OCT 19 — Malaysia's deputy prime minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has a long record of being in government and even sat on the board of many companies.
Presumably he has done so without being fluent in English. Does this matter? Arguably yes, for two reasons.
First is that Malaysia is an open economy. How we communicate and create ties with the outside world depends on our proficiency in common languages.
Second is that the younger generation will realise that being proficient in this language of trade and diplomacy is not a prerequisite to hold a position which engages in precisely that.
When he joined those boards, his lack of English proficiency most probably did not hinder his political or business career. Did his peers care that he was not fluent in English? I suppose most of them conversed in Malay anyway.
But the father of a young Malaysian boy would. Imagine if the boy asks, "Dad, who is he?" To which Dad answers that he is the second most powerful person in the Malaysian government. And when the boy prods further, "Why does he talk so funny? And why does he do that in front of the world?" And Dad won’t be able to answer, for it is too early for children to understand politics. Here, the boy realises English probably isn't very important in order to lead a country.
Many will probably agree with him. However, most will also prefer to not be ashamed of their deputy prime minister's forced effort at pronouncing each syllable correctly in front of all the United Nations delegates.
The barrage of harsh words against the DPM has attracted those who sympathised with him. One of them is Syed Saddiq of Bersatu, a new party which resembles Umno in how only Malays can rise to the highest of ranks, while non-Malays can only be appointed. As he flew to the DPM's defence, he points out how toxic an environment Malaysians have created eg. in schools children will mock English speakers, calling them unMalaysian, or foreign.
Much is strangely pathetic about this. For one, Zahid Hamidi is no longer in school, and when you are a politician criticism is quite normal. Secondly, "at least he tried" is not an excuse in a democracy where leaders are held to higher standards. The Malaysian public very well recognises this, and through harsh words they demanded more of a leader who is expected to represent the best version of themselves. The English Proficiency Index ranks Malaysia #14 in the world, #2 in Asia. Why didn't the deputy prime minister reflect this? But more importantly, can they do anything about this?
Unfortunately large sections of the public know for a fact that they most probably can't. But this won't bother the young boy described earlier, for he will think it is acceptable to not be fluent in English in a country where it is necessary, one, to engage in trade and diplomacy, and two, to gain access to untapped knowledge and expertise beyond Malaysia. We will never know if for him, the world becomes his oyster.
If it does not, one can sympathise with his father who will want for his son everything the world can offer. At least, if one can sympathise with Zahid Hamidi for being mocked for his non fluency in English, he or she can also sympathise with parents who try to offer their children the world.
If we tolerate incompetence by our leaders, this seeps into future generations. They will wrongly believe to be proficient in the language of the world is not required to lead a country. But of the many things a leader needs, English is one of them. How will the parents of today feel for the children of tomorrow, when they unknowingly cut themselves short by seeing English as not important in order to be a deputy prime minister?
* This article was written by an associate editor from CEKU, the editorial arm of the United Kingdom and Eire Council of Malaysian Students (UKEC).
** This is the personal opinion of the columnist.