Students taking part in the NIE English Workshop at Balai Berita, Bangsar, last year. According to the World Bank, each additional year of schooling raises an individual’s earnings by 8-10 per cent, especially for women.

IF we are to believe the World Development Report in Education 2018, published by the World Bank a fortnight ago, we are facing “a learning crisis” in global education. The report’s secondary title, “Learning to Realise Education’s Promise”, rightly champions “learning for all”.

But in reality, education and learning gaps are huge and examples endless and excruciating; and no country are unscathed. World Bank statistics also do not include the 260 million children worldwide who for “reasons of conflict, discrimination, disability, and other obstacles, are not enrolled in primary or secondary schools”.

Millions of young students in low- and middle-income countries face the prospect of lost
opportunity and lower wages in later life because their primary and secondary schools are failing to educate them to succeed in life.

Failing education is not the preserve of developing countries. There are plenty of failing schools in the United States and the United Kingdom, two of the most prosperous countries on earth, thanks largely to their amoral system of education apartheid, where money is the prime mover in the private sector, and chronic underinvestment the feature of the state sector.

As Jaime Saavedra, the World Bank’s senior director for education, warns, “education reform is urgently needed and requires persistence as well as the political alignment of government, media, entrepreneurs, teachers, parents and students. They all have to value and demand better learning”.

The World Bank’s own research shows that education is a powerful tool for raising incomes. Each additional year of schooling raises an individual’s earnings by 8-10 per cent, especially for women, and this is not because more able or better-connected people receive more education. The knock-on effect is that better educated and earning people live longer and healthier, thus contributing to society.

The education challenge differs from country to country and even among various groups, whether based on faith or ethnicity. One area, which the World Bank Report neglected, is that of language proficiency.

In Malaysia, English language proficiency is a hot topic, as evidenced by postings on social media and in newspaper articles by, among others, Permaisuri Johor Raja Zarith Sofiah Sultan Idris Shah and Umno Youth deputy chief Khairul Azwan Harun, both passionate and pragmatic in their support of boosting the level of English proficiency among Malaysian students.

I must confess to having frontline experience in this area having lectured, for some 14 years, groups of Malaysian civil servants — both federal and state — who were attending three-month courses in London aimed at “broadening their horizons” by exposing them inter alia to inter- faith dialogue, workings of the global financial system, Islamic finance, counselling, Islamic political movements and English language proficiency.

I have also taught courses at universities and colleges in London over the years where a number of my postgraduate students were from Malaysia.

My experience vindicated the concern of thinking Malaysians that English language proficiency of many school students, university students including postgraduates, and some sections of the civil service, is seriously lacking. Malaysian politicians, bureaucrats, regulators and industry leaders I have engaged with recently concur. Unfortunately, progress has been frustratingly slow.

There are thousands of Malaysians who excel in English and who have made their mark in politics, business, finance, education, medicine, the law and other fields. I am reminded of Datuk Yunus Rais, the much-revered founder and principal of Sels College in Covent Garden, an English language school of a gem and “with the right heart” established in 1975 and accredited by the British Council, which was responsible for the English language proficiency of a generation of foreign students.

Language nationalism seems to be rooted in the politics of identity, which in Malaysia with its multicultural composition can be an irritant, especially this side of the 14th General Election. This is a non-argument, for no one is suggesting demoting Bahasa Malaysia, which, for the majority of Malaysians, is or should always be the main compulsory language, with English (or French, Arabic or Mandarin) as a compulsory second language.

The fact that many young Malaysians (including Malays) cannot speak Bahasa is not a result of promoting English language proficiency. I know students from Pakistani, Afghan and Arab descent in London who can hardly speak their native tongues — Urdu, Pashto and Arabic — and whose colloquial English is ordinary but who are incapable of understanding their English textbooks in maths, science and history.

Changing such a Luddite mindset in language nationalism has to begin at the core of a reinvigorated National Education Policy that is willing to make English a compulsory second language — cool instead of poyo (uncool).

Failing this could compromise the very education experience and expense of those Malaysians studying abroad who cannot fully benefit from the lectures and tutorials because of their lack of English proficiency; or hold back the life and earnings potential of the next generations of Malaysians; or obfuscate Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s Transformasi Nasional 2050 initiative in transforming Malaysia into a higher income, productivity-driven and knowledge-based economy.

The writer is an independent
London-based economist and writer.

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