What’s the link between Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and Malaysia’s footballer of the moment, Faiz Subri?
Both had their moments before a mega international audience and both fluffed their lines - in English.
Zahid Hamidi’s fumbles with English pronunciation at the United Nations general assembly last September and Fifa Puskas award winner Faiz’s embarrassing search for and halting delivery of the digital text of his acceptance speech in Zurich last night were sad commentaries on the state of English proficiency in the country.
Time was when Malaysians were complimented on the standard of their English; now it is the stuff of embarrassment, not infrequently on the international stage, before a global audience.
The DPM is the holder of a PhD. but his stilted delivery of his English text at the plenary session of the annual UN General Assembly last September was cause for national mortification.
Before that, when Flight MH370 disappeared into the ether on March 8, 2015, Malaysians had cause to writhe in embarrassment as officials from a host of government departments took turns to speak in English to the international press, with live coverage by global news channels.
It was a period of prolonged embarrassment as official after official proceeded to brief the waiting press, their mangled syntax, fractured grammar and maladroit pronunciation paraded like undergarments left out to dry on a publicly exposed clothesline.
After a time, Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, he of the English public school training, mercifully stepped into the breach to rescue our flagging elocution colours, with English delivery that was reminiscent of our standards in bygone years.
To be sure, Malaysian football and other sports fans are delighted by Faiz’s achievement in winning the Puskas award.
However, if they watched the footage of his moment in the spotlight, whatever pride they must have felt over Faiz being chosen as winner would have been diminished by his shambling performance on being called to receive the prize and say a few words.
The emcees’ interjections, aimed at alleviating the uneasiness felt by the live audience as Faiz fumbled to locate and then read his digital text, only served to accentuate the embarrassment.
This is not to suggest there ought be any hesitation in felicitating Faiz, scorer of a wondrous goal that Fifa has endowed with the Puskas award, given to the author of the best goal strike in the global soccer realm for the year 2016. Syabas, Faiz.
But how much better it would have been if he had just strode onstage upon being called up and proceeded to the lectern to read his lines slowly and carefully from a written sheet fished out of his jacket pocket.
Malaysians watching the Fifa awards ceremony would have been spared the squirming embarrassment of watching a shambling performance by the English-deprived Faiz.
Could have been better prepared
Even at the best of times, footballers are not the most articulate of people, but for a long pre-scheduled ceremony like the Fifa awards, surely Faiz could have been better prepared for his moment in the media spotlight.
No doubt, some time would have been spent by the either the FAs of Penang or Malaysia to coach Faiz on what how to receive the award and what to say in his acceptance speech.
But given the generally poor standard in English proficiency across the board in Malaysia, one could reasonably conclude that the coaching Faiz must have obtained on how to receive the award and on the delivery of his acceptance remarks would not have been adept.
Just in case anyone figures that this lament appears to be making a mountain out of a molehill, it helps to remember that English is one of the official languages of Fifa.
This means its courses - on administration, coaching, officiating, etc - are conducted in English.
Malaysians sent for Fifa coaching courses have been known to fail the test because of a lack of proficiency in the English language - in some instances, they don’t understand the finer points of these courses due to this deficiency.
The possession of a Fifa coaching certificate is now a pre-condition for appointment to the national coaching chair.
Fifa coaching courses are intensive affairs, usually held over the course of a full month, and involves theoretical sessions where attendees have to come up to the drawing board to propose solutions to situations the course director frames.
Malaysian participants, when called up, have been known to air their solutions in the Malay language, relying on a fellow Malaysian participant (that is, if there is one), not lagging in English proficiency, to translate their Malay into English.
In some accounts of these transactions, it’s hilarious to what lengths the translator has to go to demonstrate that the speaker meets the benchmarks.
In instances, this has turned out to be a futile endeavour which may the reason for this incongruity: national football squads these days are dominated by one race but the coaching position is often occupied by English competent minorities.
Suffice to say the lack of English proficiency has become a national malady.
A recent survey revealed that one in four graduates remains unemployed six months after graduation. The main reason for this, say 64 percent of employers in the same survey, is the graduates’ poor command of English.
This ought to silence the all-but-ostrich-like behaviour of those who are against the return of English as a mandatory medium.
TERENCE NETTO has been a journalist for more than four decades. A sobering discovery has been that those who protest the loudest tend to replicate the faults they revile in others.- Mkini