17 August 2009

If it’s silent, it must be English Day

KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 17 – A colourful poster was e-mailed to some 400 staff of the Malaysian Administrative Modernisation and Management Planning Unit, or Mampu, recently.

Also posted in lifts and on notice boards, it read: “Monday is English Day. Just Speak!”

It is all part of an effort by some Malaysian government agencies to get their employees to use English more, so as to improve the fluency of civil servants in the language.

Mampu, a unit under the Prime Minister’s Department, held its first “English Monday” on July 27, and it created a buzz among employees.

Everyone was encouraged – in e-mail messages, prayer recitals, announcements and meetings – to speak English as much as possible that Monday.

“We want to boost the competency of all staff in speaking English,” a Mampu spokesman told The Straits Times.

The Retirement Fund Incorporated, or KWAP, which handles the pensions of some one million civil servants, is reaching for the same goal by taking a fun approach.

Investment and fund managers play a game of Scrabble or two to improve their vocabulary. Regular public speaking and book review sessions are held.

Employees also write investment papers, presentations, the minutes of meetings, and blog entries in English. It is quite a switch from Malay, which is used throughout the rest of the government.

“For an investment company, it is very important that your English is up to the mark, because all the investment reports and analyses are in English,” KWAP chief executive officer Azian Mohd Noh told The Straits Times. “There are no two ways about it, you have to master your English.”

It even invited the British Council to test the staff and conduct courses in articulation and grammar.

Such measures have paid off. According to Datuk Azian, some 70 per cent of KWAP employees speak English well. Another 20 per cent who understand the language shy away from speaking it.

“We still need to do more. English is important. If you work in the financial sector and deal with international counterparts, it will be a setback (if your English is not up to par),” she said.

These measures come in the midst of a long-running row over English standards and the use of English, instead of Malay, to teach Science and Maths in schools.

Over nearly four decades, Malay has become important for political reasons and is now a very sensitive issue.

English was the medium of instruction in schools until it was replaced with Malay in the 1970s.

The soft push for the use of English at the workplace has been prompted by criticism that the standard of English has declined alarmingly since.

As a result, Malaysia’s global competitiveness has suffered, with many graduates possessing inferior English language skills, critics say.

A controversial policy to use English to teach science and maths in schools was scrapped last month, after six years of protests by critics who say that students and teachers struggled with it.

Along with its decline in schools, English has also been neglected by most civil servants. With Malays making up 80 per cent of civil servants, many, apart from higher-ranking officers, prefer to use Malay daily. Thus there is some resistance to programmes that require them to speak English.

One Mampu worker joked that it would be a “Silent Monday”, referring to the fact that many would prefer not to speak to avoid speaking in English.

“My English is a little rusty,” she said. “Most people still speak in Malay, but I guess in a more formal setting like a meeting, they converse in English.”

There is no penalty if an employee switches to his mother tongue, so the move is just a gentle nudge to ease civil servants into grappling with the language, broken or otherwise.

An internal e-mail said: “Only a number of personnel are really into this programme. Do not worry so much about speaking grammatically correct. Practice makes perfect.”

A chief clerk with a district land office in Selangor said that her command of the English language deteriorated after she stopped using it when she joined the civil service 28 years ago.

“Even today’s graduates can’t converse in English very well,” she said.

The clerk said that the state government had tried implementing English Thursdays and other programmes but that they never got off the ground.

But some insist that such programmes can succeed.

A former civil servant of five years said: “Even if they speak broken English, it’s good for them to build confidence.”

She said she often ended up doing a lot of administrative work when travelling on overseas assignments, even when the support staff were meant to handle it, because of communication breakdowns.

“A lot of them can’t speak or write in English. That’s what happens when you keep speaking the same language,” she told The Straits Times.

But some analysts feel that the entire system needs a major overhaul, including using English in all official documents.

“You need at least one competent speaker in a government department for this sort of programme to work,” said analyst James Chin of Monash University Malaysia Campus. “If all of them are not competent, it will not work.”

He pointed out that the English policy that was scrapped from schools last month failed because too many teachers were not fluent in the language.

“If department heads are not fluent, subordinates will follow what they do,” said Chin. “Until they get real English speakers in the civil service and allow the use of English in all official documents, instead of just Malay, it will not work.” – The Straits Times

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