Thursday, September 25, 2008


As a retired English teacher of the 1960’s and 1970’s I am much dismayed by the systematic deterioration of English language proficiency in Malaysia. It began some time ago probably around the early 1980’s. We need not point fingers at this stage but embark with a high degree of emergency to rectify the situation. Let’s face it. The English language has an umbilical connection with progress in just about any field today.

Roman scholars learnt and improved upon Greek thoughts and did so through a knowledge of the Greek language undoubtedly. Later on , Europeans rushed to learn Latin to fathom the knowledge of the Romans. When the Arabs were carrying the torch of learning, scholars flocked to Baghdad, Cairo and Spain to learn from the Arab masters in, yes, Arabic.

All such efforts in no way affected their love and pride of their own mother tongue or nationality in their quest for mastery of a “foreign” language. With the rise of European knowledge and power since the Renaissance, the torch of learning passed on from the Arabs to the Europeans. Today USA is a leader in almost all fields in the arts and sciences together with Europe of which they are but an extension today. Japan learnt from USA and built up its technology and even managed to engage and win battles in WW II using the same technology learnt. These days Japan competes at par with Western powers in economics.
Jawaharlal Nehru, the great Indian nationalist patriot himself admitted that indeed “English is the window to the world”. Thus English is not disregarded in India and in this way Indian technocrats are highly respected worlwide.

If we are really keen to outshine our neighbors we must bring back English to its former status in Malaysia. No one could beat us in English at one time. Even serving British soldiers were amazed with our mastery of the English language. Just ask some of my ex-students who are now retiring or nearing retirement. I often meet many of them from Generals to simple clerks and even manual laborers. They all amaze me with their English language competence. Regretfully, I cannot say the same for our present generation though even if they are degree holders. Of course it is not their fault. They are merely victims of politicians, nationalists and policy makers.
So let’s get on with it instead of spending much time and money arguing about whether we should teach this or that subject in English or switch policies again and again. It has to be a holistic process to educate society to be proficient in English. There are simply no two ways to go about it.
By: Johami Abdullah @ Joe Chelliah

By Johami Abdullah