English Remains ASEAN’s Best Policy

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English Remains ASEAN’s Best Policy

Those ASEAN countries that have embraced the language stand to benefit in the coming years.

In Manila the Filipinos are blushing. A columnist in Japan has singled out the Philippine attitude in learning and teaching the English language for high praise, urging the authorities in Tokyo to take note and adopt a more pragmatic approach to bolstering standards of English across the country.

Under the headline: “The Japanese should take English lessons from Philippines” columnist Amy Chavez pointed out that more than a quarter of Filipinos failed to attend or finish high school yet nearly the entire population had learned English to the point of being fluent in it as a second language.

The English language in the Philippines is everywhere and taught in a practical way. From street signs to cooking books, students are exposed to the pragmatic side of the language. This type of teaching is now attracting foreign fee-paying students from the Middle East and creating a lucrative industry.

It’s a point the rest of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) desperately needs to note. English will become the language of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) once it is introduced towards the end of 2015, yet few members of the 10-nation bloc have ever embraced the language.

The Philippines have the Americans to thank for English proficiency. In Myanmar, English has only just survived, because of that country’s colonial history. Singapore still has English listed as one of four official languages and Cambodia has made enormous strides in learning the language, sparked by the intervention there by the United Nations in the early 1990s and the hundreds of NGOs that followed and stayed.

Elsewhere, English is still struggling.

This was always on the cards given the likes of former Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad, who relished overseeing the removal of English as an official language from the Malaysian school curriculum. Consequently, standards there have wallowed for decades. Mahathir’s colonial hang-ups have cost his country dearly in the intellectual stakes.

English skills have not fared much better in Brunei, Thailand, Indonesia, Laos or Vietnam, although there are no shortage of government statistics and schools that would beg to differ. The pro-Mahathir faction is trying to re-invent itself by arguing that English is now the language of science and commerce and thus is acceptable for teaching in their precious government schools. At the same time, however, they still justify the relegation of English as just another subject to be taught for ethnic minorities.

It’s a nonsensical argument but one that finds fertile ground across ASEAN among nationalists who like to blame outsiders for their low rankings on the international stage. Radical Buddhists in Myanmar, Muslim firebrands in Malaysia, communist hardliners in Vietnam – all have taken turns at blaming outsiders and the language they teach for their problems at home.

However, the AEC will change long-standing prejudices over time. Perhaps more interestingly it will also shake up the older order and cause a power shift within the trading bloc that will upset the traditional powers like Kuala Lumpur.

If Cambodians, for example, can speak English much more fluently than the Thais and Malays can it will find itself a popular destination for foreign investors. Given the potential reach of the AEC, it might also emerge as a future regional hub for trade and investment – something that would have been barely conceivable less than a decade ago.

Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter at @lukeanthonyhunt.