In one of the Grab rides we got a really funny, friendly, and entertaining driver. An Indian uncle who was born in Penang. At first he was laughing at us after he saw where we wanted to go, a very famous nasi kandar restaurant in Penang. He said he didn’t understand why everyone wanted to go to the same places. As a Grab driver, he would circle around the same shops and restaurants as tourists and even locals frequented the same shops over and over again. We found it amusing.
Then he moved on to a very heated topic in Malaysia, language. Language is a very delicate issue in Malaysia, as we have a multi-racial community that converses in a multitude of languages on a daily basis. Bahasa Malaysia is the national language, spoken by the vast majority of the population and is the mother tongue of the Malays in the country, while Mandarin (and other variants of the Chinese language like Cantonese or Hokkien) and Tamil are also spoken by the Chinese and the Indians in the country, respectively. Then we have English, one of the most powerful languages in the world. Unfortunately, many Malaysians (mostly the Malays) see it as a threat to their own Malay language, and shun the importance of learning it. Years and generations of downplaying the importance of the language has left many of the younger generation struggling to cope with it, and employees often reject applicants for poor English skills. Our Grab driver strongly supports the use of English in the country, and he is baffled at how anybody can say that learning English is a bad thing. He himself has tried to encourage the younger generation to learn English. One common belief held by Malaysians is that English is a “white person” language, and to excel in it would be to lose your Malaysian identity. To this our Grab driver told us a story of how he responded to this mindset. He asked people, what language do Germans speak? German. What language do the French speak? French. And the Dutch? They speak Dutch. Are they not all “white people”? They too need to learn English, and here we are in Malaysia, being told that speaking English somehow makes us “less Malaysian”. It’s a very heated topic, one that I often get riled up about as well, and our Grab driver is trying his best to get the younger generation to not be afraid of the English language.
It’s not just him. Many prominent Malaysians are questioning why the proficiency of English in the country is as poor as it is.