Malaysians taught in local tongue lose on English

By Stephanie Phang (From of December 06, 2006)

Dec. 6 (Bloomberg) -- Sevan Doraisamy earned a business management degree from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia in 1999. With limited English skills, he ended up working in a factory -- in Singapore.
"I couldn't find any job in Malaysia", said Doraisamy, 32, whose Singapore stint and subsequent jobs taught him some English, and who now works at the Center for Independent Journalism in Kuala Lumpur. "All this Malay-orientated when you go to university, but then when immediately switch to work environment, everything is in English. I speak like the sentence never end."
Malaysia shifted to the Malay tongue, Bahasa Melayu, from English as the language of teaching in 1970. Now, universities are producing graduates who don't make the grade in the workforce. In a country with 237,000 job vacancies, about 45,000 college grads are unemployed, mainly because of poor English, according to the government. Many of those who have found work aren't using their degree skills.
"The cause of the under-employment? I'll give you one reason for it: English," said Rafiah Salim, vice chancellor at Universiti Malaya, the country's oldest university. "The only industry that's really using Bahasa is the government service."
The glut of graduates was confirmed in 2005, when the government's Economic Planning Unit asked the unemployed to register for a survey to gauge who was out of work and why. Nearly 60,000 jobless grads -- equivalent to a quarter of those who finished their higher education this year -- signed up. About 15,000 since have found work.
The finding prompted Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to budget a 53 percent increase in spending on education and training to $2.2 billion next year.
Malaysia risks losing more overseas investment to India and China if graduates don't have the right skills, said Gan Kim Khoon, head of research at AmSecurities Holdings Sdn. in Kuala Lumpur. Foreign direct investment fell 14 percent in 2005 to $4 billion, the only decline among the 10 Association of South East Asian Nations members.
Apart from learning little English, students are choosing subjects not suited to business employment, such as arts, Islamic studies and administration, said Gan, 43. Almost 30,000, or 60 percent, of first-time graduates from public colleges in 2003 took arts degrees.
"Those are not very useful," he said. "There is no thought going into whether these are the kinds of graduates that the country needs."
The government spent 8 percent of the $100 billion gross domestic product on education in 2002, more than neighbors Singapore or Thailand, according to the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute, a Kuala Lumpur-based research group.
Of the 60,000 jobless grads surveyed in 2005, 71 percent were female and 80 percent were educated with government loans, the New Straits Times newspaper reported.
Malaysia switched to Bahasa education in a bid to promote integration between the country's more than 60 percent of ethnic Malays and ethnic Chinese, who comprise a quarter of the 26 million residents. Lawmakers also set college quotas from 1970 to 2002 to ensure that Malays gained access to professional jobs.
They rolled back some language rules in 2003, reviving math and science lessons in English starting in primary school. Lobbyists for wider use of Bahasa want that decision reversed.
Only underdeveloped countries "practise the colonial policy of teaching science subjects in a foreign language," Hassan Ahmad, a former chief of the government body responsible for coordinating the use of Bahasa, told the Bahasa and Malay Literature Congress in Kuala Lumpur last month.
Proficiency in English is a key component of college training programs introduced this year, said Deputy Higher Education Minister Ong Tee Keat. Higher Education Minister Mustapa Mohamed didn't respond to requests for comment.
Safura Mohd Hariri, 22, earned an information technology management degree from Multimedia University in Selangor in May. She waited six months to land a job as a systems analyst, and many of her peers now work in call centers where they don't need degree knowledge, she said.
About 50,000 high school graduates, 25,000 higher-education graduates and 20,000 degree holders are unemployed, Deputy Human Resources Minister Abdul Rahman Bakar told parliament last month.
Colleges should ensure they have up-to-date textbooks and use English in lectures, said Rahmat Roslan Hashim, head of human resources at the Malaysian unit of Standard Chartered Plc, a British bank that makes two-thirds of its profit in Asia.
"Communication basically is the area where local grads lag," Rahmat said. "About two generations lost English skills."
More than half of 3,800 recruiters and managers surveyed last year by online recruitment company Jobstreet Corp. cited poor English as the reason for rejecting graduates. They also blamed antiquated skills in subjects such as engineering.
"People don't have the type of skill sets that companies are looking for, whether it's commercial or technical," said Suresh Thirugnanam, vice president at Jobstreet in Cyberjaya, Selangor.
Nga Lik Hing, 22, gained a multimedia degree from Universiti Putra Malaysia in May and now earns 1,500 ringgit ($422) a month keying in data for an online recruitment company.
Employers want different skills from those he learned, Nga said. Questions at interviews for English-language jobs aren't easy, either. "Like, why our company want hire you," Nga said. "Sometimes don't know how answer."

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