G25 notes from a Berita Harian report dated May 24, 2022 that in addressing a symposium on promoting the use of the Malay language (BM) at Asean and international meetings, chief secretary to the government Zuki Ali called on the public service department (PSD) to consider corrective and punitive measures to enforce the use of BM in the civil service and other government-related agencies, including government-linked companies (GLCs).
He said he would like to see full compliance with the government policy as it was announced by Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob that the national language be used not only within the country but also internationally.
While G25 supports the role and importance of BM in creating a united nation among the various races that form the country, there must also be recognition of the importance of English as the universal language of the international community in many aspects of daily life.
Malaysia will have a lot to lose if there are punitive measures on those who use English in their official work in government departments because there are many areas in which civil servants may have to communicate and express themselves in English to get a common understanding of the problems and issues they face.
For example, in discussing about the Covid-19 virus, our health ministry officers can analyse a health crisis better by using English because that is the language of the World Health Organization (WHO).
Similarly, in analysing the economic issues facing the country, our officers in the central planning agencies can understand each other better if they use English because that’s the language of the IMF, World Bank, and the economic research institutes, including those in Malaysia.
If punitive action is strictly implemented in the civil service, how will the officers do their work? The fear factor will lead to complications in conducting meetings and writing policy papers regarding the problems facing the country.
Also, participation in conferences will be affected, especially international conferences.
Organisers and sponsors alike will also lose financially. But it is the potential loss of knowledge and wisdom gained from these conferences which will hit us the hardest.
Such a draconian approach toward punishing the use of English in the public sector will also look hypocritical because the children of the rich and powerful are mostly products of international schools and universities.
English produces students who will enter highly sought-after universities in Britain, the United States, Australia and New Zealand.
This includes Master’s programmes in non-English speaking countries such as Germany, France and Japan, which are specifically conducted in English.
Furthermore, our own universities, where courses are conducted in English, have in the past attracted a large number of foreign students and thus revenue. The medium of teaching at Mara educational institutions, UiTM and residential colleges, and at the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) is also English.
Malaysia should consider itself fortunate that due to its colonial past, it has inherited the wide use of English among the population. This has been one of the main strengths of Malaysia to foreign investors.
Malaysians are becoming increasingly exposed to spoken English due to several factors, such as rapid urbanisation, the spread of digital communication, and the obsession of Malaysians with local and foreign TV sports and entertainment channels.
Malaysian youths often use English expressions that the oldies in G25 can’t understand as they have never heard of them in their younger days. It’s common in many homes for children nowadays to speak in English with their parents and grandparents.
Should punitive and corrective measures on the excessive use of English be implemented, it will raise the question of whether the government is trying to reverse the modern trend in Malaysian society in the interest of upholding the stature of BM as the national language.
We believe that such punitive actions will be seen as a regressive step and will put Malaysia in a bad light in the eyes of foreigners and international investors.
In addition to English proficiency, Malaysia must also equip itself with digital literacy if we are going to survive in the next century. It must again be noted that the underlying language in the application of technology in the workplace, at institutions of higher learning, and in research is English. It is the world’s most common language used for online communication.
BM will remain as the national language and English must continue as a strong second language so that the country progresses with an expanding economy. With the close linkages to the English-speaking world, we will become more progressive to take on whatever new challenges that our future generations may face.
G25 is a group of former senior civil servants.
The views expressed are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.