Recently I attended an international business conference in Thailand that focused on the neighbouring and emerging markets of Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. It was hosted by a Thai institution, the attendees were overwhelmingly foreigners – of all nationalities, Western as well as Asian – and the three main presenters were from various countries, none of them native English speakers. It started well; the moderator welcomed the attendees in English, thanked the host and set the scene for an interesting morning. It was only when the host began to talk that the wheels started to fall off.
He spoke in Thai. To an international audience. The Italian next to me asked, ‘what is he saying, and why is he speaking in Thai?’ How could I answer? It was ridiculous: that institution couldn’t find someone – anyone – who could speak English? It made them look (and sound) parochial and insensitive. The presentations all were in English (of course), with varying levels of proficiency, but perfectly understandable, and questions and answers in English. To close, the same man, again, in Thai. The delegates could not conceal their annoyance at this. What was the point of him speaking? It made me wonder and ask myself, has Thailand lost the plot when it comes to foreign languages, or was this their way of saying – and showing – that they just don’t care?
What I do know is that, by the time this column is published, the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) project will have started. Countries with flexible, educated workforces that can communicate outside their borders have an advantage. Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam should do well; Cambodia, Laos and Thailand not so. Myanmar is in a case on its own, its economy is developing so quickly – great news after years of isolation – that they can concentrate on domestic growth if they wish. There are excellent opportunities around the region for anyone who is smart, speaks English and is flexible with a good attitude towards hard work. Lazy people can stay at home. And for those who can’t communicate outside their own country, here’s some news: the rest of ASEAN doesn’t need you.
In our offices we are seeing ever greater demand for motivated individuals with initiative and who can communicate in English. Our clients increasingly don’t mind from which ASEAN country the person comes, just that they have the right attitude to work and want to grow their careers. If that’s you, then let us know. But if you’re busy loving the soap operas on your local TV rather than enrolling at an English language school, keep on doing it and don’t bother us.