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Lost in Translation?

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Download If you’re keen to work at Malaysia’s Ministry of Defence, you’ll need to get at least one “tight Malay civet” suit and be sure not to wear anything that would “poke the eye”.

These phrases, alongside a swathe of others, are just some of the puzzling instructions found on the English-language version of the Defence Ministry’s website.

The English translation of the site has recently been removed, but not before sparking a controversy about the poor command of English throughout the country.

Julia Yeow has the story.

In a section titled “ethical dressing” on Malaysia’s Defence Ministry website, there is a list of what employees can or cannot wear.

The site was peppered with humorous and cringe-worthy English phrases, such as “poke the eye”, a direct translation from the Malay term referring to revealing clothing.

Linda Ng is a director at a local financial institution that deals with the ministry.

She visits the ministry’s website regularly.

“I feel embarrassed, really, so does one laugh or cry under such circumstances? I think it is totally unacceptable for the Ministry of Defence, or any other ministry of public office for that matter, to have such a horrendous standard of English. To put things into perspective, I think even my Cambodian maid speaks better English than this.”

The ministry has admitted to using Google Translate, a service that offers free online automated translations.

“Blaming it on Google translate is a really, really stupid excuse. With billions of dollars of annual allocation, one would think that surely they have money to pay a professional translator to do the translation right.”

A string of criticism has seen the ministry remove the English version of its website.

And while the incident has become a source of comedy and ridicule in coffee shops and on internet chat sites, critics say it has highlighted the poor level of English language skills in Malaysia.

“I think the root of it was when English medium schools were abolished in 1970.”

Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim heads a national education watchdog called the Parent Action Group for Education.

It’s a group of Malaysian parents calling for English to be used in Maths and Science classes at school.

The group presented a memorandum to the government last November calling for the two subjects to be taught in English, not Malay.

“If they keep Science and Maths in Malay, we’re actually going back to square 1, because we’ll still again left with just learning English through the English subject and that’s not going to improve at all. The level of English will not improve.”

Malaysia gained independence from Britain in 1957, but kept many of the English-medium schools that were established by missionaries.

However, in 1970, the government changed the education system and made the national language Bahasa Malaysia, the main language now used in schools.

In 2003, the government allocated millions of dollars to enforce a policy of teaching Maths and Science in the English language.

But three years ago, it reverted back to using Malay.  

While Bahasa Malay remains the official language, English is widely used in business – such as at Nilufar, a leading pet store in Kuala Lumpur.

The shop opened a couple of months ago, but shop owner Ng Chin Sing has seen dozens of shop assistants come and go.

“The level of English among the young people we hire is extremely poor. For example, when they fill in the career application form, the part that says spouse, they put in their parents name. Definitely English is important and it has affected my shop in hiring good people.”

Malaysia’s Education Minister recently stated the government would continue to use Malay to teach Science and Maths after a government survey showed that only 11 percent of students would prefer the subjects to be taught in English.

And starting this year, the government will set up an English Language Council to set the benchmark for English language standards in Malayisa.

But Noor Azimah from Malaysia’s national education watchdog argues that students should have the option to choose which language they want to use.

It’s a part of being a global citizen, she says.

“The thing it’s quite obvious, first of all, you have to think globally. The most spoken international language now is English, and you can’t run away from it. And if you want to be competitive, you have to learn it. Malaysians have to be educated in the right lingua franca.”


Last Updated ( Monday, 27 February 2012 11:05 )  

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