This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on July 11, 2022 - July 17, 2022
No one in their right mind would dispute the supremacy of the Malay language in its official role as well as its proper use in our daily lives. But it was disappointing to say the least when our prime minister declared that government officials must only use the Malay language, and proudly so, at official functions and conferences abroad as the national language is ranked the tenth most popular in the world. He maintained, however, that English can still be used in countries or functions where it is the main language of communication.
Such a statement does not augur well for the education system, which has been struggling to improve students’ English proficiency standards. English language teachers who are sourced from public schools where the medium of instruction is the national language are struggling too. Attempts to increase the number of periods for English have failed at every attempt; neither has the cry to reintroduce English-medium schools to produce English language teachers been entertained.
It did not help that the chief secretary to the government echoed the prime minister’s comments by saying that he hoped the Public Service Department would consider action against those who ridicule the use of the Malay language in the civil service. We, however, believe that the national language has been put on a pedestal by the civil service and that there is no justifiable cause for threat or action. If at all, it is the civil service at large that needs to improve its English language proficiency as we strive to attract foreign direct investments into the country, and thus facilitate our welcome with business-friendly policies while competing fiercely with our neighbouring countries.
The role of Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) — the government statutory body established in 1956 and which is responsible for coordinating the use of the national language and promoting Malay literature — continues to transform. Its new mission is to make the Malay language one of the world’s main languages by using social media to reach out to the general public and create programmes that appeal to young audiences.
Thus, in the pipeline is a major overhaul of the DBP Act 1959 and National Language Act 1963/67, which will give the body enforcement powers according to the standards that it has now set. The proposed amendments to the DBP Act 1959 are aimed at regulating the use of the Malay language as enshrined in the Federal Constitution.
It has been proposed that those who do not respect the national language will be fined up to RM50,000 or imprisoned. It is heartening to read that it was never the intention of DBP to become the “language police”, nor is it “anti-English” but rather, it aims to protect the proper use of the national language.
The main concern in the past, and which continues to be so today, has been the improper use of the Malay language in advertisements, on signage and in speech. DBP has also proposed that approval needs to be obtained from the body before wordings are used and this is thus a reasonable request to enforce standards. The new danger lies in the jargon used casually among netizens, where they express themselves in their private space — derogatory yet amusing terms such as “mak kau ijau”, “nasi lemak 50 sen” and “mangkuk ayun”. Therefore, if the Malay language is learnt and used properly, there is no reason to feel intimidated. The question is, where does one draw the line?
The president of PAS has jumped onto the bandwagon, adding insult to injury. He remarked that those who are in favour of the English language are “stuck in a colonial mindset”. He claims that we are embarrassed to use our national language, placing a greater importance on the English language. He has misread, been misled and is grossly misinformed. In fact, what should go down in our history books is the fact that the present “colonialists” are the kleptocrats who blatantly rob from the people in the name of “development” rather than channelling funding towards hybrid learning, teacher training, more schools, creating smaller classrooms and special education.
In fact, according to Unesco, the English language is spoken in 110 countries. The reason for its wide usage stems from the imperial past of the nations where the world’s most widespread languages, including French and Spanish, originate. That was then. Fast forward, Bahasa Melayu is spoken in merely 13 countries and remains stagnant.
There are 335 million native speakers of the English language living predominantly in developed countries — the US, followed by the UK, Canada and Australia. Interestingly, Javanese, which has 84.3 million native speakers, is the dominant mother tongue of Indonesia. This is followed by 60 million Malay language native speakers comprising 44 million Indonesians (specifically Bahasa Indonesia) and 15 million Malaysians (Bahasa Malaysia).
English is today the most popular language being learnt around the world with a staggering 1.5 billion learners. French is far behind with 82 million, followed by Chinese with 30 million. The likely reason is that English continues to be seen as the universal language for all forms of knowledge.
In the same breath, the prime minister, through the Malaysia Digital initiative, has sent a strong message to the rest of the world that Malaysia is prepared to lead the region in the digital economy ecosystem to stay globally competitive.
If this is so, then our schools will have to adapt even faster to ensure that our labour force continues to reap the fruit of 25 years of labour, having attracted investments of more than RM384 billion. So while the Malay language reigns supreme, it is English language proficiency in the global digital world that will break boundaries and transcend new economic frontiers.
Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim is chairman of Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia, an educational lobby group that serves as a channel between concerned parents, the Ministry of Education and other educational stakeholders
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