kheru2006 (kheru2006) wrote,

The power of language

With many threads forming our national fabric, we must learn to harness the various colours, not lose sight of the picture.

ONCE upon a time, I was 13 and into Dragon Ball Z, Yuyu Hakusho and such.  I decided to learn Japanese but the dream lasted just one class because the teacher taught in Mandarin andmy command of the language was limited to a few choice words taught by my best friends from school. My interests quickly shifted elsewhere.

Despite that, I find languages generally attractive as they provide the opportunity for exposure, the pursuit of knowledge and appreciation of culture.

Closer to home, we have a multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-lingual citizenry but we seem to be struggling to turn it into an advantage.

The debates over vernacular schools and mother-tongue education, the level of English proficiency required for entry and graduation from public universities, and the role of Bahasa Malaysia in fostering unity among Malaysians, are still heated.

A few days ago the Deputy Prime Minister, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin,launched the National Language Month. In his speech, he urged all Malaysians, regardless of race, to place a “higher value” on the national language to ensure its development and to move forward as a nation, as well as to foster unity among Malaysians.

There are two things that I’d like to share.

Firstly, this was good, positive and clear message. Having been born and raised in Kuala Lumpur and in a largely English-speaking setting, the importance of Bahasa Malaysia arose mainly in school.

Having started new employment recently, I am more appreciative of the language thanks to my surroundings (and the occasional need to force myself to use it in emails). Also, the different loghats showcases just how dynamic and beautiful Bahasa Malaysia is, and I’ve witnessed how it unites people (my Terengganu dialect isn’t too bad).

Secondly, I feel that sometimes we are unnecessarily harsh towards our national language or we see efforts to promote the language as a political ploy. As an example, with regard to the Deputy Prime Minister’s message, I’ve heard people say that Bahasa Malaysia is used for political ends and is a form of racial power play.

Political leanings aside, we are bigger and better than this, and we’ve shown our togetherness before (the cinema Negaraku fiasco, the MH incidents).

With regard to vernacular schools, our Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak recently said to the delegates at last weekend’s MCA general assembly, “Do not worry about the SJKC (vernacular Chinese schools). Chinese education has always been a part of the Constitution and its continuity is ensured in the national education blueprint”.

In my opinion, the Prime Minister’s statement was commendable in its assurance to the Chinese community, and should put the debate to rest even if for the time being.

What caught my eye was what the Prime Minister said next: “All I ask is that you all must put in effort in learning Bahasa Malaysia”.

This statement was interesting, not just for the fact that it emphasised the importance of the national language, but more importantly the need to ensure that vernacular school students have a strong grasp of the language.

Though I’m not sure how things may change policy-wise, what came to my mind was that under the status quo there is a different Bahasa Malaysia curriculum standard for vernacular schools and national schools.

That is why certain students transitioning from SJKC or SJKT into national secondary schools (SMK) are required to join kelas peralihan (the ‘remove class’) for a year before starting their secondary school proper. My understanding is that this is to enable mother-tongue classes to take place within the school period.

Therefore, unlike national schools where Bahasa Malaysia is a 6-credit per week subject it is only 3-credits in vernacular schools.

Perhaps it is time that curriculum standards be standardised. Aside from saving a year from the remove class, it would ensure that students have a better command of the national language at an earlier stage, perhaps as strong as that of their mother-tongue.

This is important as it gives them more opportunities to interact with others as well as access diverse sources of information. Importantly, it enhances familiarity with the language, whereby secondary might be a bit late. Indeed at age 13, they might just prefer to learn Japanese like I did.

As Prof. Datuk Dr. Chin Yew Sin, Deputy Secretary-General of Hua Zong told a local daily recently, “Schools need to organise speech competitions, debates, poetry readings and such. I believe that with these programmes, non-Malay students will be able to fully internalise Bahasa Malaysia”.

With regard to our public universities, the proficiency of English amongst graduates has been a sore point for many would-be employers. During the Budget 2015 announcement, the Prime Minister surprised many of us when he announced that the Malaysian University Entrance Test (MUET) requirement would be raised and that an exit-requirement would be introduced.

To many, this is a welcome decision proving the government’s commitment to improve our nation’s English standards. DPM Muhyiddin also recently stated that this was also in line with the government’s decision to make the SPM English paper a compulsory pass by 2016.

Yet, my FB was abuzz with concerns raised primarily by university students on issues such as the impact on underprivileged students or those from rural areas. Some even say “I’m a scientist. My kingdom is my lab. I speak only to my tools” (loosely translated).

No doubt, these are valid concerns but rather than adopt a defeatist attitude, students should take the opportunity now that proper support and guidance is provided.

I’m excited. Having taught a course on presentation skills in university, I know that most students want the opportunity to hone their English language skills. I feel that this is a step in the right direction. From schools to higher education, progress is being made.

The baby elephant in the room is the teaching of mathematics and science in English or the ‘PPSMI policy’ which was abolished a few years ago. For now, I shall reserve my views and write about this in the future, but I welcome feedback at the email address provided.

In summary, it’s clear that we are a unique nation. From safeguarding mother-tongue education to enhancing English proficiency to using Bahasa Malaysia as a unifying tool, I can’t think of anywhere else in the world where such discourse happens with such importance. Yes, we have our conflicts and growing pains, but nevertheless I believe that that we are united in our diversity of languages.

I end with a quote by the late Nelson Mandela who said “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart”.

For Malaysians, the question is, what language can we use to talk to all of our hearts, together? Contact Danial at  or tweet him at @danial_ari. The views expressed are entirely the writer's own. The STAR Home > Opinion > Online Exclusive What's Your Status? Published: Thursday October 16, 2014 MYT 7:07:00 AM
Tags: language

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