THE troubling issue of the standard and quality of English in Malaysia, there is no doubt it does matter.

The Unesco Higher Education Report (Malaysia), April 22 2022, revealed there are 20 public universities, with an enrolment of 590,254 while 54 private universities, 10 international branch campuses, 39 university colleges and 331 colleges, known collectively as PHEIs or private higher education institutions show an enrolment of 517, 580.

Together this represents over 1.1 million students, who eventually enter the employment market to be part of the workforce, with many also applying for international jobs.

The burning question for most employers is the engagement ability of graduates, with English being an important benchmark for communication for both local and international business.

What comes to mind is the support system being given to both secondary schools and universities to enable these students to grasp enough of the English language to display command of the language when they need it, whether socially or for employment.

The Dual Language Programme (DLP), meant to give students in selected schools the option to study the subjects of Mathematics and Science in English remains a bone of contention with The Parent Action Group for Education (Page) and the Ministry of Education (MOE).

Page chairman Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim has urged the government in January 2024 to respect parent’s choice and to be fair and equitable to those who opt for DLP classes for their children.

“Give parents the dignity and allow them to decide on the education they desire for their children,” said Nor Azimah.

The matter still remains unresolved.

The chairman of PIBG or Parents Teacher Association (PTA) at a national secondary school, who also works as a full time lecturer at an Australian branch university in Malaysia, Mohd Zaki Samsudin said:

“Bahasa Malaysia needs to be maintained to honour its status as national language but English can be given more emphasis from Form 3 onwards so the command over the language reaches its peak at Form 5 level. That way the students when they enter public universities, they excel in both Bahasa Malaysia and English,” said Zaki, whose two elder children successfully transitioned to Multimedia University (MMU), upon completion of their Sijil Tinggi Malaysia (SPM).

MMU, wholly owned by Telekom Malaysia produces graduates schooled in the latest developments of IT and Multimedia and the medium of instruction remains completely English.

Professor Dr Surinderpaul Kaur, Dean of the Faculty of Languages and Linguistics, Universiti Malaya said at Universiti Malaya, whether the subject is taught in English or Bahasa Malaysia depends upon the faculty and programme.

“Most programmes are predominantly taught in English, with some subjects taught in a mix of Bahasa Malaysia and English.

The purpose of using a mix in teaching is to accommodate the national language, while also preparing students for global academic and professional environments where English proficiency is crucial.

In some faculties, students are offered a choice of doing the course in English or in Malay as the course is offered in both languages.

The calibre of students entering UM is generally high, with diverse academic backgrounds and capabilities. Most students can adapt to English-medium subjects as long as they are given adequate support and resources.

For the good of the nation, ensuring a balanced approach, where students are proficient in both English and BM is crucial. This includes maintaining the role and importance of BM as the national language, while enhancing English proficiency to compete globally and promote workforce opportunities.

To ensure a high level of proficiency in both languages, we need to work together from primary education right up to higher education,” she said.

Professor Datuk Dr Paul Chan, co-founder and Chancellor of Help University, a private university who spent 22 years teaching economics at Universiti Malaya and 38 years building up Help University as a social business enterprise said:

“If you have a good command of English, you have access to a vast amount of literature. The mastery of English allows a student to have proficiency, literacy and fluency, thus when completing a degree or higher levels they have the ability to make judgements and also analysis,” said Chan, who felt those who lack the command of the language deny themselves the opportunity of personal development.

“At university level, the quality of those students entering at degree level, has dropped and more needs to be done to support their level of English at secondary level, so they are prepared and need less remedial classes.”

Professor Dr Jayati Roy, currently retired, spent 40 years in the field of English, whether writing, teaching and even supervising PhD students. She began her journey at Universiti Teknoloji MARA (UiTM), where the medium of instruction is English, as Lecturer at Pusat Bahasa, a centre set up with the intention of servicing all faculties, across UiTM, for English.

In a sense students here are prepared for employment at corporate level and for further education.

“My journey with UiTM in the area of teaching English, took note of the fact that for these students, who came both from rural and urban backgrounds, they had spent the last twelve or thirteen years schooling in Bahasa Malaysia,” said Jayati.

Looking at the various challenges faced by students, lecturers and those in higher education, in the area of English, which has evolved to be a global language of communication, it cannot be denied that more needs to be done to support students at primary and secondary school level.

The position today shows an uneven playing field, with some universities adopting English as the main medium of instruction, others a mixture of Bahasa Malaysia and English and others totally in Bahasa Malaysia, which does not augur well for Malaysia to reach the global standards required to attract international investment and trade.

“Proficiency is stronger than literacy as it requires us to have a mastery over English, to be able to make judgments, conclusions and therefore time and effort is needed to encourage reading, writing and building a strong vocabulary,” Chan said.

“With a strong vocabulary, one can then have access to a vast amount of literature, essential for critical thinking.”