Sunday, August 9, 2009

On the Importance of English - A Tale of Two Countries (2nd of a series)

A recent story in the New York Times caught my eye.

In researching a future Thinking Nationalist piece on Asia and Competitiveness, one of the key factors I've noticed is that successful Asian competitors for world markets not only master science and math but also most importantly, English.

India, of course, is famous for having three hundred million plus fluent English speakers. That's why IT and back-office jobs are outsourced there. China, wanting to move up the value chain in manufacturing, is placing renewed emphasis on English. So are Taiwan and the Philippines.

South Korea is even recruiting Korean-ethnic US College graduates to come home to teach English - at higher salaries than they would receive for teaching English in America.

In Japan, The English portion of the Japanese University Entrance Examination
is so arduous and demanding most American students could not pass it.

The message? If you want to lead in the global economy - learn English.

Which is why I could not believe what I was reading. In a move of incredible
backwardness, Malaysia has decreed that, beginning in 2012,
science and math in Malaysian high schools must be taught in Bahasa Malay -
the predominant dialect of the two most populous provinces of Malaysia.

As a sop to its Chinese and Tamil ethnic minorities, Malaysia will
reverse policy and allow all subjects in separate Chinese and Tamil
public schools to be taught in Mandarin or Tamil.

English will, of course, remain on the curriculum; but as an optional
foreign language, and it won't be taught everywhere, so that additional
resources can be devoted to Malay-language instruction
(this according to the Straits Times).

In my opinion - wrong, wrong, wrong. And I'm not the only one saying so.
The Malaysian International Chamber of Commerce is aghast.
So are the universities. Most importantly, so are parents - with the very real
concern that their Malay-educated children won't be able to compete for jobs or
higher education at home or overseas.

But the Malaysian government is hanging firm on this - even though the global recession has hit Malaysia hard. The economy is down almost 20%,with exports - principally apparel, raw materials and low-level electronics - off almost 30%.

And what about public opinion? Last week, there were riots in Kuala Lumpur
over economic conditions. Ethnic tensions and religious conflicts are increasing.
But, the Malay language issue is, regrettably, a non-starter except among the business and professional classes.

To see how differently another nation with the same ethnic mix is handling the
issue, let's take a quick trip down the Malay peninsula and across the Straits of
Johore to that unique island city-state - Singapore.

Now I'll admit that I am an admirer of the Singaporean nation. They have many
things going for them. Singapore is 21st-century modern. It's so clean it's as
if you picked up Switzerland and put it in the middle of Southeast Asia.
It has a thriving middle class and a larger wealthy class than you would
expect in a nation of four and a half million.

The schools and universities are outstanding - so good, in fact, that many
foreign expatriates elsewhere in Asia send their kids to school there.
And the government is a world leader in measures of performance such as
transparency, honesty and accountability. Public corruption is rare -
and harshly punished when detected.

To be sure, the legal system is draconian even by Asian standards.
Even small transgressions can mean jail time and public flogging.
But the judiciary is independent and professional, and adverse decisions
can be appealed all the way to the Privy Council and Law Lords - in England.

Why? Because according to Singapore's leaders, English Law and the
English Language were the keys to prosperity. Of the four official languages
(English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil), English is the mandatory
language of instruction. A second language is also mandatory
(unsurprisingly, Mandarin is the most popular choice), and fluency
in the other two is strongly encouraged.

In Singapore, all public business is conducted in English. The Language of
Parliament and the Judiciary - English. Business - English, with Mandarin
a strong second.

And the economy? World-class. Singapore is the headquarters for almost
all multinational corporations operating in Southeast Asia. Singapore Airlines
is a global player in international business travel. Its economy is diverse and
high value-added, with Technology, Financial Services, Pharmaceuticals,
Biotechnology, and Travel and Tourism leading the way.

While Singapore was affected by the recession, its economy only
slipped by 6.5% through June, and began to rebound shortly thereafter.
By December, analysts expect only a modest 2% decline from 2008,
owing largely to lagging travel and tourism.

By all accounts, a marvelous performance. And it's largely due to the
influence of a language that isn't native to any of Singapore's ethnic groups.

That Language? English.

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