English Lessons for Free as Malaysia Tackles Drop in Proficiency

  • Companies say poorer language skills hurting competitiveness
  • Government delayed making English a compulsory pass subject

Malaysian boys play football near a giant national flag at a school near Kuala Lumpur.

Photographer: Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images

Malaysia is encouraging schools to teach more classes in English and will offer free lessons to the masses as manufacturers and company chiefs say a deteriorating command of the language is hurting the country’s competitiveness.

Over 90 percent of the 190,000 respondents in an online poll this month said there should be an option to take more subjects in the language, Idris Jala, head of the government’s Performance Management and Delivery Unit, said in an interview on Monday. Prime Minister Najib Razak introduced a dual-language program during his budget speech last week, and the New Straits Times said Thursday the government will organize English communication lessons at no charge from next year.

The poll highlights the challenges for Malaysia even as the World Bank’s annual Doing Business report showed the country is making progress on becoming more investor-friendly, having made it easier and less costly for companies to pay taxes.

“Malaysia has lost its competitiveness due to our standards in English going down,” AirAsia Bhd. co-founder Tony Fernandes wrote on Twitter this month. It’s a critical time "to reverse decades of decline in English,” he said. “Our children have suffered.”

The government has flip-flopped on policies for English for over a decade. A delay in August on making it a compulsory pass subject in a major exam for high-school students renewed debate about the education system. It drew criticism from manufacturers who say the move would weaken efforts to make Malaysian graduates more employable amid a goal of becoming a high-income nation by 2020.

‘More Prevalent’

“As it moves toward this goal it’s inevitable that the use of English, be it in education or business, will be more prevalent," said Weiwen Ng, a Singapore-based economist at Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Ltd. Measures to boost the use of the language are "a long-awaited step in the right direction.”

The country shifted to the Malay language known as Bahasa Melayu from English as the primary language used by teachers in a bid to promote integration between the ethnic Malay majority and ethnic Chinese. The government revived maths and science lessons in English in 2003, only to reverse that in 2012.

In 2013, an education blueprint said it would be compulsory to pass English for fifth-year high-school students taking a national exam starting 2016. That too changed in August.

More Time

The Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers, which represents more than 2,600 companies, said it was disappointed with the education ministry’s decision to postpone making English a must-pass subject. “The employability and quality of Malaysia’s human capital is at stake; and also the country’s efforts to achieve developed nation status,” it said.

Jala defended the government’s move, saying it would give educators and students more time to prepare. He cited a competency assessment several years ago where 70 percent of English teachers failed the Cambridge Placement Test.

Entrenched Language

"The fundamental problem is we have been entrenched for such a long time on Bahasa," Jala said. “When you have the teachers not making the grade, surely you have fundamental problems.”

In the dual-language program, 300 primary and secondary schools will part of a pilot plan that will teach subjects including science, mathematics and information technology in both English and Malay, the education ministry said in a statement Wednesday. Other schools that want to implement the program must meet the criteria of sufficient resources, readiness of teachers and support from parents, it said.

Najib has announced plans to spend more than 135 million ringgit ($32 million) in next year’s budget to raise the proficiency in English, as well as Malay. The government is maintaining the budget allocation for the education ministry even as a separate one overseeing tertiary institutes faces a cut in proposed spending.

Still, the quality of Malaysian education hasn’t kept pace with most peers in East Asia, the World Bank said in a 2013 report, highlighting a declining student performance in maths, science and deteriorating English proficiency. Critics say the focus of Malaysia’s spending may have been misplaced.

“It’s all about building schools but not about changing the curriculum,” Bridget Welsh, a senior research associate at National Taiwan University’s Center for East Asia Democratic Studies, said about Najib’s spending plan next year.

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