Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Be Sophisticated and Silly All the Way

Gabungan Persatuan Penulis Nasional
or National Writers Association
It was a use of words that an alert observer would call ambiguous, if not confusing. A political scientist would probably call it skillfully ambiguous. This is the Deputy Prime Minister’s statement on the language issue after a meeting with members of the Kongres Cendekiawan Melayu (KCM), or Congress of Malay Intellectuals last Friday: “I have explained (to the KCM delegation),” said Anwar Ibrahim, “that while existing policy with regard to the use of the National Language will be continued, there will be greater emphasis on English.” (My italics.) Some people wouldn’t consider “greater emphasis” the same as allowing the use of English as the medium of instruction in the limited area specified. Emphasis would merely suggest that the generally accepted status of English as an important second language would be given a fuller practical meaning, and that more strenuous efforts be made and more effective methods used to ensure that our students acquire a better command of the language. I wouldn’t have thought that Anwar’s words of assurance would satisfy those Malay nationalists who had earlier opposed the limited return of English as announced by the Prime Minister of December 27 and reconfirmed after last Saturday’s meeting of the Umno Supreme Council.

I don’t know whether those words of Anwar as quoted in the New Straits Times (January 8) reflect what he actually said to the Malay intellectuals at the two-hour closed-door meeting. In any case it’s good news that the delegation of anxious intellectuals including the President of Gapena, were satisfied with Anwar’s assurance that there would not be any change to the Government’s “policy”. Which must mean they’ve dropped their earlier opposition to the Government’s move. Move is, I think, more accurate here than “change of policy,” however slight or peripheral that alleged change may be.  The decision to allow a return to English for the limited area specified was probably meant to be taken (though Dr Mahathir didn’t say so) as a stop-gap measure – that is, English would be used until there are enough lecturers fully-qualified to teach science and technology in the Malay Language, and enough text and reference books on those technical subjects have been competently translated into that language. I hope the reported acceptance by the KCM of the Government’s assurance will be followed by similar acceptance by other groups, academic and intellectual. But it is just a hope, probably without much basis.

The curious case of the KCM aside, I’ve been led to believe that, in my column last Wednesday, I’d underestimated the resistance to the Government’s move. This was after learning that my passing reference to the group of UKM (University Kebangsaan Malaysia) lecturers who wrote a letter to NST was not quite accurate; one of the signatories to the letter told me I was wrong in saying that those lecturers were “not opposed” to the apparent “policy shift.” (He did acknowledge, however, that I can’t really be blamed for the error; due to editorial cuts, the letter was not crystal clear on the issue and could easily be read the way I read it.) It seems that there are not a few academics and intellectuals who either remain suspicious of the Government’s intention or are simply opposed to the return to English, temporary or otherwise, for the teaching of science and technology.

Rustam A. Sani
Take the Utusan Malaysia columnist and ISIS Fellow, Rustam A. Sani. This highly vocal scholar feared that, what was described by the NST writer who interviewed him as a “peripheral adjustment in the language policy,” was perhaps “the beginning of more.” And he sadly wondered if it didn’t signify that “the cultural programme that came with the National Language policy has failed,” and that the Malay language cannot cope with progress.” (NST, January 2) In his Utusan column of January 3, Rustam elaborated on this question of double “failure.” It’s an interesting piece and quite passionately argued. And I must admit that, though I’d taken this son of a noted nationalist to task for the unfair attitude to our English-language writers he expressed, I found his article last week strangely quite moving. Yes, I did say “moving.” You see, I am not anti-Malay as some sasterawans think. (How can I be when I write in both Malay and English?)  It’s just that I’m not ideologically rigid about language and national identity, and very much an incorrigible pluralist in cultural matters. I consider it a privilege, not an ideological shortcoming, for our nation to be bilingual. Other countries not so well-blessed and not sentimental about their native languages must envy us.

I don’t suppose it’s any good to tell Rustam Sani that the Government’s “peripheral adjustment” to the language policy is not necessarily “the beginning of something more.” But I’d still like to share with him my modest thoughts about some of the reasons for the apparent “failure” of the project of modernizing BM, of transforming it into a language fit for a nation striving to be fully developed and industrialized by the year 2020. (I won’t say anything about the other “failure,” that of the “cultural programme that came with the National Language policy.” This is because the “cultural programme” Rustam referred to is not something that I as a pluralist would endorse.) First, let me say it out loud and clear that I agree with Rustam that the apparent “failure” of the project of modernizing our country through the Malay language is not due to any inherent fault of that language. Having agreed with Rustam on this general point, I must now say where and how “we” have failed. Since the “we” here includes bilinguists like me, I’d of course dismiss any contention that one of the reasons for the “failure” is the continued widespread use of English. I believe we can be bilingual and at the same time committed to the modernization of BM.

Now, why has the modernization of BM for the purpose of making it a fit medium of instruction in science and technology failed? For reason of space, I’ll only deal with this failure as it is manifested in the vital project of translation and, to a much lesser extent, as it is manifested in the current fate of the Malay language in the hands of Malay academics and writers themselves. I’ll say it bluntly: the translation project has largely failed because incompetent people, without proper training, qualification and experience, have been chosen to do most of the translations. This has been made worse by sheer bureaucratic short-sightedness and incompetence that have made the realization of the vital project incredibly slow – so slow that three-and-a-half decades after independence our university libraries can only boast a very, very tiny percentage, not a few are hopeless, either inaccurate or simply unreadable, because they are so badly translated. The responsibility for this lies mainly with Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, since it is entrusted with the translation project. I’d describe the approach to this project – that is, the attitude behind it – as cincai (a Malay word of Chinese origin, meaning, “casual, done in a shoddy manner and readily accepted, however shoddy”). This attitude, as we all know, is typically Malaysian, if not Malay.

Now this cincai attitude goes very well with another tendency of our academics, intellectuals and sasterawans. And that is the tendency to corrupt that very language whose honour they are so noisily concerned with. They are so easily seduced and befuddled by the sound of new words and jargon of English origin or old Malay words refurbished for flashy rhetorical purposes, that they end up by making Malay so ugly or unreadable or both (see my next piece). When these academic corrupters of the Malay language or their pupils do translation, God help us! If the original English is barely readable (as in books or academic articles on the latest Western literary or sociological theory, or philosophy of science), they make the translation worse than unreadable. To use a refurbished old Malay word, they are so desperate in wanting to sound canggih (sophisticated) that they sound awful and don’t make such sense. Ironically enough, the word canggih is so popular now (Rustam has “moden dan canggih” [sophisticated and modern] in that column of his,) used to mean the opposite of what it means now. Kamus Dewan (1984 edition, terribly out of date) obviously has only one entry. 

What is it? Believe it or not, that single entry saya canggih means terlalu banyak bercakap (talks too much, or in one word, “bullshit”). That’s a characteristic of intellectuals and politicians, isn’t it? Someone who knows Javanese told me that in that language it means or used to mean “gaudy” (like having too much cheap make-up). In Wilkinson’s Malay-English Dictionary (1903), there’s no canggih; but there’s chenggeh, which must be a northern dialect variation of canggih. The meaning? “Affected, dandified.” Now, isn’t that very interesting? So, scribblers and bullshitters of Malaysia, unite! In one homogeneous voice, be canggih and cincai all the way to the year 2020. You have nothing to lose but your brains. 

12 January 1994


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