MALAYSIA Tanah Tumpah Darahku


Friday, July 7, 2017

Overcoming the politics of language in Malaysia

Should local doctors be able to speak Bahasa Malaysia (BM)? Indubitably.
Should they have to sit for six Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) papers in order to undertake house officer training?
A good primer on the whole case has been helpfully published by Malaysiakini.
It seems that as of Wednesday, even our Cabinet has seen that such a requirement would be silly, and has paved the way for the individuals involved to sit for just the BM paper, without having to sit for the other five core SPM subjects. Good for them.
It may be worthwhile to examine the context of this issue, and discuss the role of language in our social and political fabric.
Avoiding the politics of language
That language becomes politicised is neither particularly good nor particularly surprising.
Since Malaysia’s political faultlines are ethnically defined, issues like language usually dredge up the usual suspects (for example, Ibrahim Ali) invoking the same old racial sentiments.  
If we set aside these tired old warriors following the tired old scripts about how we must defend the dignity of our race from erosion et cetera, perhaps a meaningful discussion about language can still be had.
Malaysia is quite unique, regionally. With the exception of Singapore perhaps, which shares our heritage and colonial past, almost all of our neighbours differ substantially with regards to national language.
In Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines for instance, competence in the national language can safely be assumed of anyone walking in the street. In most instances, it is a first language, or a very competent second language.
In Malaysia this is considerably less so. It is true that almost everyone has some basic grasp of BM, but presumably, the average level of competency in the national language is lower than that of our neighbouring countries.
Talking to our fellow Malaysians
Of course, this is in large part due to the very different sociopolitical paths our respective countries have taken throughout history.
Some might even argue that such homogeneity in our neighbouring countries is in part due to a level of internal colonisation.
We can neither ignore nor go into detailed analysis of the various pros and cons of the policies that led to such internal homogeneity.
I will say though, that there are definite advantages to being in a country where you don’t stop to think about what language to address a fellow local in.
In places as varied as the United States and Sierra Leone, I noticed an interesting difference from Malaysia - people seemed more comfortable talking to complete strangers on the street.
I realised that a part of this was that in Malaysia, you aren’t always sure what language to start a conversation in, and that awkwardness sometimes discourages starting a conversation with our compatriots.
Just a day ago, I saw the hesitation in a plumber’s eyes as he did a quick mental calculation regarding what language to start talking to me to in (he settled on Cantonese, which I sadly am horribly non-proficient in).
SPM’s dwindling relevance
I’m not arguing that Malaysia should become like Indonesia or Thailand, where ethnic heritage is almost actively stamped out, with languages, cultural identity, and even names, being lost.
I just feel that language is one of those things that exacerbate one of the biggest problems Malaysia still faces - national unity.
It seems that over recent years, an already dismal attitude towards BM from non-Malays is getting worse and worse.
In my generation, I suppose the number of people my age who still took SPM, whether in private or government schools were probably still in the majority, while only the very rich would opt for international syllabi.
It would appear that that majority has been dwindling considerably. Indeed, the secondary school I myself attended now no longer even teaches SPM - instead only offering the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs.
This I suppose is a response to market forces, and the growing perception that our national school system is considerably sub-par.
That is an entire discussion unto itself, but there is no doubt that among the casualties of these developments is the continuing falling of BM by the wayside.
My oldest cousins, including those who migrated to the West, can still remember some BM from when they studied in local schools. Some of my youngest cousins here in KL barely speak the language at all, having no real reason to have ever studied or used it, beyond what little may be required to satisfy the bare minimum.
Given the option of a second language, it’s probably not uncommon for students to choose European languages over BM, given the perceived ‘prestige’.
Getting by without BM
The siloed nature of Kuala Lumpur makes it quite possible indeed to get by for the most part without speaking a word of BM (although it is interesting how quickly foreign workers develop proficiency in BM).
Not only can you probably get by just using English, if you were a mainlander Chinese who only spoke Mandarin, you could probably survive just fine as well.
Again, this wouldn’t be possible in our neighbouring countries.
A part of this is probably due to the fact that parents above a certain socioeconomic standing see little value in BM.
They see value in having their children complete an IGCSE or IB program. They probably see value in their children learning Mandarin or French. They do not seem to see value in investing time into BM.
Conflating BM and Umno
In some cases, it is “attitudinal” as well - an unfortunate lumping together of things like BM with things like Umno.
This somewhat lazy conflation is perhaps the worst tragedy, because it plays exactly into Umno’s hands.
The raison d’etre of ethnic-based political parties generally favours continued division. If Malaysia was truly united across ethnic lines, then what need would we have for Umno, MCA, MIC, et cetera?
Perhaps this is why the government has in fact let this linguistic balkanisation, mirrored by a wider ethnic balkanisation on the whole, continue fairly unabated over these last decades.
On the subject of political parties, I must say that one advantage of having worked in politics was developing a much wider spectrum of friends from different ethnic groups - something most of my peers and friends from growing up do not have as much of in their current lives.
Every step counts
All these things are big things, and we as individual humans tend to believe that we have little agency.
But of course we do. Big things are always ultimately made up of individual people.
In this case, perhaps what we can do is to try and be a little more encouraging of the little things - perhaps starting with language.
If our children can’t really speak BM, let’s try to do what we can to bridge that gap. Time and resources are always limited, no doubt, but every little bit counts.
Any parent can help to make sure a kid can read signboards, order food at the mamak stall, and so on.
I think it is becoming increasingly common that children have fewer and fewer friends outside their own ethnic groups.
Surely we can try to change that. Or at least make sure that children without the exposure older Malaysians may have had know as much as they can about different cultural norms.
It would not hurt to take them to a Raya open house (I am terribly embarrassed to say I have not been invited to a single one, or a single buka puasa this season), or even to the local pasar malam, if they haven’t been.

There is a lot of ground to cover, but I truly do believe, that every single step will help.

NATHANIEL TAN is happily tutoring a family friend in O-Levels BM. He also thinks Wan Saiful Wan Jan’s idea for a BM TOEFL (TOMFL?) is a great idea!- Mkini


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