Saturday, 14 December, 2002

Mahathir turns English teacher

By Jonathan Kent
In Kuala Lumpur

The Prime Minister of Malaysia, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, is spearheading a drive to improve the standard of English among the country's citizens.
The move, which involves a switch to teaching maths and science in English from an early age, has provoked fierce opposition even from within the government.
Malaysia inherited English as the language of public education when it won independence from Britain in 1957 and many of the older generation here speak it very well.
But 30 years ago English in education was sidelined in an upsurge of Malay nationalism and replaced by Bahasa Malaysia - the Malay language.
The driving force behind that move was a man who had then recently been kicked out of the governing party for his "Malay ultra" views - one Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
Since then English as it's spoken in Britain and English as it's spoken in Malaysia have gone their separate ways.
I remember vividly sitting in an English lesson at school as our teacher, affectionately known as Alf, likened the language to a woman of negotiable virtue.
He explained how English has intermingled with just about every culture it's rubbed up against.
Thus '"thug" is an offspring of Hindi. "Barbecue" comes from a liaison with Haiti and what is now Guyana. "Toboggan" is begotten of the Native Americans. And "calendar" is a gift from Arabic.
Just about the only word to have filtered in from Malay is "amok", as in to run amok or go crazy. But the process has been a two-way street.
English has scattered its children around the world, not exactly orphaned but largely left to fend for themselves.
Malaysia is no exception and I am completely captivated by Manglish, and its Singaporean sister Singlish. Each can be readily identified by the liberally applied and completely meaningless suffix "lah". Let me furnish you with a few examples, together with a translation into English at it is spoken within the hallowed portals of the BBC:

But my current favourite is one a friend came out with recently while at daggers drawn with one of Kuala Lumpur's legion of very approximate drivers: "Hornwat lah?"
It roughly translates as: "If you dare lean on your horn again you half-witted, short sighted, can't tell one end of a car from another - so and so, I'll get jolly, jolly cross."
However, as I'm sure you'll agree, "horn what?" is rather more succinct.
I can imagine Manglish catching on in some of the trendier parts of the English-speaking world - but until then it's not widely understood.
And it's the wish to be understood that's driving the government's latest policy.
That "Malay ultra" of 30-something years ago, Dr Mahathir, went on to become Malaysia's fourth prime minister.
And after more than two decades in power his last great project before he retires next October is to once again make English the language of education.
One of the endearing things about Dr Mahathir is that while most politicians of even junior rank learn to quell their quirks and foibles, he gives his full rein.
One senator told me recently that the prime minister was once struck by the realisation that there was a niche market to be exploited in embroidered beach towels. A village in northern Malaysia duly set to work producing them.
A senior minister confided how he regularly raises in cabinet meetings the felling of notable trees in Kuala Lumpur - there's apparently even a memorial to a fine specimen he'd wanted preserved on the island of Langkawi.
And so with English. Dr Mahathir realises that English is the key to Malaysia's future competitiveness in world markets and so 30 years of education policy is put into reverse.
Science and maths will now be taught in English from the outset. Mother tongue education groups have been moved to protest - Tamil, Chinese and Malay alike.
It's often been said that the great fault-lines in Malaysian society are between the races - but the English issue redraws them.
For the middle classes of each ethnic group are relatively well versed in English.
The divisions illuminated by this latest debate are not between Malay, Chinese and Indian but between have and have not.
None of the mother tongue education groups say they're against better teaching of English, but all raise the same objection.
Children from poorer backgrounds will suffer most because at home they speak Malay, Tamil or Mandarin - not English - and they will struggle to grasp abstract concepts in an unfamiliar language.
One largely unspoken motive of this move is Dr Mahathir's desire to draw Malaysia's races ever closer together, to bind the racial wounds of the past. But in doing so he may be opening new, if different ones.
The power of English, to bring understanding, is also one to exclude.