Language politics in Malaysia

By Sern Li Lim (From The Backbench - Issue No. 16 of August, 2005)

Two days ago I flagged down a cab from a mall in the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. Upon entering, I noticed the cab driver was of Malay descent and therefore informed him of my destination in the Malay language. To my surprise, he replied instantly in confident but heavily accented Cantonese (a Chinese dialect), with a smirk on his face. This was indeed a surprise for me. Although I do know and hear of a minority of Malays that do speak Mandarin (Standard Chinese) as a product of studying in a vernacular Chinese medium school, actually being able to converse face to face with someone like that was something I have never experienced.
As the journey to my destination progressed, we conversed about a few things, namely Malaysia and its road towards greater multicultural understanding. Kamal was indeed one who understood well the concept of tolerance, acceptance and the need to understand people at their most basic level beyond the racial stereotypes embedded in Malaysia’s vibrant, but at times volatile history of inter-racial relations.
I asked him why and how did he pick up Cantonese, a rarity especially for those outside Chinese racial circles, and his answer was clear. In order to understand another culture, firstly, you have to understand the language. He went on to describe to me, with much pride in himself, how he managed to pick up bits and pieces of the language just by actively socializing with his Chinese housemate in the city in one year.
What he said was indeed true of a country whose history has demonstrated the fragile nature of inter-racial relationships that reached boiling point on May 13th 1969. On this day, racial riots on a scale unheard of in the history of the Malay peninsular erupted. To the horror of many neutral and tolerant Malaysians, this incident would drastically change the landscape of inter race relations. To this day, textbooks are filled with teachings of the importance of racial understanding, the values of tolerance and its effect on the future of the country. The recently introduced National Service is the latest embodiment of this idea, of increased inter-racial contact, contrary to most assumptions of it being security related, as deep seeded paranoid fears of another May the 13th still gloss the minds of many Malaysians.
In current day, the reality is clear. Racial lines are being drawn yet again. The lack of understanding in this generation, two generations after the Second World War is due to severe mismanagement on part of certain Government policies. The biggest flaw that was not foreseen was the conversion of the education system and its entire teaching and learning syllabus into Malay. When independence was granted in 1957, the new government of Malaysia pledged to restore Malay as the official national language, primarily by means of the education system. The National Education Act of 1961 recommended that two types of primary schools be permitted: “national” schools, that would carry out instruction in the Malay language, and “national-type”schools, that would be allowed to carry out instruction in English, Chinese, or Tamil. The Chinese and Tamil secondary schools were subsequently phased out. When the National Language Act was passed in 1967, Malay became the official national language; however, English was allowed to continue as the second national language. The New Education Policy of 1970 made enrollment in English (as well as Malay) courses compulsory in all schools, but the English-medium national-type schools were required to undergo a conversion to the Malay medium by 1980. The de-emphasizing of English as the prime means of education saw the steady erosion of ethnic tolerance and understanding.
Malaysia, a country of 23 million is also a country with 3 races; namely the majority Malays consisting of more than half the population followed by around one quarter Chinese and the rest Indian (and a strong presence of other ethnic groups i.e. Eurasian, a sizeable Sikh community, Cambodians and Vietnamese). Each group lost a common and neutral platform of contact with the erosion of English as the first language. The leaders of Malaysia constantly draw heavily from Japan as a source of inspiration as a developing country. Common rhetoric in the 1980s to 90s was “If they (the Japanese) could progress so quickly using their mother tongue, why can’t we?” This view has to be one of the most naïve, short sighted and misguided adaptations of a model selfishly exploited for political gain in the history of the country.
The facts of the matter are glaring. Japan, ethnically, is almost homogenously perfect. There are no racial lines to be drawn and therefore people are largely united in every issue of national importance and the preservation of the Japanese race. The Japanese people also possess the national sprit absent in Malaysians that became the main driver for economic progress after the war. The Japanese peoples’ self sacrificing threshold and regard for a common good can only be dreamt of in Malaysia. Furthermore, the translation of Western knowledge for diffusion in Japan is on a level unheard of on these tropical shores, whose public sector efficiency is somewhat a common joke endlessly being paraded in the local kopitiams.
For Malaysia to lose that common base for promoting understanding is extremely dangerous for ethnic stability, especially in a country whose population have enough numbers on all ethnic sides to inflict serious damage, permanently, in the worst case scenario. With the presence of such numbers, the tendency of reluctance to pick up a language other than a neutral one, in this case, Malay, becomes somewhat heightened because of pride and historical stereotypes. Throughout history, the majority Malays have been considered inferior by other races due to economic reasons that were aggravated by British colonists. This view has dwindled more significantly in today’s era. However strong stereotypes still exist and are held covertly because of security concerns and the ongoing failure of pro-Malay assistance programs held to discontent by the rest of the population. Picking up English however would be more of a realistic view for many, after considering its economic, social and political significance around the globe.
Taking Singapore as a fine example; the Government down south does not impose Mandarin on all its citizenry even though 77% of its population is ethnically Chinese. English has remained as the common platform of understanding since colonial times and as a bonus proved to be Singapore’s best held assets in its FDI attracting rampage in its development years. The preservation of mother tongues has also been held to importance by the PAP Government with street signs and public announcements done in 4 languages, to show the population’s tolerance, valuation and most importantly, recognition, of each ethnic group’s rich culture and heritage. The effect of such a simple gesture goes deeper as it demonstrates the Government’s will and determination to instill values of non-exclusion and non-isolation / devaluation on minority ethnic groups among its entire people. In essence, Singapore represents a micronism of the Malaysia that could have been. Its separation is in some ways a blessing and it presents such a successful model of reflection for the Malaysian Government and Malaysians in general.
At the end of the trip, I was delighted with Kamal’s great understanding of such a basic concept of language and its place in unifying human societies. As I got out of the cab, I thanked him in Malay while he replied in Cantonese with that smirk on his face. I guess Malaysia, and even more so the world, really does needs more people like him - people who have such a far sighted and open view of the situation around them, who face human contact on an everyday basis and are able to spread the call for understanding and tolerance in a world of endless murder by gunpowder.

Sern Li Lim is a Malaysian student studying Politics and Economics at Sydney University.

Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"