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Role Of The English Language In Malaysia English Language Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 4970 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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This research examines the role of the English language in Malaysia, a former British colony in South East Asia from the 18th to the 20th century. My research question asks: to what extent can English be a unifying language in Malaysia? In order to approach the issue, the question has been narrowed down into two parts: English can be a unifying language of Malaysia; and English cannot be a unifying language of Malaysia. The influence of English in the lives of Malaysians such as daily life, workplace and education has been examined.

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There is a dichotomy in views whether English can become a unifying language in Malaysia. One side believes that English has already become an important part of Malaysian identity, particularly due to its colonial past and its current status of one of the languages of instruction in primary, secondary and tertiary education and also the status of “business language”. There is another view, mainly held by the Malay nationalists, opposed to such opinions due to the fact that there is a huge gap in the English language proficiency between people from the urban and rural areas. Three interviews have been conducted as part of the methods of investigation, but the most influential interviewee was Ram Mohann, an English teacher in a Malaysian secondary school. Books, news articles and academic journals have been used as well. The main sources for this research are written by Malaysian professors of linguistics, Azirah Hashim and Loga Baskaran.

It is concluded that English can be a unifying language in Malaysia. The conclusion drawn is based on the fact that English plays an important role in the lives of Malaysians, private sectors and education in Malaysia. Most importantly, English is also regarded as a language that integrates all Malaysians by the non-Malays. Word count: 298


Malaya (now Malaysia) was a nation that had been occupied by European superpowers such as the Portuguese, Dutch and the British since the 16th century. However, the ones that really made a linguistic influence on the land were the British. Even though they left and granted independence to Malaya in 1957, one legacy that they have left the country is their language, English.

English had been the official language of the Straits Settlements, the Federated Malay States and the Unfederated Malay States since the 1800s during the occupation of Great Britain and also served as the official language of Malaysia for a decade after the nation’s independence in 1957. However, in order to promote “national unity” and increase the participation of Bumiputra (Malay-ethnic and indigenous people) in tertiary education, the Malaysian government removed English from its official role and promoted the use of Bahasa Malaysia (Malaysian or Malay language) in 1967. [1] 

Nevertheless, English remains a dominant second language in Malaysia. It is still widely used in private companies. For the last two decades, the status of English has been “a much debated-upon and jostled-about issue”. [2] In this essay, I will investigate the role of English in Malaysia today. My research question is as follows; to what extent can English be a unifying language in Malaysia? “Unifying language” must be defined in order to answer the question. In this case, “unifying language” refers to the language that joins the people of Malaysia as a whole. I will discuss how English is used in many aspects of Malaysian lives in order to answer my research question. Moreover, the language of instruction in Malaysia will also serve as a springboard to investigate the role of English in Malaysia.

Even though English is no longer an official language in Malaysia and therefore some might argue that Malaysia is not an Anglophone nation, the widespread usage of English in Malaysia is a fact that is beyond any question. English is a business language and a common language used among ordinary Malaysians, particularly in urban areas. Moreover, it is widely known that “many of the older generation [in Malaysia] speak [English] very well.” [3] Some elites even argue that English and Malay play an equally important role “to help unite the people and create a unique national consciousness”. [4] English “is used for a variety of functions in professional and social transactions not only with the international community but also within the society”. [5] In addition, even though all English-medium schools had been changed to Malay-medium schools in the 1980s, the implementation of PPSMI (teaching and learning Science and Math in English) policy in all Malaysian public schools since Primary One indicates that the government is not only concerning about the globalisation of the nation, but also with the importance of the language in Malaysia herself. [6] Hence, the use of English as a local language in Malaysia rather than an international language is enough to make Malaysia an ‘unofficial’ Anglophone country.

English can be a unifying language in Malaysia

English language is the global lingua franca, a language for diplomacy and international trade. Workforces with good command of English will put the country a huge advantage in the world.

According to Braj Kachru’s three-circle model of World Englishes that categorises World Englishes into three concentric circles, which include Inner Circle representing the traditional base of English; Outer Circle that representing countries where English is not an official language but plays an important role; and Expanding Circle, including countries that employ it as a foreign language and for only limited purposes, Malaysia is listed under the Outer Circle. [7] This model indicates that there are a sizeable amount of people who use English as a first language. According to Azirah Hashim, a Professor of Linguistics in University of Malaya, English “is used for a variety of functions in professional and social transactions not only with the international community but also within the society”. [8] The quote tells us that Malaysians do not only use it as an international language, but some perceive English as a local language as well.

Hashim’s view is not her own wishful thinking. It is evident everywhere in Malaysia, in both the Malaysian education and lives of Malaysia citizens. ‘Broken English’ is very commonly used by taxi drivers, pedestrian pedlars, food hawkers, gardeners, garbologists, florists and food caterers. [9] For instance, phrases such as ‘Buy 1 Free 1’ or ‘RM 5 for 2’ are always visible in Malaysia’s local supermarkets, departmental stores and pasar malam, a Malay word for ‘night market’. It indicates that even for those who are not highly educated, they all have the enthusiasm to speak English because “the degree of international integration is simply moving in leaps and bounds and man-on-the-street has to survive.” [10] Most importantly, it shows that “English is gaining more currency” within Malaysian society, especially in urban areas. [11] 

After the PPSMI policy was implemented in 2003, the decision was described by some journalists as “revive the glory of the language” and “reclaim English in education”, which “seems to allude to recognition of English as not just a global or international language, not just a European language, but also as a Malaysian language”. [12] Moreover, even though there aren’t any official statistics available, it is known that there are sizeable numbers of English private kindergartens in Malaysia, particularly in urban areas. For non-English medium privately-owned kindergartens, English is always taught as one of the subjects apart from their mother tongue. According to a Malaysian Indian who is only willing to be identified as Subramaniam, “My children are all studying in English-medium kindergarten because I know only a good command of English will lead them to success and I want them to build their foundation since they are young.” [13] This comment reflects the fact that the Malaysian parents are aware of the importance of English in today’s world as well as Malaysian society itself and they know that a good command of English will put their children in a better position in today’s world. In addition, English is generally taught 280 minutes per week in public schools [14] , which is even more than the teaching time for the senior class in Xiamen International School, an English-medium and IB World school. It must be noted that in Malaysian education, all high school students in public schools are required to learn English literature and English comprehension, rather than beginner English class. If the teaching time of English in a bilingual education is even more than an English-medium school, it indicates that English plays an equally important role for both Ministry of Education of Malaysia as well as an IB World school. However, it must also be noted that the level of English comprehension and/or literature might be lower than that of IB Diploma course, and hence the statistics do not indicate everything.

According to a well-known Malaysian Indian journalist and politician, the late MGG Pillai, “those who know English are better positioned for jobs than those without”. [15] That was his comment regards the importance of English in his article written in 1994. His assessment was right spot on in today’s world. In major companies in Malaysia, the only language used in a company meeting is English. [16] Meanwhile, some meetings in governmental departments are conducted in English as well, but mostly depending on the language preferred by the head of the department. [17] Reports such as annual reports or financial reports are either in English or in both English and Malay. For example, Malaysia Airlines, the national carrier of Malaysia, presents its financial reports to their staff only in English [18] . Meanwhile, it is known that “the language a flight attendant will use is English”, even for domestic flights although the national language is Malay. [19] When a pilot or co-pilot announces the latest information about the flight, English is always preferred for both domestic and international flights. If private companies prefer English and English language is also widely used in governmental departments although Malay is supposed to be the language of instruction, it tells us that English does play an equally important role in today’s Malaysia. Moreover, “English is no longer seen as a competitive advantage but a basic requirement for jobseekers”. [20] In 2005, the Malaysian government conducted a survey of nearly 60,000 Malaysian graduates who were unemployed. It was also revealed in the survey that “81 per cent of the unemployed attended public universities where the medium of instruction in many courses is in Malay.” [21] Moreover, according to the senior consultant of Alpha Platform Sdn Bhd, a Malaysian full service communication firm, “Many of the [graduates] are rejected five minutes into an interview due to their atrocious command of [English].” [22] Those examples show that Malaysians with lack of proficiency in English will be at a serious disadvantage in Malaysian society. It also suggests that English is gradually replacing Malay’s prominence in Malaysia, especially in private sectors.

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In addition, English is also very common in the lives of ordinary people in Malaysia. For instance, “no English language entertainment import is ever dubbed” and local television channels in Malaysia “screen a wide variety of English cartoons, serials, dramas and films in original language” with Malay subtitles only. [23] There are sizeable numbers of local English magazines and newspapers such as Flavours, Football Weekly, the Star, New Strait Times, Business Times, the Sun, Motor Trader, Golf Malaysia, BPL and many others. Moreover, there are many well-known foreign magazines such as Times, Reader’s Digest, PC Magazine, and Newsweek on sale all over Malaysia. The numbers of English newspapers all over Malaysia is exactly the same as that of Malay language. [24] Several foreign publishers even publish their own magazines in ‘Malaysian version’ in English language such as FourFour Two and Top Gear from United Kingdom. [25] In addition, English books have dominated the two largest bookstore chains in Malaysia, MPH Bookstore and Popular Bookstore. An English teacher, Ram Mohann, claimed that “Popular bookstore has around 65% of English books while English books almost dominate MPH bookstores in Malaysia with around 90%” by citing internal sources. [26] Those different statistics and information do indicate that there is a big market for English readers in Malaysia. [27] However, it must be stressed that Mohann is only a teacher, not a market profession and his internal sources might not be very reliable either. Nevertheless, it is always known by Malaysians the dominance of English books in that either of those two bookstores or other bookstores is a fact that is beyond any doubt.

On 9th July 2009, the Ministry of Education announced that the PPSMI policy will be abandoned starting 2012 by citing the percentage of students who achieved A to C for science “had fallen by around 4% in both urban and rural schools”. Basically the overturn of the policy means that all science-based and math subjects in Malaysian public schools will be reverting back to Malay for government schools, Chinese for Chinese schools and Tamil for Tamil schools. The reversal of the policy has caused as much debates as the ones when the policy was first implemented in 2003. For instance, Azimah Abdul Rahim, the chairman of Parents Action Group for Education (PAGE), questioned the reversal of the government on behalf of all parents by telling the reporter that “there might be some schools which would want to continue teaching in English. I think there should be a choice. There are many Malaysians whose first language is English”. [28] In addition, Lim Kit Siang, a prominent opposition leader in Malaysian politics, described the decision as a “Raw Deal leaving Malaysia stranded in the march towards global educational quality, excellence and competitiveness” [29] . Moreover, Tun Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad, the former Prime Minister of Malaysia who was known for his Malay nationalism and the leader who, surprisingly, introduced the PPSMI policy under his administration, posted a poll regards the PPSMI abolishment and the result shows that “84 per cent want to retain English as the language medium for these subjects”. [30] Mahathir also questions “how [the reversal of PPSMI] is going to help integrate Malaysians”, [31] which implies that English is not just a medium of instruction for science and math and business language in Malaysia, but at the same time a language that should help unify all Malaysians as a whole. However, it must be stressed that his view might be subjective as Lim is a leader from opposition party and the fact he was educated under English medium. Moreover, as Mahathir mentions in his blog, the result of the poll might be somewhat subjective as well since it “was conducted in the English language and English language speakers might be biased in favour of English”. [32] Nevertheless, the views collected, which represent the parents and politicians, have emphasized the fact that a lot Malaysians believe that it will be hard for their children to survive in the future with lack of proficiency in English and also reflected the fact that English speakers and the language itself do play an important role in the today and future society of Malaysia.

English cannot be a unifying language of Malaysia

While there is no doubt about the importance of English in private sectors in Malaysia, it must be stressed that Malay has been the sole official language of Malaysia since 1970 and the use of this language in various sectors is encouraged under the National Language Act. [33] The Malay nationalists are particularly against the increasing prominence of English in Malaysia, especially in education. This strong feeling had been shown by the Malay-ethnic people in a protest against the use of English in March 2009, which eventually caused the reversal of PPSMI policy. [34] 

Supporters of PPSMI always use Singapore, the neighbouring nation that once was part of Malaysia, “as an example of how language skills can be a key to a connecting local workers and industries to global economy”. [35] However, the reversal of PPSMI could eventually undermine the role of English in Malaysia today and the future because the students will have less opportunity to use the language in class in the future. Therefore, for the next generation, instead of English, there is a possibility that Malay might become the language that is going to be widely used among professionals. According to Muhyiddin Yassin, the minister of education Malaysia, , “only 8% of teachers were using English exclusively in classes while the use of [Malay language] was still common, particularly in rural areas” [36] Muhyiddin’s concern reveals several problems in Malaysian education today – the gap between students from urban and rural areas and the lack of proficiency in English among Malaysian local teachers. According to Dr. Nor Hashimah Jalauddin, a professor in National University of Malaysia’s School of Language and Linguistics, “students in urban areas adjusted better to the PPSMI compared with students in rural areas” [37] and that English is considered a “foreign language” and “third language” for students in Sabah, Sarawak, Kelantan, Terrengganu, Kedah and Perlis. [38] She is convinced that learning Math and Science in English is a “burden” for students due to their lack of proficiency in English. In fact, it is not only a burden for students, even “the Malaysian teachers going mad teaching subjects in English” [39] because “most Math and Science teachers in service were trained under the National Language Policy”, which the language of instruction is Malay. [40] According to Dr Khalil Idham Lim Abdullah, “while [the teachers] are still grappling with the language, they are required to teach their students as well”. [41] This claim is supported by Mohann as well, there are “75% of [Science and Math teachers] were trained in Malay” and that “there is hardly a big improvement [in English for teachers] since [2003]”. [42] Even though the statistics given only refers to one particular school, it does suggest that there are a large number of teachers who can’t use English fluently. If the teachers can’t even speak fluent English, how can we expect the students to develop their language skill significantly and hence how is language going to become the unifying language?

Even though English plays an important role in Malaysia’s society today, the amount of English speakers is rather limited. According to David Crystal, the total number of English as First Language speakers in Malaysia was 1.88% by 1994 while the number fell by 0.16% nine years later. Meanwhile, the total number of L1 and L2 speakers only rose from 31.9% to 33.2% within nine years and the rise is rather slight as well. [43] 44The statistics indicate that there are very few fluent speakers Malaysia and thus English is definitely not a language that is understood by all Malaysians. ‘Unifying language’ should be the language that unites the whole nation and if English is not generally understood by all Malaysia citizens, how can it be the unifying language of the country?

The biggest problem that might threaten the status of English in Malaysia is the fact that English is a colonial legacy left by the British and it is evident that the Malays have been trying to wipe off the memory of colonialism. For instance, even though the Malaysian government only removed English’s official role by 1967, ten years after independence, and removed all English-medium schools only by 1972, the English’s elitist status in education and administration had been immediately “downgraded” in 1957. [45] They find it hard “in accepting that English could be an ingredient in Malaysian national identity, in spite of its use in cultural situations in Malaysia at present”. [46] Instead, they believe “Malay is for national identity and English is for progress and for wider communication”, which implies the Malays believe that English should be used for globalisation and internationalisation rather than a local language. [47] Thus, as Tan suggests, the fact that Malaysia is categorised under the Outer Circle means that “it is more appropriate to talk about [the role of English in Malaysia in] individual communities or sections of society rather than the whole country”. [48] 


English is an important language in both the past and current society of Malaysia. Competence in English as a compulsory condition for employees in most private sectors and some governmental departments has emphasized the increasing prominence of English in the country. Moreover, the implementation of PPSMI policy in 2003 has significantly increased the usage of English among the new generation, especially those who are teenagers now and will become the future backbone of the country. While the implementation of PPSMI policy indicates that fact the government is concerned about the importance of English in the country, the debates among professionals and ordinary Malaysians regards the reversal of the policy also reveals how significant the language is for the people. In addition, the dominance of English books and magazines in bookstores of Malaysia indicates that there is a huge market for English books in Malaysia.

However, some Malaysians, particularly the Malays, believe the only language that can unify all Malaysians is the Malay language. The lack of qualified teachers with fluent English is a reason why English is not a unifying language. Meanwhile, the inequality of English proficiency between students from urban areas and rural areas proves that English is not commonly understood by all Malaysians and hence it will not create national unity. Besides the proficiency of the teachers and students, the rather low percentage of English speakers also reveals the same problem in making English the unifying language in Malaysia.

All in all, even though this issue is still rather debatable, the conclusion drawn is that English can be a unifying language in Malaysia to some extent. English plays an important role in the lives of ordinary Malaysians, private sectors and education in Malaysia. However, the usage of Malay language is encouraged in public sectors. The overturn of PPSMI policy in July 2009 has put the status of English in the country into doubt. Moreover, Malays believe their language should be “the tool to unite the whole nation” [49] but the Indians and/or Chinese believe Malay language will create division among all Malaysians. They believe that we should emulate the model of Singapore since English is a “neutral language” between all the different ethnicities as it does not identify any of the races in Malaysia and thus it will create an equal society. [50] 



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