An experience I had today with a final year university student made me sit up and wonder what is wrong with our education system.

And I am not talking of Government institutions either. The soon-to-graduate young man studies at a premier private university in Kuala Lumpur that runs Australian and American twinning programmes.

It was at the British Council library that this incident played out. The young man was trying to check if a particular book was available when he just could not articulate himself well. He was struggling just to get his message across to the librarian.

At that point, however, I was rather unsuspecting as I thought he was a foreign student from China. So, as any friendly Malaysian, I just butted in and asked him if I could help? He spoke to me in pretty decent Bahasa Malaysia and only then did I realise he was Malaysian after all.

Though I am originally Singaporean, my wife is Malaysian and a product of the local school system. And yet, she speaks flawless English. So what happened in the intervening years? How did Malaysians come to this level of having such poor command of English?

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Now before anyone starts bashing me in our sometimes ridiculous Singpore versus Malaysia quarrel and claim I am just another Singaporean taking a dig at Malaysians, please hold your tongue and understand that I have called Malaysia my home for the past 11 years. So I am really more Malaysian than Singaporean.

Anyway, it is somewhat distressing to learn that my young friend who will graduate at the end of this year and studies all in the English Language says he also spent the last one year in Australia, and will return soon to continue another year at his university, where he studies for a degree in Business.

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Fact is, how is he studying in English, writing his examinations in English, but not able to articulate himself verbally in English? I am still in disbelief, but this is the situation. And he has spent the past year in Australia too? That takes the cake! Was he speaking Bahasa Malaysia to the Aussies or just mixing around with other Malaysians and not using English at all?

Whatever the reasons for his poor English, one thing is certain – our undergraduates had better realise that if they can’t articulate themselves in the English Language, they will never have any place as part of a global workforce.

English, after all, is still the global language of commerce. Isn’t it?

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