Peninsular youth losers in Sarawak’s English language move, say ex-civil servants

Malaysians in the peninsula should worry about their future employability and competitiveness following Sarawak’s decision to make English the state’s second official language, say parents and former top civil servants. In lauding the state for its “bold, brave” move, they said, however, this would mean that Peninsular Malaysians would be left behind because of their lack of proficiency in the language. “Peninsular Malaysians should be very worried about this because in the end, once we have greater immersion of English in Sarawak, they are going to be more highly employed than West Malaysians, overnight,” Parent Action Group for Education (PAGE) chairman Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim told The Malaysian Insider. “And here we are in the peninsula, still arguing about this and they (critics) just don’t realise we cannot survive by being monolingual.” Former senior civil servant Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam echoed this concern, saying that not only Sarawakians but those who chose to improve their English proficiency would have a head start with a comparative and competitive edge over their peers who do not see the importance of the language. “Yes, we should be concerned that we will be left out. Those who want to focus only on Bahasa Malaysia will only be ‘jaguh kampung’ and like frogs in the well. But that is their choice and they will be misled,” the Asli Centre of Public Policy Studies chairman said. “The Sarawak chief minister’s move is beautiful, bold and beneficial.” Sarawak Chief Minister Tan Sri Adenan Satem recently announced his decision to make English the state’s second language and the preferred official language of the state administration. This is one of several special autonomy rights granted to Sarawak during the formation of Malaysia. The special clauses were written into Sarawak’s 18-point agreement and were also inserted into the Federal Constitution to protect its interests in language, land, civil service, local government and immigration, among others. Malay rights group Perkasa reportedly called Adenan’s decision an “insult to the Federal Constitution”, while Putrajaya’s adviser on social and cultural affairs, former minister Tan Sri Rais Yatim, said it would sow discord among ethnic groups. Adenan has brushed off this argument, saying his decision did not involve discarding Bahasa Malaysia as the national language. “We are having both. We can have both,” he said. He said Malay interest groups and individuals in the peninsula who have criticised him for giving prominence to English should be realistic and practical as Malaysians did not live in isolation. “We are not living on the moon,” Adenan said. Former diplomat and G25 spokesman Datuk Noor Farida Ariffin said Sarawak’s decision was pragmatic, and lauded the state for being able to separate the importance of the language from politics. “As Tan Sri Adenan Satem has explained, we cannot ignore the fact that English is the language of commerce and international communications. It is also the language of the Internet. “Our policymakers who ignore the above realities are consigning our Malaysian youth to a future of ignorance with limited access to knowledge and information which, unfortunately, are not available in Bahasa Malaysia,” said the spokesperson for the group of prominent Malays, or G25. Noor Farida said the present government policy in marginalising English has had an adverse effect on the country, especially among the youth. “Giving prominence to English does not mean marginalising Bahasa Malaysia. People are capable of mastering two or three languages at the same time. This is very common in European countries.” She said graduates have become unemployable because of their lack of proficiency in the English language, adding that even certain government-linked companies had policies about not hiring those who could not speak the language although this was not made public. “Lack of proficiency in English has also put our country at a disadvantage in international conferences and international negotiations where Malaysia’s delegates are unable to articulate our positions and our concerns at these international forums.” Ramon, who was the deputy head of the economic division in the Treasury during the tenure of former prime minister Tun Abdul Razak, said the country did so well back then as English was used extensively by Malaysians. “These days, the use of English in government departments is dismal. Government officials cannot participate in international conferences effectively because most are handicapped. “Luckily, we still have some good English-educated and well-spoken English graduates. That generation is fading away rapidly and we will lose out,” he said, urging the government to rethink its policies on the teaching of the English language. Noor Azimah added that even countries which have traditionally shied away from English, such as Korea and Japan, have now realised its importance and were rapidly learning up the language to stay competitive globally. “We don’t want to compare ourselves with Vietnam and Cambodia but the truth is, they are all learning English, too. We just have to face this reality.” – November 28, 2015.