Urgent need for an effective “Learn English” national campaign  to validate the worldwide MIDA advertisements to woo foreign investors with the claim that  “the vast majority” of Malaysians speak English


at the 44th birthday dinner for Lim Guan Eng
by Lim Kit Siang

(Malacca, Wednesday): Last Saturday, I came across two interesting magazine items during the MAS flight from Kuala Lumpur to  Sibu to attend  the Sarawak State Convention the next day. 

The first was the  magazine ASIA TOMORROW November 2004 issue which carried a two-page advertisement by Malaysian Industrial Development Authority (MIDA), with the blurb “Malaysia Your PROFIT centre in Asia”, which among other things said:


“Reflecting the multi-racial population, Malaysians speak a variety of languages including Malay, Chinese and Indian, with  the vast majority also speaking English which is widely used in business in Malaysia.”


If English is spoken by “the vast majority” of Malaysians, we are talking about at least 85 to 90 per cent of the Malaysian population – which is clearly untrue.


The second item is the column by eminent British historian and author, Paul Johnson  in FORBES  November 29, 2004 entitled “Must the Whole World Speak English?”,  on  the convulsion in the French education world caused by a report on the future of its school system. 


This is because a commission on the future of French schools  headed by education expert Claude Thelot,  president of France’s Higher Council of School Assessment,  has recommended that the teaching of English be mandatory in all French schools and that it be accorded the same importance as the French language and mathematics. 


The Thelot Commission takes the position that  English is now “the language of international communication” and that the French young people must be taught to speak and write it fluently. 


Paul Johnson  also pointed out that the Germans, the principal allies of the French in the European Union, have allowed English to replace French as their country’s second language in schools and in business, with some German firms with big export interests already holding board meetings in English.  That is also an increasing practice in Sweden and the Netherlands. 


The eminent historian ended his column with a highly controversial forecast:


“India will soon be the world’s most populous country. By 2050 India, with a population of 1.6 billion, will have overtaken China (1.4 billion).  If India becomes a predominantly English-speaking country, as I expect will happen, China will have to follow suit or risk relegation.”


It is not my intention to defend or berate Paul Johnson for his controversial forecast, but to underline the importance and urgency for a nation-wide “Learn English” programme to substantiate  the veracity of the  MIDA advertisement to attract international investors to Malaysia so that its claim that English is spoken by “vast majority” of Malaysians could not be accused of being a false representation.

In May this year, the  Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi made a public call to  Malaysians to master English as proficiency in the language is vital for success in a globalised world and that as a country, Malaysia would stand a better chance of succeeding and safeguarding its interests if its people excelled in the language.

The call to Malaysians to master the English language to enhance Malaysia’s international competitiveness has been made for the past five years, but without any dramatic effect – as evident from the army of unemployed and unemployable graduates, one major cause being their illiteracy in the English language.

What is needed is a quantum leap in the “learn English” campaign to validate the claim in  the MIDA’s worldwide advertisements to woo foreign investors that “the vast majority” of Malaysians speak English.

The government should however be level-headed, rational and not go overboard in the  campaign to promote the learning and  mastery of the English language among Malaysians. 

It should be prepared for instance to review the “political formula of 2:4:3” to teach mathematics and science from Std. One in national, Chinese and Tamil  primary schools, not because of opposition to the teaching of English but because it is educationally unsound at such an early stage. For Chinese primary schools for instance, a proper educational formula must give equal regard to the triple objectives to preserve mother-tongue education, raise English proficiency and  maintain/uplift their  traditional  high standards in mathematics and science.


* Lim Kit Siang, Parliamentary Opposition Leader, MP for Ipoh Timur & DAP Central Policy and Strategic Planning Commission Chairman