In 2016, the passing rate for the English paper in Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) was 79.4%. This achievement motivated the education ministry to push the bar even higher, setting the passing rate at 81% by 2020.
However, the reality is that achieving the target would require a lot of effort by all parties concerned. This would include introducing new language teaching and learning methods and a revamped English syllabus for schools.
I find that the most important measure to take to realise such an ambition is to have more English teachers like those of yesteryear. This is in addition to parents providing wholehearted support for children in learning the language.
When I think of the quality of English teachers back then, my mind goes to the late Lee Siew San. She taught Malaysia’s distinguished cartoonist Mohd Nor Khalid, better known as Lat, and inspired him to create the iconic character of Mrs Hew in his Kampung Boy series.
Lat recognised that beneath Lee’s stern exterior, she had a heart of gold. She relentlessly taught Lat and his friends in the village how to read, write and speak in English, eventually helping them go far in life.
Just imagine if all of us had a “Mrs Hew” of our own during our schooling years; that one teacher who worked relentlessly to get English into our hearts, to help us master at the very least the basic command of the language.
These teachers usually employ old-school methods in teaching English; stern and often with a cane in their hands. However, their austere manner often belied a heart so gracious that no matter what you throw at them, they will always be there for you to not only help you master English but make you a better person.
I came to know of my own “Mrs Hew” back in 1991 when I started Form 1. My English teacher then was Mr Choy Kim Chai, who also happened to be the Kemahiran Hidup teacher.
Since young, I had been exposed to English by my father who spoke the language fluently. He used to buy us English books and comics, one of which was Lat’s Kampung Boy.
However, Mersing, the place where I grew up, was just a small fishing town. The Malays there hardly spoke English.
With only a few friends who could converse in English, I did not have much opportunity to improve my command of the language. Mr Choy himself pointed out that to improve my proficiency in the language, I had to practise by speaking and writing. However, the circumstances made it difficult for me to do so.
My eagerness to learn English caused me to be mocked, shunned at and laughed at by my friends back then who thought I wanted to be a Mat Salleh (Englishman). Mr Choy, however, kept encouraging me to speak the language and told me to ignore what others said.
I have fond memories of Mr Choy. He was the one who encouraged me to take part in English competitions, from spelling bees to essay-writing, most of which I did miserably due to my terrible grammar. However, Mr Choy kept telling me to push ahead and not give up on improving my English.
He once joked that if I wanted to gain more knowledge, I should learn English, but if I wanted to woo the girls, I should learn French instead.
I have admittedly been caned by Mr Choy in the quest to improve my proficiency of the language, but it was not something that I remember in bitterness.
I owe a lot to Mr Choy for the level of English that I have achieved until now. My improved command of the language has given me an edge in many areas.
While I was in university, where reference books tended to be in English, my ability to understand the language was a great advantage. Now, as a journalist, it enables me to conduct interviews in the language with great confidence.
Mrs Hew and Mr Choy are just two examples of how English teachers can change our lives by inspiring us to master the language. However, nowadays, how many parents lambast teachers over their children’s poor command of English?
I believe there are still many teachers like Mrs Hew and Mr Choy out there.
Today, my 12-year-old daughter has a decent command of English, thanks to her English teachers. The same teachers also instilled in her a passion for writing. I, too, have been encouraging her to speak and write in the language and am happy to note that she has taken to writing as I did.
The poor mastery of the English language among Malaysians is a serious matter. Melaka Chief Minister Idris Haron once expressed to me how disheartened he was by the level of English proficiency among state government officers, especially those at Grade 41 and above.
This situation is worrying for the state government, especially as Melaka is trying to establish itself as an international port. Idris said the state government has been doing everything it could to improve English proficiency among its staff.
Grade 41 officers are usually degree holders, so having degree holders who are unable to speak proper English raises questions about the level of English education in the country.
How are we to create a better English-speaking generation? For me, the answer is to have more teachers like Mrs Hew and Mr Choy in our schools, and parents who are sincerely keen to see their children improve their mastery of English.
(This commentary is the personal opinion of the writer, Fadzli Ramli, and does not necessarily reflect Bernama’s stand on the issue.)