Speak English, Malays told

March 9, 2001

More than 40 years after Malaysia gained independence from Britain, prime minister Mahathir Mohamad has warned the country will fail to become an economic powerhouse if its people do not master the language of their former colonial masters.

"Speaking and writing English are key skills for success in the new economy," he said.

The falling standard of English has been making headlines since 40 per cent of high school students failed last year's national English exams. Most children learn in Malay and take English as a compulsory subject. But they do not need to pass an English exam to graduate. Universities teach primarily in Malay, while private colleges instruct mostly in English.

Despite calling globalisation a modern form of colonisation, Dr Mahathir says that English is essential for economic success. "We have to deal increasingly with other countries. We can't go there and speak our own language because nobody is going to learn it to understand us."

Singapore and Hong Kong have launched their own English-language programmes, although Singapore's encourages citizens to purify their "Singlish", a mishmash of English, Malay and Chinese. Hong Kong's Workplace English Campaign launched last year aimed "to maintain Hong Kong's competitive edge as an international centre of business, finance and tourism".

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