s growth.”

But it is not just the science and technology industries that are suffering the butterfly effect of the PPSMI reversal. Even the food industry is fearing for its future in the global market.

English terms

At a recent public forum organised in support of PPSMI, an entrepreneur who only wanted to be known as Mazidah related the struggle she faced in her food-processing business.

“Our previous interns weren’t exposed to Science and Maths in English and had problems understanding industry terminologies,” she recalled.

“Their working papers were downright embarrassing. I recently found out that many have opted not to pursue a career in the food industry after all because they can’t cope with the English terms.”

Her recent batch of interns, however, underwent the PPSMI and she marvelled at the difference in their capabilities. According to her, they understand the industry requirements, have better communication skills and are on top of advancements in the industry as they are able to read books written in English.

“The food industry can be very difficult if you’re not exposed to scientific terms in English,” she stressed. “And we’ll drop very far behind if we don’t do something about our education system now.”

The other issue that greatly aggravates her is the Health Ministry’s decision to hold two separate workshops on food safety management systems – one in English and one in Bahasa Malaysia (BM).

“The ministry officials told us that the BM workshop is meant for the local market and the English version is for those who wish to export their products,” she said. “But this is ridiculous! Not only will it widen the existing class divide but it will also hamper our global competitiveness.”


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