Does Malaysia even need to speak English anymore?

Does Malaysia even need to speak English anymore?
By Zan Azlee

THE official language in Malaysia is the local variety of Malay, formally known as Bahasa Malaysia (BM).

However, because of the multicultural society in the country, most Malaysians are bilingual. Everyone would speak BM and they would either also know how to speak a Chinese dialect or Tamil.

English is another language that many Malaysians speak. This is due to the fact that Malaysia used to be part of the British empire and this legacy means that English is quite an important language. Many people, especially urban folks, are able to speak English.

Of late however, the English language proficiency has been dropping. But still, Malaysians in general still think that mastering English is an advantage. Many people blame the education system and want English to be emphasised again.

I have to admit that I am one of them. I grew up speaking English at home and only really learned to speak BM when I entered primary one at seven years of age. Just like anyone else, I was conditioned to think that English is an important global language.

Now that I am a father of two girls (the eldest will be seven next year), I also seem to think that my children need to be able to learn and master good English skills. I’m lucky that the primary school my eldest will be going to next year practices the dual language programme.

But what if my thoughts, and those of so many Malaysians, are actually wrong? What if English is actually not a very important language to master? Maybe all of us have been conditioned to think that English is the global language. But what if it isn’t?

Let’s think about it. The only countries that use English as their main communication medium are the United States of America and Britain. Canada and Australia are English-speaking countries too, but on the global stage they are quite negligible.

English may still be the global language. But try to pay attention to the developments that are happening in the world. For one, Brexit is in process and soon Britain will be out of the European Union (EU) for good.

The EU is a big region and wields a lot of influence globally. Its main language of business is English but once Britain is out, it could feasibly change to any other major European language like French, German or even Russian.

Then there is the US. They might still be the world’s biggest economy but the margin is reducing and with the policies that are being crafted by the current administration, they will slowly be a closed economy soon.

So what’s the use of dealing with the US anymore in the future? I mean, even the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement isn’t happening. But even if it does go on, the US is no longer driving it. So really, what’s the point?

Then there is China, which is an economy that is growing strongly. They are aggressively pushing their influence in Asia. Many countries are already starting to see the importance of dealing with the Chinese. So that would make Mandarin an important language to master.

And if we want to expand our market, there is Latin America. Spanish is already the second-most spoken language on the planet. It’s even one of the major languages in the EU.

If any of the nationalistic Malays in Malaysia would have their way, they would want to have the Malay language as the global language. But let’s be real. Aside from the Nusantara (Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei), no one else cares about the language.

Conventional wisdom is that English is the global language and thus vital to learn for getting ahead. In the Asian century, this might not be so.

[This article was originally written for and published at]

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