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Thursday, September 29, 2016

Is it really because of Zahid’s English?


The Internet in Malaysia broke on Tuesday when the public got a hold of the link to the United Nation’s video page showing our Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi addressing the general debate of the 71st Session of the General Assembly of the UN in New York.
Malaysians all took to social media to share the video along with their comments, which were mainly targeted at how bad Zahid’s presentations skills were and especially his poor command of English pronunciation and enunciation.
He was obviously struggling to read the text of his speech on the teleprompter and he appeared to be very nervous. Personally, I found it hard to understand what he was saying without concentrating hard to listen to the words he was saying.
People on social media were merciless. They criticised the senior national leader for not having mastered the English language. They said that he is an embarrassment to the country and that he doesn’t deserve to represent us on the international stage.
Most of the reaction on social media, however, were leaning more towards mocking and making fun of Zahid. They teased him, roasted him and meme’d him. Personally, I found it very funny too - both his presentation and the public’s reaction on social media.
Then there is the other camp that defended Zahid, saying that it doesn’t matter if his English speaking skills are weak. At least he tried. They also accused the other camp of being elitists and arrogant for making fun of his English.
The members of this camp also say that there are so many other national leaders who speak English worse than Zahid, or don’t speak it at all. Well, it would depend on who you want to benchmark with, wouldn’t it?
But here’s the thing though. Do people really think that Zahid is being roasted solely because of his weak English? I think that the cause of this reaction is much deeper. I think that the issue with his English happens to be the catalyst that has opened up the floodgates to make fun of him.
We need to acknowledge that Malaysia has a legacy issue with the English language. We inherited its usage from our colonial masters and it has always been a language that symbolises education and prestige (it may be elitist and untrue, but that’s how it is perceived).
With that being said, I do totally understand that knowing how to speak English well doesn’t guarantee that you will be an intelligent and good politician or leader. There are many examples of good, efficient and accountable leaders who have achieved so much without knowing how to speak English.
Could it be possible that if Zahid were a more well-liked politician and leader, his roasting on the Internet wouldn’t have been this severe? Could it be that if he were a better and more accountable politician and leader, people would have been more forgiving of his UN speech?
Here is someone who has a reputation to speak with the arrogance due to his powerful position at home that he disregards the rights of the people. Here is someone who regularly curbs democracy and free speech without regard to the constitution.
Can you then blame the people who now get a chance to turn the tables, albeit in such a small and insignificant way, on him? How bad can a bit of teasing and laughing really be in a situation like that?
Stooping low
Sure, the other camp argues that we have to be matured enough to be able to separate Zahid’s flaws as a politician and national leader with that of his English speaking skills and that we’re stooping low by laughing at him. Well, I’m certain the people are already matured enough to distinguish it.
But can you blame the people, who are in a situation where they are frustrated with a system that they can see no feasible way to change, just taking a quick comedic and humourous respite? Personally, I think that is quite okay.
What is going to happen is that Zahid will just ignore what people are saying about him on social media (it seems like he’s doing so now) and then the system, and the whole of Malaysia, is going to continue with the status quo. There will be no landslide effect whatsoever from this issue.
Look, it’s good of Zahid to want to improve his English by having the commitment and gumption to go ahead with his address at the UN. Hats off to him for that. But he is a public figure, and as a public figure, he is open to public criticism. That’s democracy, right?
Look at George W Bush when he was president of the United States. He was constantly made fun of and mocked because of the way he speaks. What other fun can the people have? It’s just fodder for some good comedy.
To me, everyone can criticise or support Zahid today, yesterday or even tomorrow for whatever he does. That’s what freedom of speech guarantees, just as long as there is no hate-speech or inciting of violence going on. So let’s all just relax and take this in stride.

ZAN AZLEE is a writer, documentary filmmaker, journalist and academic. He would much rather write and speak in Manglish than the Queen’s English. Visit FATBIDIN.COM to view his work.-Mkini

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