Thursday, July 9, 2009

"Somnambulists walking backwards"

I wrote this piece in 2002 for Asia Inc magazine. The original title was Avoiding the Babel trap in Malaysia Inc. This piece was written at the cusp of a major policy shift by Dr M, who was Prime Minister of Malaysia at the time. The policy shift involved the introduction of the English language as a medium of instruction for Maths and Science.

It was posted earlier here. This is an appropriate time to dust it off and re-post.

It was late afternoon as I sat opposite my friend in his comfortable office in Tower 2 of the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur. I faced the glass window panels behind him and took in the incongruity of the few surviving old colonial bungalows resting in the shade of the tall office buildings that typified Malaysia’s corporate ambition. I listened pensively to his lament about the state of the English language in Malaysia. This 50-year old Malay Muslim CEO of a statutory body should know. “When I started my career in the 1970s, the secretaries still took dictation from their bosses. They were even able to correct the grammatical errors that crop up in dictation”, he said. “Nowadays, I’m better off whacking words into a PC and have the secretary confined to formatting and printing the finished product. I don’t need the stress of correcting letters”, he added.

My CEO friend’s predicament is not unique. Corporate law firms that make a living from putting together strings of words designed to capture the true intent of business partners are also under threat from poor English. “The wit who coined the silly expression ‘Manglish’ cannot have meant ‘Malaysian English’. It should mean ‘mangled English’”, says a senior corporate lawyer. “The worst part of this is that the work load does not decrease with new recruits. It increases because you just can’t rely on drafts from the juniors. More often than not I end up having to draft the whole thing from scratch again”, he moaned.

Increasingly, accounting and law firms create at least two, if not four, levels of vetting of documents. To be fair, this procedure is part of the risk management strategies deployed in the wake of the 1997 economic crisis and, more recently, the pall drawn by the Enron and Worldcom affairs. But poor English has also begat this truncated and annoying procedure. To project a good professional and corporate image with letters, documents and, even websites Manglish is a definite negative.

As Malaysia ups the ante on the logistics front with KLIA pitted against Changi Airport and Chek Lap Kok Airport, and the Tanjong Pelepas Port and West Port against the world-class harbours of Singapore, the real battle may well be on the language front where projects designed to enhance Malaysia’s international competitiveness such as the Multimedia Super Corridor in Kuala Lumpur is being stymied by a supply local knowledge workers weak in English. In contrast, the boon to knowledge workers in the Indian city of Bangalore to augment the Silicon Valley’s global IT reach is largely due to their English proficiency.

The experience of using English in Europe is instructive. Airbus Industrie, an amalgamation of several European countries in civil aviation, had recognized English as a vital medium some thirty years ago when it made English its official corporate language. At its base in Toulouse, south of Anglophobic France, one is struck by the anomalous appearance of a Belgian engineer exchanging technical ideas with a French electrician in English. Meetings at increasingly multi-national and transnational corporations such as Deutsche Bank and Credit Suisse are conducted in English. It is also not unusual to find a largely domestic establishment such as Deutsche Post World Net, the German national post service, using English as its working language. The main reason offered by the Europeans is simple; the United States is the leading global economic powerhouse in commerce, industry and finance. Since Americans use English, so should the Europeans, to maintain competitiveness.

Detractors in Asia usually point to Japan and South Korea as examples of societies that were able to attain economic modernization and corporate competitiveness without sacrificing their vernacular. They also point to the poor economic record of English-speaking countries in Africa that were former British colonies. But, that is simplistic rhetoric. The reality is that Japan began its economic modernization at the turn of the 20th century. They have had a 100-year head start over the rest of Asia. South Korea embraced industrialization in the 1950s with American capital being poured in ideological support for it’s being a frontline state against communism. They have a 50-year head start. In any event, to globalize homegrown brands such as Sony, Panasonic and, more recently, Samsung, the Japanese and South Korean corporations are recruiting graduates proficient in English. Global marketing may require a clear understanding of cultural differences. But amidst this diversity in global markets is the recognition of many countries that English is the dominant business language.

Malaysia rightly fears being put in the ignominous position of having had a strong English-speaking population that has significantly declined. And, with this trend, may go its regional competitive advantage. This concern is the most likely explanation for the recent government policy reversal to convert the teaching medium for the technical subjects of mathematics and science from Malay to English. Another reason may be the recognition that the Malay community is increasingly hamstrung by its restricted proficiency in the Malay language, with Arabic being their second language. In contrast, Chinese and Indian communities are generally multi-lingual. Furthermore, given the insularity of Muslim societies since the beginning of the decline of the Ottoman Empire at the turn of the twentieth century, proficiency in Malay and Arabic may not offer the Malay community the proper paradigm of values to acquire the technical and commercial skills necessary for international economic competitiveness.

Statistically, Malaysia’s superlative economic and international trade record stands proudly above other countries with dominant Muslim populations. But this is irrelevant to Malaysia since it has to compete for international investment within the Asean and East Asian region. “There is no point in being the jaguh kampung [village champion] when we have to compete for foreign direct investment against the likes of Singapore and Thailand, not to mention China”, says an investment analyst in a KL-based broking house.

The issue is not so much that the Malay language or other vernaculars are inadequate. Certainly Japan and South Korea has debunked that myth. The more pertinent concern may be that business cycles have shortened tremendously over the past two decades. The experience of the U.S. automakers in the 1980s illuminates this phenomenon very well. They were jarred awake to the strong competition offered by the Japanese automakers. While their studies revealed that productivity lag and fuel efficiency were important factors, an adjunct to that was the car model changes that the Japanese automakers made. The Japanese were implementing car model changes in two-year cycles when the U.S. norm at the time was four-year cycles.

Such a moral may not be lost on Malaysian policy makers who must have realized that if Malaysia is to offer an efficient manufacturing base for multi-national manufacturing industries English as the medium of communication is necessary. The shorter product life cycles require manufacturing concerns to re-tool and change production lines rapidly. This, in turn, requires retraining of the workforce. It is in this respect that English language proficiency may become a key factor in reducing wastage and turnaround time. In the critical path that manufacturers take to change products, longer training time due to language translation and, the real threat of miscommunication, may make or break finely tuned financial and production plans.

For Malaysia, the re-introduction of English as a teaching medium is not a whim as detractors have sought to portray this policy shift. It is, instead, seen as a key competitive factor in an era of globalization. In the 70s and the 80s, many old colonial buildings in Kuala Lumpur were demolished to make way for the tall corporate spires. In the new millennium, the surviving colonial buildings are being preserved as heritage sites. In a similar vein, the political will that relegated English in a fit of nationalistic hubris has been transformed into the corporate will of Malaysia Inc to restore English proficiency to avert the decline of competitive advantage. Given these realities, opponents of the policy on English instruction in Malaysian schools may, in the colourful words of Franklin Roosevelt, be “somnambulists walking backwards”.


hishamh said...

You know, many times I think I've gotten as far as I have not so much for my knowledge, skills or experience, but because I'm a half-decent writer and speaker of English.

I share many of the reservations (and observations) of the people that you've brought up in this post.

The most embarrassing public experience I ever had was watching a Deputy Finance Minister (I shall not name names) absolutely mangle a speech in English I drafted - in front of an international audience of business leaders and academics no less.

de minimis said...

I fear that it will become ever more recurrent in future. In another 10 years, unless there is Divine Intervention (I may be alluding to Dr M!), the entire Malaysian Government apparatus will be run by Malaysians poor English language proficiency. And, thus, Malaysia's ability to articulate its values and assert its influence internationally will be seriously diluted.

Senior Civil Servant friends of mine are lamenting how Malaysian officials avoid the "cocktail circuit" in international conferences nowadays due to their inferiority complex borne of their poor English proficiency. This is a serious matter.

hishamh said...

*cough* sounds like my CEO *cough*

de minimis said...