By YS Chan
When giving a talk recently, Royal Selangor International Sdn Bhd Chairman Tan Sri Yong Poh Kon pointed out that proficiency in English was vital if Malaysia was to enjoy a competitive edge over others.
I certainly agree with him that a poor command of English is worrying and one of the reasons behind the current unemployment of fresh graduates.
I have conducted job interviews and training for thousands of graduates since 1983, and noticed that English was on the decline in the mid-1990s.
Although character and attitude are among the important prerequisites to securing a job, it is obvious that those who cannot communicate or express themselves well in English often face rejection.
Proficiency in English is a normal requirement in the private sector, particularly in the tourism industry.
In 1973, I took on the job of a tourist guide after listening to the commentaries of an experienced colleague in a bus on a sightseeing tour around Kuala Lumpur.
I remember earning a 20 sen shopping commission from my first tour group from a shop operated by Selangor Pewter at Jalan Gombak near the Jalan Pahang junction.
Later, the retail outlet was moved to a much bigger but old wooden building on stilts at Jalan Setapak, which was also along the tour route leading to Batu Caves.
Towards the end of 1973, I attended a tourist guide training course held at Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. One of the speakers was none other than Yong Poh Kon.
His talk that day touched on the classy and elegant Playboy Club, which operated in respectable establishments.
Although I barely passed my English paper in my Malaysian Certificate of Education exam, I could speak English well.
My level of general knowledge was also way above average as most students in upper secondary school subscribed to Time and Life magazines at giveaway rates.
Together with Geography and History as my favourite subjects, I had a good idea about the countries of foreign tourists and was able to engage in meaningful conversations with them.
Tourist guides then were skilled at cross-cultural communication but today, many young Malaysians have grown up in silos, with hardly any interest or clue about other communities.
Instead of using our diversity as our strength, bigotry has turned it into a weakness. Instead of embracing English to reach out to the world, we have let it slip and are happy to be local champions.
On the other hand, Jack Ma knew the importance of English and had the perseverance to seek out Western tourists to practise the language, sometimes giving free tours.
He did this for nine years and in the process learned the views of foreigners, that were quite different from that of his countrymen and which he found refreshing.
But such quests are alien to those who prefer to adopt a supremacist view. If feelings of superiority are prevalent, there will be no need to learn from others or strive to be better. It will also become much easier to pull others down.
YS Chan is an FMT reader.
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