THOSE who understand how the global economy works in this modern age of high-speed technology will understand the vital role of English in economic development.
There are some countries which realised early on that with the advent of the global, borderless economy and the wide coverage of high-speed communications, modern technology was making irreversible changes in the pattern of production of goods and services, where multinational giants like Apple, Microsoft, Boeing, and GE can own the intellectual knowledge of their products but the actual production of the component parts is farmed out to distant lands at a far cheaper cost than making them in, for example, Silicon Valley or Detroit.
With this specialisation across continents, even small countries can participate in the value chain of production. Thus, a computer or a mobile phone that you use may carry an American brand name but its inner components may be made in small establishments in Israel or Singapore. Sometimes, even the complex design work may be farmed out to countries capable of doing this kind of high-tech work where the only resources required are specialists with high-level academic degrees, computers and a good command of English.
This is happening in the life sciences and medicine where the value chain of producing pharmaceuticals and sophisticated drugs as well as delicate surgical instruments is spread across the world. Even sensitive military equipment are often made from components produced outside the Nato countries.
Content creation and designing work for large engineering and architectural companies in New York or London are other business opportunities which are being farmed out to developing countries.
It is an undeniable fact that the entire value chain of global production is connected through the English language. Thus, countries where English is commonly used become the natural choice for the multinational high-tech companies to locate their overseas operations or to find overseas partners to be their contractors or suppliers for the technologies they own and sell to the world.
It’s easy to do business when everybody speaks the same language. In this flat world, distance and time zones do not matter as long as one end of the globe can communicate with the other through technology and the English language.
Singapore, Ireland and Israel have invested billions of dollars into education, research facilities and infrastructure to attract talent and to incentivise their own entrepreneurs to go into the highly-skilled intensive line of business and with a strong English base as an asset. And despite their small size, they have been able to grow with the most advanced countries by becoming successful service centres for the world of finance, science and technology.
It is interesting to note that many of the emerging enterprises in the high-tech sector are coming from local start-up companies, proving that while the foreign giants control the world’s business, there is a place in the sun even for small countries. Many young men and women working with high-tech international companies in Malaysia left to open their own technology companies and have become successful as suppliers of service to their former employers.
Using English does not make a country less nationalistic or sovereign. On the contrary, as the Sultan of Johor has said openly, it has united Singaporeans into a single nation. It has also made them become a highly-developed country with one of the highest standards of living in the world by facilitating their entry into the world of technology.
It’s been said that China will soon become the largest English-speaking country in the world, replacing India. I tend to believe this because when I met Chinese business people and asked where they learned English to speak so well, they said it’s in their schools. I suppose China’s communist leaders must have taken seriously what Lee Kuan Yew told them when their country was beginning to open its doors to the world economy. He said that without English, China would get nowhere.
The lesson for Malaysia is obvious. As we face new competitors in traditional manufacturing with the rise of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and later Myanmar too, we are likely to face the same experience that Singapore went through – get kicked out of the market. So we have to go into new areas and the most promising, because of the vast opportunities, is the world of finance, science and technology.
These skill-intensive economic sectors operate exclusively in English, not in Hebrew, Mandarin or Malay. These languages will endure but they cannot replace English as the global language of progress in the modern world of high-speed interconnectivity.
Link to original article in The Star