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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

It is not English football, it is football



“D’oh!”
- Homer Simpson
Friends of mine and Malaysiakini subscribers who communicate with me through email asked my opinion on the ‘If only Faiz could speak!’ and other similar articles. I consider Malaysiakini contributor Terence Netto a friend and while I was surprised at Netto's piece because it was such a polarising issue, I was even more surprised because it garnered an immediate response from the Malaysiakini team that was the equivalent to a spank on the behind.
I must be really out of it because I really did not realise that this was an issue. Before I begin, I hope everyone got what I did with the title of this piece... never mind.
To be honest, I did not expect the kind of commentary on the issue that I read in all the links, my friends, and especially those that regular Malaysiakini subscribers sent me. While online commentary has been (naturally) vicious, what I did not expect is in some places, Malaysiakini was blamed for what Netto wrote as if the piece was Malaysiakini's editorial stance on the matter.
Let me be very clear. Everything I write for Malaysiakini are my own opinions and not endorsed by Malaysiakini. With this in mind, here is my view on the issue.
Mohd Faiz Subri won an international football award and if one is into football - apparently many are in Malaysia - it should be something that brings us together. So what if he did not speak "good" English? This after all was not an elocution contest but rather an event where football enthusiasts celebrate the sport.
Furthermore, this was an opportunity for fans of the sport to celebrate what Faiz said about training, hard work, commitment, etc, which should be the focus of public commentary and not his delivery, which in a way was kind of disarming.
Football fans the world over - some of whom do not speak English - were not watching the show expecting a "I have a dream speech". What they were cheering - especially young fans - was the dream of achieving something great in a sport, which either as participant or audience, they have dedicated time, energy and effort to.
Faiz says he chose to speak in English because there was no interpreter provided by the organisers. Obviously, his facility with the language is lacking but considering the occasion, the audience and the fact his nerves must have been frayed, I give him points for making an attempt. I have seen non-Malay sports personalities speaking in public and they do not speak in the Queen's English, yet they are not judged by the same standards this footballer is.
And because of the political situation in the country, every opportunity is used to score points and it just comes off as mean spirited but then again this has always been the defining characteristic of online commentary.
Wasn’t there a film recently about Malaysian football which was embraced because of its so-called multi-racial/multi-cultural values? One of the main themes of the film was that Malaysians supposedly had this sense of fraternity in the good old days that somehow got lost in translation in contemporary times. Was this sense of fraternity based on the fact that we all spoke in the Queen’s English or was it based on the reality that we got along despite the fact that we all spoke different languages and came from different cultures?
We always say that the “gomen” divides us but the reality is that these days, every opportunity is grasped to describe what it wrong with this country instead of using the opportunity to celebrate in the “others” success. I remember when our national badminton champion was mocked because of his political affiliation and his professional success denigrated because it only “helped” the establishment.
In every sporting event, the race of the participants is scrutinised and political axes brought to bear, if there is any hint that the establishment somehow “benefits” from the win. National policies are dredged up and the discussion revolves around how the system is biased and how we cannot move forward as one people.
Malaysiakini’s Hazlan Zakaria wrote, “It is true that Faiz struggled with his acceptance speech, but it should not be allowed to detract and steal the thunder from his achievement”, which bothered me, because how Faiz delivered his speech should not even warrant serious public commentary but the fact that it did, is indicative of how far this country has gone downhill in terms of how we celebrate “Malaysian” success.
Missing the point
I get it. Language is a political issue in this country. Education is a political issue in this country. Many of us, who were from an education system that not only nurtured different values but reflected a different era in Malaysian politics, see the collapse of our education system as the root of all the problems in this country. We live in an era were public officials chide us for not speaking the national language or mock our cultures on a daily basis.
However, any attempts at taking the opportunity to turn this into a “what is wrong with our country” moment, is self-defeating, petty and wrong-headed. Going over Faiz's every move and pondering how he could have done things better when delivering his speech is missing the point as is linking his delivery to what is wrong with the country or his handlers, but unfortunately it’s normal in these polarising times where anyone is a target.
Mind you, I am from that particular school of free speech were most anything is permissible and if people want to turn this occasion into anything they like, they are free to do so. However, what really bothers me about the anonymous online venom - besides the fact that most often those criticising Faiz’s proficiency in the language are no better themselves - is the sub rosa racism that permeates these kinds of criticisms.
As I said, this was not a political event. This was not a speech about policy. This was not a situation where political pundits could have pointed out the inherent contradictions between what our politicians say when they are overseas and how they behave at home. This was a sporting celebration, where people come together for the love of the game. A game that transcends, ethnicity, nationality, religion and, yes, even language. But what happens here in the online world of Malaysia? We put the game back in that box and make sure everyone knows of our political preoccupations.
There is a big difference between acknowledging the importance of not being distracted by a personal win and improving the national standard as articulated by Johor crown prince Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim, and using Faiz’s lack of proficiency in the English language to remind people of our poor education system.
It is a matter of context but more importantly, the latter allows for anonymous online polemics that has nothing to do with sports and personal achievement but everything to do with partisans, furthering favoured political narratives that more often proves toxic to the national discourse.
To me, it is a bit disconcerting. I get many mails from readers who communicate with me in Bahasa Malaysia and tell me about the issues facing their community and how disconnected they feel from the general oppositional movement. So while I understand the importance of English, I just cannot help but feel a disconnect here.
While I think English is important, I just don’t see how it helps us in communicating with the majority of Malaysians, as opposed to just communicating in your echo chamber of choice. Perhaps this is an issue for another article.
Ultimately the great irony of course is that the criticisms levelled at Faiz say more about our lack of civility but more importantly, our sense of fraternity than his lack of proficiency in English says about the state of the education system in this country.

S THAYAPARAN is Commander (Rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy.- Mkini
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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