The politics of language

MARCH 9 — It may have been overshadowed by a farcical constitutional crisis and a prehistorically sexist fixation on the bedroom time of a politician, but the groundswell of popular dissent over the use of English in schools — which drew thousands of protestors out onto the streets of KL and prompted the long-delayed reappearance of the PDRM tear gas canister — is one of the most serious conundrums facing the interminably conundrum-infested issue of Malaysian identity.

If Umno’s higher-ups know anything about political strategy — and they do, despite having grown lazy and arrogant over the years thanks to a shortage of potent external challenges — they will be exceedingly worried about this, since it further reduces the credibility of their traditional base message of Malay-above-all.

When it comes to politics, nothing beats a tried-and-tested trick, which is why despite exiting the empire we Malaysians have continued to organise ourselves along the ethno-linguistic lines that the British utilised — for one, it makes us easier to govern. While it is obvious how our loose consociation benefits the ruling elites, they are not the only ones to have gained; the force of our mistrust for one another — which, despite what your parents or grandparents may have told you, has always influenced the course of our young nation — causes us to see good sense in these communitarian divisions. At least at face value, they give us the solace of secure democratic representation for our race and, perhaps more importantly, prevent each of our cultural temples from being defaced or even demolished by the presence of hordes of conniving/lazy/avaricious/dirty/stupid/miserly Others.

Languages have always been the cornerstones of these temples. The fear that our children may lose the lingo of our ancestors — and the attendant fear that such a loss will be caused by their adoption of inferior alien tongues — has led to conflicts about the sanctity of vernacular schools and, most recently, this uproar due to Bahasa Malaysia being usurped by English in maths and science classes.

This unwise and short-sighted policy was met with no more than sporadic grumbling when it was first introduced five years ago, but disgruntlement has apparently festered in the background and now, in the midst of the eventful politics of the past year, conditions have arisen which are conducive to the transition from discontent to mass action.

There are good arguments in support of the protests — there is no reason to assume that the teaching of Science and Maths in English will do much to increase standards of English in the country, and neither is it likely to increase the competitiveness of Malaysian students in a global context — both of these goals are far more likely to be achieved by an efficient, comprehensive and ruthless overhaul to improve standards of teaching, curriculum and infrastructure across all subjects and schools.

One does not have to look far to find countries that do not have English as a medium of instruction in schools and yet are fertile beds of research and development and remain supremely competitive in the global economy. Furthermore, Bahasa Malaysia is a precious national commodity that deserves to endure as a full-fledged language, equipped with the mechanisms for lexical expansion that can only be provided by constant and widespread usage. Cut BM out of the teaching of maths and science in schools, and you will slowly but inexorably cut it out of those fields for good.

At this point some readers will be scoffing at the description of BM as a precious national commodity. Sadly, for many Malaysians — of all races, although this attitude is less common among Malays — Bahasa Malaysia is an insignificant language, lacking the depth of a properly serious tongue. More than anything else, this attitude stems from a need to justify racist stereotypes by stretching them to cover every aspect of a culture, so that they appear systemic and coherent and thus true. For many it is beyond question that English is richer in tradition, more aesthetic, more sophisticated and ultimately more important than Bahasa Malaysia.

It is true that BM has a remarkably simple grammatical structure; the American radio host and polyglot Barry Farber once described it as the easiest language for a foreign speaker to pick up. However while some take this as a sign of its backwardness, it is in fact a source of great elegance. No other language exposes so damningly the superfluity of the complex tense structures that underlie English — the human mind can work out temporal context so effectively that such tense systems are scarcely more than decorative.

This does not at all mean that BM lacks decorative value. Its vocabulary is rich and unbelievably intricate and precise in its expressions (just try to locate the English equivalents for geram and dengki and you’ll see what I mean), and the quirks of its agglutinative apparatus allow one to shape any given verb or noun to express a wide variety of nuances — try using English to say terbeli or berkasut with similar brevity. This is not just elegant, but lends a barycentric quality to the main vocabulary of nouns and verbs that is nowhere near as prominent in English. Not that we should disregard English — it remains an evocative and useful part of our nation’s heritage, which we would be foolish to reject. But proficiency in English need not come at the cost of restricting the role BM plays in our public lives.

Unfortunately, the politicians and bureaucrats who have claimed over the years to be Bahasa Malaysia’s protectors and champions have done more than anyone else to sully its image in the minds of Malaysians. They have constructed a curiously schizophrenic national language ideology that forces BM upon non-Malays while at the same time preventing them from ever claiming full ownership of it. Non-Malays are told that to be Malaysian is to speak BM, and yet the language is depicted as the sacred property of the Malays.

While it is entirely desirable that the nation requires a competency in BM, there is no good reason to demand that it be referred to as Bahasa Melayu instead of Bahasa Malaysia, or to deny its roots and its tradition of mongrelry. BM shares its genes with Tagalog, Tongan and Chamorro, while its oldest influence is likely to have been Sanskrit. Over the centuries it has proved a consummate and shameless appropriator, pinching terms from Portuguese, Tamil, Dutch, Arabic, Hokkien, Persian and English — a practice that continues to this day. Yet students of BM in Malaysian schools are never taught any of this, and for all they know the language emerged fully formed out of some ark of Malay culture to which UMNO alone holds the key.

A radical reinvention of our national language policy has long been overdue, to finally put an end to these enduring colonial tensions. While precedents are few in number, Switzerland presents us with a very instructive model. Born out of a diversity of cantons flung together by a shared desire not to be conquered, Switzerland was a nation built out of nothing, formed in 1848 around a constitution that was intended, for pragmatic reasons, to give equal footing to German, French and Italian, the three main languages (later four, with the inclusion of the local indigenous language of Romanche).

There are many differences between Switzerland’s situation and our own; a crucial one is that they are the product of alliance rather than colonialism, and are only now coming to deal with the tensions that arise from incorporating immigrant communities within their national identity. However, their project to form a Willensnation, or ‘nation created by its own will’, is something that Malaysia can turn to for inspiration. Thanks to an insistence on pervasive multilingualism within the Swiss schooling system, as well as a firm adherence to the belief that their nation is founded in consensus, Switzerland now possesses a concrete national identity based around fairness, neutrality and humanitarian ideals (not to mention the concealment of dodgy monies from all over the world).

The creation of a Malaysian Willensnation requires that we all take on responsibilities towards the cultures and languages of this land. All that is required is a shared act of will.

Who will keep BM alive and vital if not us? Who else will use it to teach science and maths, history and philosophy, law and botany? The nation will be well served by the gradual introduction of a single, unified, multi-lingual education system modelled on the Swiss arrangement, which uses BM as the main language of instruction, while also offering proper instruction in — at the very least — Mandarin, Tamil and English.

Non-Malays who believe that the languages of their ancestors will languish because of this are simply suffering from paranoia, while those who believe that the academic standards of their community will drop if they cannot be taught in their own language are simply being parochial and racist. Equally, though, Malays need to accept — as the English have done — that while they can rightfully take pride in the language of their ancestors, they are no longer its sole proprietors. History has handed us all an equal share.

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