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Lack of English hinders Malaysian grads
By Stephanie Phang Bloomberg News
Wednesday, 06 th December 2006

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 the English he knows. He now recruits volunteers for the Center for Independent Journalism in Kuala Lumpur.

“All this Malay-oriented 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 do not make the grade in the work force. In a country with 237,000 job vacancies, about 45,000 college grads are unemployed, mainly because of poor English, according to the Malaysian government. Many of those who have found work are not using their degree skills.

“The cause of the underemployment? I’ll give you one reason for it: English,” said Rafiah Salim, vice chancellor at Universiti Malaya, the oldest university in Malaysia. “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 of Malaysia 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 do not have the right skills, said Gan Kim Khoon, head of research at AmSecurities in Kuala Lumpur.

Foreign direct investment fell 14 percent in 2005 to $4 billion, the only decline among the 10 members of the Association of South East Asian Nations.

Apart from learning little English, students are choosing subjects not suited to business employment, like the arts, Islamic studies and administration, Gan said.

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.”

In 2002, government spending on education was equal to about 8 percent of the Malaysian $100 billion gross domestic product, more than neighbors Singapore or Thailand, according to the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute, a research group in Kuala Lumpur.

Malaysia switched to Bahasa education in a bid to promote integration between the 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 ethnic 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 the wider use of Bahasa want that decision reversed.

Only underdeveloped countries “practice 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 Ong Tee Keat, the Malaysian deputy minister of higher education. Mustapa Mohamed, the minister of higher education, did not 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 do not need degree knowledge, she said.

About 50,000 high school graduates, 25,000 higher-education graduates and 20,000 degree holders are unemployed, Abdul Rahman Bakar, the deputy minister of human resources, told the Malaysian 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, 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 an online recruitment company, Jobstreet, cited poor English as the reason for rejecting graduates. They also blamed antiquated skills in subjects like 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 of Jobstreet in Cyberjaya, Selangor, Malaysia


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