Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Yes to BM and English

Kassim Ahmad (9 September 1933 ~ 10 October 2017)

Last week, Pena (the national writers union) held a one-day seminar at the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka on the theme ‘The Role of Language in Nation Building’. The seminar was somewhat unusual in that most of the speakers were people from the corporate world. They included a banker, a gentleman from the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange, an advertising lady executive, and a representative of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Only one sasterawan was in the list, Kassim Ahmad (an untypical sasterawan, anyway), and he didn’t give a paper but participated in a forum that concluded the seminar proper. When I saw the list of participants, I said to myself: Now, this one should be different. Unlike the usual sasterawan-dominated seminars, this one won’t be lost in the fumes of endless chatter about the maruah (honour) of the nation (or race?), and other sasterawan-ish obsessions. This seminar should get down to the nitty-gritty to confront the problems that still seem to check the widespread use of the national language in the private sector, not to raise basic issues that had long been settled.

The composition of the seminar wasn’t really surprising. Pena is now headed by Datuk Ahmad Sebi Abu Bakar, a successful corporate man and writer, who was elected president early this year. The election of the Datuk signalled the entry in a crucial way of the corporate presence into the literary sector, an event enthusiastically welcomed by some, less by others (the latter being the incorrigible sceptics or cynics, of course, who cannot but see the marriage of the corporate sector with the literary as ‘unholy’; I personally don’t see why this should necessarily be so).

The business of language and national building is quite complex and complicated, especially the question of the place of English in relation to the national language. I’ve discussed the issue more than once in my writings. Each time, it seemed the stand I took was either misunderstood or presented in a distorted manner to the non English-reading Malay public by the guardians of the maruah (honour) or semangat kebangsaan Melayu. The misunderstanding or distortion seemed to be inevitable every time someone took a pragmatic stand and defended the place of English in our country. Having a favourable attitude to English in our country meant lack of pride in the national language, if not silent unpatriotic resistance to its widespread use, especially in the private and corporate sectors. If even the Prime Minister himself could be misunderstood by a leading Malay daily, what more people like me?

‘People like me’ means English-educated Malays, especially those educated in Mat Salleh countries. But there are more than one kind of English-educated Malays: those who are bilingual in speech, thinking, writing – and love-making; those who are mainly English speaking and speak Malay only to their servants, drivers and caddies; those (admittedly a very small minority) who cannot or can hardly speak their own mother tongue and if compelled by circumstance to do so would have to take lessons in it. The existence of these different groups of English-educated Malays doesn’t seem to make any difference to the noisy nationalists when it comes to labelling or categorising Malay defenders of English. They are lumped together as middle-class cultural renegades or apostates. The fact that people like me write in both languages is not proof enough of my loyalty to Malay.

What's wrong with polyglot haircuts?
The ironic thing is that even among the noisy nationalists there are English-educated (or semi-English-educated) persons who would slip into English, whether consciously or unconsciously, especially when speaking on intellectual matters to another English-educated fellow Malay. I don’t want to name names, but I can tell you I know a number of nationalist literary politicians and academics (some of them quite well-known, and all of them bumigeois) who do this. It seems that despite all the noise they make about the purity of their national souls they cannot resist, unconsciously or consciously, the snob appeal of the language of the former colonial masters. This is a kind of hypocrisy, if not schizophrenia. It is less honourable than the attitude of those hotel waiters, 7-Eleven shop assistants and employees of fast food restaurants, who speak to their guests or customers in English almost all the time, as if they were all tourists. These people are not hypocrites; they are just simple minds bedazzled by the bourgeois lifestyle who think that it is expected of them to speak in English and feel quite sophisticated doing so – “Is that all, sir?”; “Thank you, sir.” To be fair to these people, it should also be said that they often speak in English because the milieu they work in is dominated by people who speak a lot. And since their job is to please their customers, they find themselves speaking in English quite naturally, although they know that their customers would understand them perfectly if they stick to Malay.

Finance Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, in his speech opening the Pena seminar, reiterated the importance of English as a second language, but reminded corporate and private sector leaders of their social responsibility in helping to extend and improve the use of the national language in their sectors. That the use of the national language in these sectors is very limited, and that even that limited use is unsatisfactory in terms of quality were frankly acknowledged by a number of the speakers at the seminar. Improving the quality of Bahasa Malaysia used in the private and corporate sectors is the least difficult of the problems. What is really difficult is the creation of an environment that will motivate these people to use the language spontaneously, without directives from above. Employees can be directed to use the national language in all business correspondence within the country, but they can’t be forced to speak the language to customers or clients, or among themselves.

I personally have always believed that in matters of language, compulsion (legal or semi-legal) can be used only in certain areas. And even in those areas there are sub-areas where it would be madness to use compulsion in whatever form. Take our national schools, for example: I’ve noticed that in schools where the pupils are ethnically mixed, English is often the language used outside the classrooms, certainly when the conversation is among non-Malays and quite often between Malays and non-Malays. Is there something that is so reprehensible that steps must be taken to stop it? My answer would be a resounding No.

David Chua, deputy secretary general of the Association of Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry, said in his paper that one of the reasons why Bahasa Malaysia is so little used in the private and corporate sectors is the fact that the generation who were educated under the national education system, now in their 30s, have not yet ascended to the positions of power and influence in those sectors. Perhaps; but I personally doubt it. I think when the present under-40s become corporate leaders, as quite a few of them already are, English will still be their main language of communication.

The plain fact is we are a linguistically plural society with English as a very widely used second language among middle-class Malaysians. And the present widespread use of English will continue as long as we are exposed to information signals in English from overseas. There is not much that the Government can legitimately do about this essentially healthy exposure, as long as it remains wisely deaf to the demands of regressive elements in our society; those elements who would want it to resort to non-democratic methods to preserve the purity of the ‘national culture.’

Chua also attributed the limited use of Bahasa Malaysia in the private and corporate sectors to the confusion caused by the constant and sometimes conflicting changes in policies regarding the language – the question of spelling, the business of Bahasa Baku and all that jazz. The worst confusion of all was caused by sudden irrational change of the name for our national language from Bahasa Malaysia to Bahasa Melayu. Why, after more than three decades of independence, it was thought necessary to make the change, God knows. But one can’t blame those who see in the change a disturbing sign of regression, because a non-ethnic term that had served up well for so long was suddenly dropped for one loaded with divisive connotations.

Since, as far as I know, there has been no ministerial pronouncement on the change, I’ll stick to good old Bahasa Malaysia. If it was good enough for the founding fathers of the nation, it’s good enough for me. I notice that I’m not alone in my preference; the veteran journalist, writer and nationalist Pak Samad Ismail still uses the name Bahasa Malaysia in his Berita Harian column Bila Sauh DiLabuh. Good on you, Pak Samad!

25 November 1992

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