All the Malay and English newspapers, except one, gave it banner headlines. And so they should. It was one of the most important speeches the Prime Minister gave in 1993. It announced a significant shift in the Government’s policy on the use of English as a medium of instruction in the universities. Once again Dr Mahathir showed quiet determination not to allow sentimental pieties over language to be a dead weight that slows down the country’s march towards the dream year 2020.
The commitment to the total use of Bahasa Malaysia (Malay Language) in every area of learning, especially in science and technology, has turned out to be problematic. Shortage of qualified teachers capable of teaching in BM, of competent translators who could make available essential texts existing only in English – these are among the major factors that have made a slight change in strategy necessary, without, however, compromising fundamental commitments and principles or the sense of national pride.
Permitting the use of (or a return to) English as the medium of instruction in such technical subjects as medicine, engineering and computer science is the logical thing to do under the circumstances. The language is already there, part of our colonial inheritance; what is needed now is to make that particular inheritance whole and healthy again, and to undo the damage done to it (a serious decline in standards mainly) by fanatical nationalistic enthusiasms over the decades since Independence. And to do this without feeling any guilt, of being assailed by the sense of having betrayed our sacred identity as Malaysians (for the chauvinists, “identity as Malays,” no doubt). The slogan Bahasa Jiwa Bangsa (language is the soul of the nation) does have a degree of truth in it, so long we are not too literal or rigid about both “language” and “soul.”
The Government’s decision may be entirely pragmatic in its motivation. The concern behind it is the pursuit of progress. In particular, the target of the fully developed, highly competitive nation respected by the world in the year 2020. It has become a compulsive ritual now that every time a good word is said about English, immediate assurance about the sacred status of the National Language is given. No one wants to be misunderstood, least of all a politician, and on such a sacrosanct matter too. It has happened before (remember last year, when the Prime Minister’s very faith in BM was questioned?) – and there’s no guarantee it won’t happen again.
So the Prime Minister again gave his assurance and to make double sure, his new Deputy also gave his. “In 1993,” he said, “we are more confident of the strength of Bahasa Malaysia (note, he said “Malaysia” not “Melayu”)… There should be no cause for concern if we want our younger generation to improve their English.” Anwar even reminded Malaysians that the Nineties are not like the Sixties – that decade of tension when he was a troublesome student leader in University Malaya. (Remember?). Outside the area with which the Prime Minister’s speech was immediately concerned, the place of Bahasa Malaysia as the first language of the nation is secure – even if only in the public sector, not the private. This officially-sanctioned return of English for a specific practical purpose is not only not a threat to the status of Bahasa Malaysia; it will also, said the Prime Minister, benefit the National Language itself in the long run.
The idea that giving English its proper and necessary place in our life can even help BM is something new in Dr M’s thinking and public utterance on the question of language. “We are of the opinion,” he said, “that once we emerge as a successful race (nation?) our language will also be successful and will gain respect.” This opinion was echoed by a number of academic and public figures - the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Universiti Pertanian Malaysia (Malaysian Agricultural University) being one of them. So “success” is the keyword – key to everything, including the attainment of that position which compels the respect of the entire world.
The reactions from the academics and intellectuals to Dr M’s speech have been generally favourable. A few voiced anxiety that the move would be at the expense of Bahasa Malaysia. A group of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia lecturers wrote a very pertinent letter to the New Straits Times (January 1) saying that, while they are not opposed to the necessary shift in policy, it’s not enough for the Government to do just that. The whole education system, they rightly say, needs to be reformed, particularly as it applies to the teaching of English Language vis-a-vis the “Soul of the Nation.” Successful Malaysia in the 2020’s with have her “soul” expressed in BM, helped not a little by a judiciously pragmatic use of the world’s lingua franca and most convenient means to economic and technological competitiveness. But what kind of “soul”? And will this Malaysian soul be expressed in purely secular material terms? If you asked the president of Gapena he would probably say, absolutely, yes – i.e., if he could forgive the Mahathir government even that minimum role granted to English.
I have argued in this column more than once that English was playing and would continue to play an important role not only in our relations with the rest of the world, but within our own multi-ethnic society. And that role is by no means merely economic, scientific or technological. After more than three decades of independence, and despite the National Education Policy, English is still used widely in our country. And what’s important, that use cuts across ethnic boundaries. Now, with the slogan or motto Bahasa Jiwa Bangsa in mind, would any unblinkered Malaysian say that our “Malaysian soul,” however ill-defined and ambiguous it may be, can only be expressed in the National Language? A language belongs to those who speak it. It’s as simple as that. Given this fact, and that language communicates experience and is capable of transcending the boundaries of the culture of its origin – given all this, then the English we speak in Malaysia today belongs to us. It’s our English; along with BM it expresses our “soul,” with all its contradictions and confusions, as much as our social and material needs.
The idea that true nationhood is impossible without a native language to express the sense is not always true. Just look at Ireland. Much of the spirit of her rebellion against England was expressed in the English language. Ireland in fact made the language of her colonial masters her own, and defined herself in that language. In the process, she produced some of the greatest writers in English. Though Ireland and Malaysia do have certain things in common (most of them not very nice), the two countries are very different otherwise. For one, unlike the virtually dead Gaelic (the native language of the republic), BM is very much alive. Unlike poor Ireland, therefore, we Malaysians have more than one language in which to express our “Soul.” Isn’t that all the better?
5 January 1994