Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak introduced a dual-language programme during his budget speech last week.
The poll highlights the challenges for Malaysia even as the World Bank's annual Doing Business report showed the country is making progress on becoming more investor-friendly, having made it easier and less costly for companies to pay taxes.
"Malaysia has lost its competitiveness due to our standards in English going down," AirAsia Bhd co-founder Tan Sri Tony Fernandes said on Twitter this month.
It's a critical time "to reverse decades of decline in English", he said. "Our children have suffered."
The government has flip-flopped on policies for English for more than a decade. A delay in August on making it a compulsory pass subject in a major exam for secondary-school students renewed debate about the education system.
It drew criticism from manufacturers who say the move would weaken efforts to make Malaysian graduates more employable amid a goal of becoming a high-income nation by 2020.
"As it moves towards this goal, it's inevitable that the use of English, be it in education or business, will be more prevalent," said Weiwen Ng, a Singapore-based economist at Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Ltd.
Measures to boost the use of the language are "a long-awaited step in the right direction".
The country shifted to Bahasa Melayu from English as the primary language used by teachers in a bid to promote integration between the Malay majority and ethnic Chinese. The government revived Maths and Science lessons in English in 2003, only to reverse that in 2012.
In 2013, an education blueprint said it would be compulsory to pass English for Fifth Formers taking a national exam starting 2016. That, too, changed in August.
The Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers, which represents more than 2,600 companies, said it was disappointed with the Education Ministry's decision to postpone making English a must- pass subject.
"The employability and quality of Malaysia's human capital is at stake and also the country's efforts to achieve developed nation status," it said.
Idris defended the government's move, saying it would give educators and students more time to prepare. He cited a competency assessment several years ago where 70pc of English teachers failed the Cambridge Placement Test.
"The fundamental problem is we have been entrenched for such a long time on Bahasa," Jala said.
"When you have the teachers not making the grade, surely you have fundamental problems."
Najib has announced plans to spend more than RM135 million in Budget 2016 to raise the proficiency in English, as well as Malay. The government is maintaining the budget allocation for the education ministry even as a separate one overseeing tertiary institutes faces a cut in proposed spending.
Still, the quality of Malaysian education hasn't kept pace with most peers in East Asia, the World Bank said in a 2013 report, highlighting a declining student performance in Maths, Science and deteriorating English proficiency.
Critics say the focus of Malaysia's spending may have been misplaced.
"It's all about building schools but not about changing the curriculum," Bridget Welsh, a senior research associate at National Taiwan University's Centre for East Asia Democratic Studies, said about Najib's spending plan next year.