Language requirements just good business for the private sector

Private sector employers have all the reason to employ graduates who are able to speak more than one language. Politicians and university dons should not link issues surrounding the matriculation intake quota with language requirements for jobs, as these two issues are not the same.

The education ministry should be aware that commercial Chinese language skills are becoming important, and that many countries have included the teaching of this language in their education curriculum.

Being able to speak Mandarin and other foreign languages has always been an asset in the business world. Politicians and dons should stop claiming that advertisements by the private sector seeking employees with knowledge of a foreign language are discriminatory in nature. This cannot be considered ethnic-based discrimination. There are reasons as to why some sectors in the private world seek employees who can speak a specific language. It all boils down to business strategy and has nothing to do with discriminating against those who cannot speak the required language.

The private sector has to look into marketability and profitability. It’s solely for business reasons that companies require employees to be able to speak a language that can help them deal with potential clients.

Added advantage for business dealings

The private sector in the Malaysian context commonly seeks employees who are able to communicate in more than one language. For instance, if the sector deals with Mandarin or Arabic speaking nations, they would naturally seek employees who can speak Mandarin or Arabic. The private sector will always look into the practicality of doing business. At the end of the day, it’s profitability that allows them to sustain their business. What more, the country has investors from many other countries. Being able to speak the languages of these people is always an added advantage for business dealings.

Shockingly, in the recent senate session, a senator who comes from an academic background was not happy that there are job advertisements requiring candidates to be able to speak Mandarin and the Thai language. Just after that, a minister was reported to have insinuated that the matriculation quota was akin to the private sector seeking employees with certain language preferences. This must have given some the impression of “reciprocation”, that the quota favouring Bumiputera students for the matriculation programme is linked to the level of unemployment of Bumiputera in the private sector.

Unfortunately, neither of them are well informed of reality in the private business sector. They have actually become victims of misinformation. No doubt, the ownership of enterprises in the private sector is still monopolised by non-Bumiputeras. Of the 10.5 million Bumiputera workforce in the country, nine million are with the private sector and are generally employed by non-Bumiputera companies. Only about 1.5 million of them are with the civil service.

Politicians and dons should thus stop harping on private companies that look for selected employees who can speak Mandarin or any other foreign language. This chapter should be a minor concern to Malaysians. In fact, there are also other sectors in the country that recruit employees who can speak Mandarin, English or any other foreign language. As such, it’s common to see job advertisements of this nature in the country.

The Malay language is the nation’s lingua franca and candidates seeking government jobs need to have at least a pass at the SPM level in this subject. The private employment sectors out of necessity may need more than this requirement. There can be additional language requirements, depending on what sector it is.

Profitability talks

In the business world, profitability talks. In the tourism industry, for instance, it’s always an asset if employees are able to speak a few foreign languages. A reported 25.8 million tourists visited the country in 2018. Malaysia collected RM84.1 billion in overall tourism receipts last year, its highest ever. The expenditure of tourists from China made up RM12.3 billion of the total. Chinese tourists who have been the key growth driver across Southeast Asia for the past decade will continue to support Malaysian tourism growth, and the country is expecting more Chinese to visit Malaysia. Indisputably, the tourism industry would require their tourist guides to be able to speak Mandarin. Even in China, which gets many tourists from Malaysia, tourist agencies employ guides who can speak the Malay language.

On another note, Malaysia won the number one spot in the International Medical Travel Journal’s award for “Health and Medical Tourism Destination of the Year” in 2015 and 2016. This recognition has made Malaysia a popular destination for healthcare tourists from neighbouring countries. Malaysia ranks among the best providers of healthcare in all of Southeast Asia. Patients find it a lot cheaper to get medical treatment in Malaysia.

More than one million healthcare tourists visited the country last year, with domestic hospital revenue standing at RM1.3 billion. This is expected to hit RM2.8 billion by 2020. Medical tourism has targeted travellers from China, Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar, Vietnam and even from Middle Eastern countries. Private hospitals would naturally hire staff who can speak more than one language when they have patients coming from various countries to seek medical treatment. These hospitals have to equip themselves with employees who can speak foreign languages for their communicative and functional purposes. They have to be patient-friendly, and it’s an asset to employ staff who are able to speak a language that patients are comfortable with.

Even some government sectors require employees who are able to speak languages other than Malay. For operational purposes, the police and the military do employ those who can speak languages other than Malay. It would also be an asset for government staff dealing with international trade to possess a good command of foreign languages including Mandarin, as China, Singapore and Hong Kong are among the country’s top trading partners.

Depends on market forces

Politicians and dons should realise that the employability of a graduate in the private sector depends on market forces. One job skill that this sector looks for is, of course, language. Most sectors require employees to be able to communicate in a language understood by clients. Requiring any foreign language proficiency when applying for a job actually conforms to what certain jobs require, and it has nothing to do with the applicant’s race. There is nothing racially prejudicial, employment-wise, for companies requiring job applicants to have knowledge of Mandarin, English or any other specific language.

Teaching and learning in schools and colleges should instead facilitate the needs of the industry. The ministry should prepare graduates to be more employable by arming them with skill sets such as acquiring foreign languages to meet modern-day job requirements. Let graduates learn more languages to make them more competitive in the job market. Just accept the fact that some companies dealing with Chinese industries require job applicants to be proficient in Mandarin. Some others need graduates to be proficient in English and so forth. The non-Bumiputera matriculation quota and the requirement for Mandarin proficiency in some job applications should therefore be viewed separately.

Linking the matriculation quota system with unequal job opportunities for Bumiputeras in the private sector is not a wise comparison and, in fact, erroneous. Let’s not politicise and turn this into a racial issue.

Moaz Nair is an FMT reader.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.