By Syed Akbar Ali
If you have been watching Astro Awani, I have made a few appearances on the talk shows on Awani including Meja Bulat and also Vantage Point with Mano Maniam. The most recent topic we discussed was ‘branding Malaysia’ on Vantage Point. It was only 24 minutes of recording with two people speaking, so it is less than 12 minutes of talk time each. I couldn’t say everything I wanted to say.
I managed to say a little about language. I wanted to say a lot more but time was short. So I want to pursue a little more of my thoughts about language here.
As a nation that needs to maximize its economic opportunities (just like any other nation) we are not branding ourselves right when it comes to language. In fact we are losing not just economic opportunities but we are also becoming worse as an incohesive nation (this is not by anyone’s deliberate design, it is because of changing circumstances or economic evolution beyond our control which also does revolve around language, religion, technology and even the rise of China)
I did speak about the Dutch in Holland. The Dutch and Malaysia have some great similarities. Both our countries are relatively small and strategically located in the middle of vast, vibrant and racially diverse economic regions. The Dutch sit at the mouth of the Rhine River - the entry point to continental Europe. Their port of Rotterdam, until 2004 the largest port in the world (overtaken by Shanghai) is still the gateway to Europe. From Rotterdam the Rhine is navigable all the way to Basle in landlocked Switzerland, passing Germany and France as well.
The Dutch are known as the ‘world’s shopkeepers’. They sell everything to the world. They cut their teeth in trade around the North Sea and also up and down the Rhine. To enable them to do this well, they learnt to speak "commercially viable" languages. Most students who go to school in Holland can speak up to three other languages (English, French and German) which (not coincidentally at all) are the main languages along the Rhine River as well as across the North Sea.
This fluency in foreign languages enables them to maximize the trade and economic opportunities presented by their strategic location in Europe. The Dutch are very successful as a nation and they enjoy an advanced standard of living. The Dutch are therefore more "Truly European".
Malaysia too is indeed “Truly Asian”. We have the major regional peoples all living together in our country. South East Asia is substantially Malay centric with Malaysia, Indonesia, Southern Thailand, the Phillipines, Brunei and Singapore being essentially Malay in history, culture and language. We are also right next up to Thailand, the Phillipines and also close to Vietnam, Myanmar, China and other countries in this region.
There is an increasing growth in trade and people movement across this region and we are smack in the middle of it all. Malaysia will always be the crossroads of people movement and interaction in this region. We need to really take advantage of this situation. It can provide us greater trade and economic opportunities.
Like the Dutch, we too must teach all the regional languages in our schools especially in schools that border different countries. Imagine schools in northern Perak, Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan and Penang teaching Thai to our students. Actally why havent we done this yet?
To digress, when I was in Penang Free School in 1978 the toilet sign in school was also written in Thai. I assumed that there were many Thai speakers in the school too. From Penang my friends and I went camping to Pulau Langkawi – at that time Dr Mahathir was not the PM yet. There were hardly any roads on Langkawi. There was just a wooden jetty at Kuah onto which you had to jump down from the boat at high tide.
And on Langkawi, the lingua franca was also Thai. Many locals watched Thai TV (kickboxing) just like in Padang Besar on the Perlis-Thai border. They also listened to Thai radio. Among themselves they spoke Thai.
If our people in the border regions (Perlis, Kedah, Penang, northern Perak, Kelantan) could speak Thai, it would greatly facilitate trade, business, investment and people movement between Thailand and the northern part of the Peninsula. This will mean more economic development for all sides. Isnt that a good thing?
The same goes for our relations with the Phillipines. There are many Filipinos visiting not just Sabah but also Kuala Lumpur. If we could speak the Filipino language as well, it will give rise to greater opportunities for business, trade and tourism between our countries. Lets learn from the Dutch. Learning the regional languages will amplify our strategic location in the middle of this region. It will bring us commercial benefits. Lets do this yesterday.
The other language that is becoming commercially most expedient in this region is Mandarin. The 1.5 billion strong caravan from China has started moving along the Silk Road. Like it or not, this is a juggernaut. It is going to “trade” with everything in its way.
We have extra advantages here in that our 7.0 million strong Chinese citizenry is also well placed to gain commercial advantage for the country. It will be farsightedness if we teach Mandarin to all Malaysian school kids. The future is all about economic and trade opportunities and how competitive we become. Learning Mandarin will give us another head start.
If we cannot compete, please don’t blame other people. In the 1950s we could not compete, in the 60s it was the same. The 70s saw some improvement, the 80s had high hopes. Then in the 90s the IT revolution made the gap wider again. The "digital divide" is now getting even wider. (Just how many people can read the Blogs? Very very few. So how many people can share the information that you and I are sharing now? We cant be writing on the wall)
In 2000, China popped out of nowhere. Then technology is advancing at lightning speed – and mostly in the English language. The gaps are widening again. Going into 2020, others are racing way ahead of us. So in relative terms we are falling behind again. We must do everything that will make us compete better. Lets not do anything that will make us waste time, waste our life and be unable to compete.
There is not much point teaching Arabic in school (or sending our students to study in Arabic countries). It is a waste of resources. There is also no point in writing road signs in Jawi. I think this is unthinking behavior. The purpose of signboards is to show the way or point the direction. What is the point of writing in Jawi which definitely cannot be understood or read by the vast majority of Malays. Stop any Malay on the street and ask him or her to read a Jawi sign and they will go blank.
In the old days I am the guy who (once in a while) used to buy the Utusan Melayu newspaper – just for the heck of practicing my Jawi reading. Nowadays you can organize a Treasure Hunt just to go looking for the Utusan Melayu newspaper. I don’t think it is in print anymore. If it is, I dont know where to get it. For those of you who are not familiar with the Utusan Melayu here is a picture, thanks to Google Images. The front page headers were printed in pink colour !
Boleh baca tak tajuk utama? Jangan klentong.
It says "Sikap orang kaya utama barangan import di selar" (I think).
Just to test my theory, I asked my better half if she could read the title. We broke up laughing when she went "Sikap orang kafir . . " The point is few people read Jawi. And definitely Jawi cannot be read by Chinese and Indians - who are also our citizens. Takkan kita tak peduli orang lain? So why the big fuss about Jawi signboards?
And it has now become a silly political issue. Some ‘tak ada modal’ politicians (Malay and non Malay) make the Jawi signboards a big issue. It only causes tension. Tak ada kerja lain ke?
Regular Roman letters (Rumi script) signboards are fine and can be read by everyone. That is the No. 1 purpose of signboards – to communicate. Jawi signage just fails to do that.
And now one clown in Penang says that if the Pakatan wins the next General Election, they will also make Chinese and Tamil the national language of Malaysia. I say thambi, anna what about Kadazan Dusun? Or Iban? Lu mari sini turun kapal (macam ‘tok saya juga) sudah mau bikin ‘national language’ kah? Dahsyat lu. Mana boleh?
Then what about the Sikhs, the Malayalis, the Telugus, the Benggalis, the Uttar Pradesh and the 'Pakistan' ? They are also Indians. Why not include them in the national language? I think we can get Sikh newsreaders but what time will RTM slot them in? Depa bukan bangun sahur pun.
And what do you mean by Chinese? Namewee has made a song complaining why despite the Hokkiens being the majority, all the Chinese business in Malaysia is controlled by the Cantonese speaking? (That’s what I understood ok.) So shall we have Hokkien and Cantonese too as our national language? Why should the Hokkien majority defer to Mandarin?
One Tamil friend pointed out to me that despite there being almost 100 million Tamils in India, Tamil is not even an official language in India. Habis macam mana mahu jadi official language in Malaysia?
In Malaysia, most Tamil speakers are at the lowest rung of the economy. Meaning that in Malaysia, the Tamil language has not been able to move the Tamils up the economic ladder. Before you Tamil warriors get upset, the same applies for the Tamil language in India. Many Tamils in India are poor. The exceptions are the Tamil computer software engineers and software writers in India who all must speak English – the language of wealth and economic advancement in India. English illa, kaasu illa (no English no money).
The time has also come where we must seriously consider merging the school system into just one school system ie based on Bahasa Malaysia and English only. We need to abolish the Chinese and Tamil language school system. The Chinese and Tamil language heroes say that if Chinese and Tamil schools are abolished, their language and culture will also disappear. Wrong.
There are 1.5 billion Chinese in China who will make sure that the Chinese language, culture and the Chinese people will never disappear from the face of the earth. The same argument applies for the 1.0 billion Indians in India. This however is Malaysia. It is not and cannot be China or India.
When Chinese, Indians and anyone else migrate to Australia they learn to speak English in a jiffy. No one asks for Tamil or Mandarin to be made national languages in Australia. No one sings the Waltzing Matilda in Tamil or Mandarin in Australia.
The same logic applies to Malaysia. It is high time non Malays in Malaysia learn to speak Malay like a native Malay. Getting straight As for Bahasa Malaysia in the SPM does not mean anything if you still say ‘saya api kereta naik mari’ or ‘saya naik keleta api mali sini.”
It is not cute anymore. Actually it is quite embarrasing. Please lets speak the language the way it should be spoken.
To conclude, I must stress on the usage of English. In the present economic ecosystem that impacts our country and our racially diverse range of people, English is the jalan pintas, the short cut to economic advancement, wealth and happiness for all of us.
Of course the wealthy Malay text book publishing mafia at Dewan Bahasa Pustaka as well as the very wealthy Chinese textbook publishing mafia at the Dong Zhiao Zhong will strenuously disagree. Their bank accounts are at stake. We have to focus on the English language. There are no two ways about it.
The main medium in all our schools should be English and Malay. Science, Mathematics and perhaps a few other subjects must be taught in English. The other language being Malay. Percayalah if we don’t do this, lagi 50 tahun pun kita akan masih merangkak, meraba, mengelabah dan merana.
Malay should be the language of politics, the language at home and in the neighbourhoods but it is not yet the language of economic and technical advancement. Not yet. Our future generations must sort that out, AFTER we have become an advanced, modern and independent people.
40 years have gone by and now we see Malay speakers more at a disadvantage. If the world had stood still since 1970, it would have been ok to drop English and switch to Malay. But the world has not stood still. More people in the world now are English dependent. More people around the world are advancing at a rapid pace by speaking and relying on English.
The Internet, IT, the mind boggling and almost magical technology is available in huge quantity in English. Who is going to translate all that into Malay? How are the makcik and pakcik in the kampong going to know anything about all these new developments around the world? Do we just condemn them to harvesting oil palms, potong getah and tanam jagung?
Melayu boleh bangga dengan bahasa Melayu, tetapi jika kekal dalam keadaan miskin, how much good will that do for us? Please consider this very carefully. In whatever we do, let us use common sense and see what is good for the people.