Tongue-lashing gets 'unpatriotic' English going again in Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR, 4 Nov 2001 (Agence France-Presse)

It was once considered unpatriotic to speak English in Malaysia, but globalisation is breathing new life into the language of the former colonial master.
All children will in future learn English from day one at school, the government announced last week, and a drive to recruit teachers from Britain and the United States is under way.
A tongue-lashing from Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, no great admirer of the colonisers who were ousted at independence in 1957, gave voice to the need for an English revival about a year ago.
He said that in a global information age dominated by English it was time Malaysians gave up the idea that learning the language was disloyal because "the future of our country is at stake"
English is more widely spoken in Malaysia than anywhere else in East Asia apart from Singapore, but there is increasing debate about declining standards in the language in schools and universities.
Before independence, all subjects were taught in English, but schools now use Malay, Mandarin or Tamil as the medium of instruction, with English as a separate course.
Anybody around Mahathir's generation -- he's 75 -- will scorn at the lack of English skills among the young.
"When I was at school," tourists are liable to be told by taxi drivers of a certain age, "we learned Shakespeare".
"Now, the kids, they know nothing-lah." The suffix 'lah' is a term sprinkled liberally through all conversations in English -- or what is known self-deprecatingly here as Manglish.
A book entitled "Manglish -- Malaysian English at its wackiest" says 'lah' has no meaning in itself "but is used for a variety of reasons, ranging from emphasis to softening the message".
The word is probably borrowed from Malay or Chinese dialects, says author Lee Su Kim. Malaysia's population of 23 million is made up of a majority of Malays, but about a third are ethnic-Chinese or Indian.
This multi-culturalism gave Mahathir a linguistic cane he used in June to beat Australia, another former British colony, where, unlike Malaysia, English is the first language.
Mahathir, who has run this Southeast Asian nation for two decades during which there has been occasional friction with Canberra, scornfully told a conference that Chinese in Australia had to learn to speak English with an Australian accent.
He proceeded to deliver a mocking demonstration with an appropriately-accented quotation from My Fair Lady, which sounded like "the rine in Spine fell minely on the pline."
The Australian government's reaction, if it was translated into Manglish, was basically: "Okay-lah, let it go."
But Mahathir's concern over the large numbers of high school students who fail their English examinations in his own country led to the establishment of a special committee to study the problem.
It decided to launch a recruitment drive for teachers, send local English teachers for training abroad, introduce two new English courses in high schools and set up a special teacher training institute.
While there may be a generation gap in the overall grasp of English, the chief minister of one Malaysian state recently showed there is also apparently a failure by some in authority to keep pace with modern usage.
Complaining that some young people in his state belonged to an alarming "pink metal cult", dressed in flamboyant outfits, drank and indulged in casual sex, he was particularly concerned about the possible subversive meaning of one of their favourite words.
"They chant the word 'gig'," he told The Star. "We are still trying to find out what it means."