Sunday, December 14, 2008

English/Chinese/Tamil is OK, but what about Bahasa Malaysia?

In Malaysiakini news article Last witness to 1948 massacre, which recounts how the Scots Guards of the British Army cold bloodedly massacred 24 unarmed Chinese rubber tappers at Batang Kali 2 weeks just before Christmas of that year, there is an interesting revelation.

The last witness of that day of British infamy, 77-year old Tham Yong, said of how the Malaysian My Lai occurred. Malaysiakini reported:

"The soldiers came in the evening as we were preparing our meal," said the elderly lady, who because of surgery for her throat cancer has to press closed a hole in her throat in order to speak.

"They rounded us all up and we were terrified," she said.

"Even though we said we were not communists and we had no weapons, they killed one of the young men in cold blood in front of my eyes because he had a permit to collect durians, written in Chinese."

"I think the British soldiers must have thought it was a communist document," she said.

"The soldiers then told him to run away but he didn't want to, but they pushed him and when he did run, they shot him from the back."

Tonight I am not going to blog on the well-known massacre, already acknowledged by some of the Scots Guards participants themselves and the British press, but ignored by the British (conservative government and subsequent) government, and sadly even by our own Malaysian government.

It’s that statement by Tham Yong about the British troops killing one of the young (unarmed) men in cold blood in front of her eyes just because the victim had a permit to collect durians, but fatally for him, written in Chinese.

She thought that the orang putih soldiers murdered him because they thought the durian picking permit being in Chinese must be a communist document.

... all because of a document in the Chinese language.

Guilty until proven until otherwise, that was, if he could even survive the on-the-spot execution a la American frontier style vigilante mob.

… which brings us back to my previous post
A central pillar of Chinese culture.

Many, even Chinese, do not realize that the written word (books) was so sacred (to Chinese society) that the more conservative Chinese would never step over a book or allow a book to be so positioned that it’s at his/her foot. That would be totally disrespectful.

In the broader sense that respect has been and is about education and learning that Chinese hold in high esteem, where the poor could have, through meritous education and achievement, the chance of rising above his/her station, or as the poetic would say, rising like a lotus.

In my post
A central pillar of Chinese culture I mentioned that: where their children's education are involved and the government is oppressive and hostile to vernacular education …, Chinese parents would be prepared to sacrifice much, including mortgaging their homes off to pay for their children's education abroad, by hook or crook.

.. and what do I mean 'by crook'? For a very sad example, please read what I wrote more than 3 years ago,
The Lotus Will Not Bloom For One Man - that’s how far a Chinese would be prepared to go to support his children’s education.

I posted
A central pillar of Chinese culture on Thursday; today in his Sunday column ‘On the Beat’ at the Star, Wong Chun Wai pointed out more or less the same thing as I did, in Children caught in the middle.

He confirmed my post, that once the Chinese Malaysians had preferred English medium education and the vernacular schools were then in peril of becoming extinct. But he was far more diplomatic than I had been in my post. He wrote:

Chinese schools then paled when compared to English schools. The Han Chiang High School in the 1970s had to depend on Thai and Indonesian students to survive and was almost on the verge of shutting down because of falling attendance.

Parents, especially Chinese, sent their children to English schools because they had good teachers and, of course, it helped that England was a powerhouse then. It had nothing to do with history or heritage.

But now, many English-educated Chinese parents are sending their children to Chinese primary schools because they want their children to acquire the ability to speak and write Chinese. They do this because of the emergence of China as the economic superpower.

… whereas I gave the reason for the resurrection of vernacular (Chinese) education as the disastrous (politicking) tampering by successive (UMNO) Education Ministers which saw the plummeting of standards in national type schools.

To Chinese parents then, the language of the learning/teaching itself was irrelevant. The Chinese just wanted and still want quality education for their children. The belief that Chinese Malaysians have been/are chauvinistic in supporting vernacular education is incorrect.

If so, why would most Chinese Malaysians in the 50s and 60s send their children to English medium schools?

But tonight’s post is not so much about education per se but about Bahasa Malaysia and its use.

It’s our national language. Let me rephrase that – it’s our language, the language of Malaysians.

The term 'national language' gives the impression we only use it for official purpose.

Look, we became a nation in 1957. Allowing for some teething problem in the endeavour to get all citizens to use Malay as their language, that would of course take several years, preparing books, lessons, adult classes/tuitions, curriculum, etc.

In this regard, the TAR government wisely instituted the Dewan Bahasa & Pustaka as the engine to promote, publish, propagate, lead and regulate the use of Bahasa.

My uncle told me he enjoyed the dirt cheap (highly subsidized) books of such outstanding quality that he bought tons and tons of DBP publications. I benefitted quite a few from his generosity.

Let’s give that Bahasa-isation process, say, 25 years. So we could argue that by 1983, we would already have a mature and rich Bahasa system. Then 11 years after that, by 1994, school children finishing school should be able to speak Bahasa to the same degree of fluency that my father, uncles and their peers could in English.

It’s now 15 years after – let me ask, how many Chinese and Indian Malaysians born, say, since 1976 and completed schooling in 1994 or later, used Bahasa fluently, widely, regularly and in private conversations among their (non-Malay) selves?

Being fluent in Bahasa is not good enough. Do you use it like your dad or mum would use English, almost as second nature?

Whether English is important is a separate issue which I will blog in another post.

This is about Bahasa Malaysia or as Anwar Ibrahim insisted on calling it when he was Education Minister, Bahasa Melayu, or if you wish, just our Bahasa.

The Malay lingo!

This is not about asking you to give up English, Chinese, Tamil, Punjabi, or/and whatever mother-tongue. This is about you using your language, our language, the language of our nation, society, community - Bahasa!

Apart from UMNO, PAS and PKR (the Malay or principally Malay parties), how many political parties conduct their meetings, congress, get-togethers in Bahasa?

I am addressing this to the Chinese and Indians (and any other non-Malay Malaysians), that if we are Malaysians, at least those born since (as an arbitary figure) 1976, then we must be able to speaking in Bahasa.

Food for thoughts.


  1. i) the non-caucasians in the US spoke in english because they had NO choice. it's either they master the language or they perish. simply as that. so, to draw a parallel in the malay(an)sian context, the non-malays (i.e. including the orang asli - the true bumiputras) keep (kept) their original mother toungue (unlike indonesion chinese and thai chinese) because (a) in indonesia, they too had no choice; (b) in thailand, they just blended in easily as more than 90% of thais were (are) buddhists.

    so...the malay(an)sian context was (and still is) different.

    ii) the speak in bahasa reminds me of ugly images of hypocritics crying "ketuanan melayu" while at the same time robbing the country's coffers. but then again, i'd be the first one to recognize bahasa as OUR national language. no ifs, no buts. it's in the consti. but to claim art 153 as justification for "KETUANAN melayu" is really stretching the imagination a bit; and does noy augur well for national unity (i.e. malays and OTHERS). the royal instritution is safeguarded via the consti but for fcuking malay politicians to use that sorry excuse for a "justification" to claim "unfair advantage", that i cannot take.

    iii) i subscribe to pakatan rakyat's idea of ketuanan rakyat. even the sultans themselves should (righfully) enjoy their status at the pleasure of the Rakyat; that one with the capital R. get real, we are living in the 21st century and beyond. you see, the problem is that some of the sultans themselves, and even most malays, see that only the (malay) sultans can take care of them (malays). that is such a race-based argument. but then again, we are (still) living in malaysia and for as long as i call malaysia my home, i'd have to live with it. no hard feelings.


  2. The argument about 50s and 60s Chinese sending their kids to English school is not entirely true...

    In central and southern Malaysia particularly, the Chineses were still sending their kids to vernacular schools actively...

    In those days, the poor or rural chineses usually went to Chinese school, while more affordable families sent children to english schools...

    As for Malay... I don't know... it's more like inter-racial language in this country to me...

    like in China, people speak dialect among people within the city or province, while speak mandarin with others...

  3. Why do u think that I send my 2 Indian tmail speaking kids studying chinese up to UEC (equivalent to STPM)? Meaning English, Malay, Tamil or any other langguage is best let to be chosen by individual parents and not politicians. The govt's job is to provide schools with good teachers....

  4. well said KTemoc!

    it's all about quality ... 1 year in chinese school = 3 years in sekolah kebangsaan!

  5. Thanks Bentoh,

    Chinese education in the south is not the same as that in the north. The Chinese in the south has always been more supportive of Chinese schools for many varied reasons. No surprise that the premier Chinese independent high school is in Johor Baru. It is also no coincidence that Johor is the premier MCA stronghold. The Chinese in the south are probably the most fervent non-Malay supporters of BN in the peninsula while being at the same time being the Chinese group most supportive of Chinese education. In other words the Chinese in the south will support the government but on their own terms. Chinese education is what allows them to support the BN but at the same time tell the BN government that all options remain open. Moreover, in Johor mandarin is spoken by practically all Chinese below the age of 40 as a first language. I believe such is not the case in the north.
    People like Ktemoc would do well to try and better understand the sentiments of the Chinese in Malaysia as a whole when it comes to Chinese education.

  6. Chinese Education, re your "People like Ktemoc would do well to try and better understand the sentiments of the Chinese in Malaysia as a whole when it comes to Chinese education", if you recall, I wrote "tonight’s post is not so much about education per se but about Bahasa Malaysia and its use".

    I also stated: "This is not about asking you to give up English, Chinese, Tamil, Punjabi, or/and whatever mother-tongue. This is about you using your language, our language, the language of our nation, society, community - Bahasa!"

    Rather than ask me to know more about Chinese sentiments re Chinese education, perhaps you may wish to answer my query - if you're a Malaysian born in 1976 onwards, how well do you speak Bahasa, how well do your kids do likewise assuming they're already in school?

    Your "Moreover, in Johor mandarin is spoken by practically all Chinese below the age of 40 as a first language" doesn't give me much confidence.

  7. My papa strong belief in Muhibbah, Bangsa Malaysia and all.

    So he send me to Sekolah Kebangsaan.

    Now I no read and write Chinese.

    My Inggerish no good.

    My Bahasa pasar only.

    Now I only unemployed blogger.

  8. True, in Johor, vernacular schools have always been the 1st choice of Chinese parents, even back in the 1960's. The few Chinese pupils in even the English schools of those days were mostly children of government servants and English-educated middle-class.

    In Johor, very strong support for Chinese education also coexists with very strong support for MCA. Its a different athmosphere from Penang, for example, where some Chinese educationists are politically independent or even anti-establishment.

  9. i spoke bahasa when dealing with civil officer, teller, 7-eleven cashier and mamak hawker (execpt they are chinese)..... and "very" seldom with bahasa when dealing with colleagues and executives and never with frens (unless malay) and family.... sad...

  10. many parents opted to sent their children to srk coz of the stupid "kelas peralihan" for students came from vernacular skool which totally unfair and wasted 1 yr.... those policymakers thought pupils from srjk are dimwits and have to be cleansed and "reeducated" to fit in smk. now thinking back i rather wasted 1 yr than not knowing how to read chinese...

  11. Born 1976, spoke English at home, went to Malay speaking primary and secondary school where the majority of students were Chinese. Spoke mainly in English there as well, but fluent in Malay maybe because I played football day and night with all the bumiputera kids...

    I speak both languages fluently (even after living in Australia for 13 years) and am even a Malay-English accredited translator so I think it can work so long as students INTEGRATE at school. I don't have to speak Malay at home, or even watch Malay language programmes, or choose to speak Malay with my Malay friends when truth be told most of them are just as comfortable with English than Malay (if not more so).

    Just mixing with all sorts of people with ensure your Malay is good-for example when I was in an 'ah beng' class full of peralihan students who spoke little english, we spoke in Malay, and the fact that classes are in Malay also help. If you embrace yourself in Malaysian culture you will speak Malay well-there's just no escaping it. If you embrace monoculturalism, then I doubt going to a sekolah kebangsaan will improve your Malay too much anyway, unless you're monoculturally a Malay.

    The school we went to is irrelevant-the more pertinent issue is whether we associate with other cultures, which we can easily do outside school hours. If the answer is yes, then we almost certainly are fluent in Malay because it is still the unifying language of the country. The bahasa kebangsaan policy has worked if we stop pretending that it must only work if we all use it as our first language.

  12. KT

    ‘like in China, people speak dialect among people within the city or province, while speak mandarin with others...’

    There, U have yr answer to;

    ‘ many Chinese and Indian Malaysians born, say, since 1976 and completed schooling in 1994 or later, used Bahasa fluently, widely, regularly and in private conversations among their (non-Malay) selves?’

    ‘ many political parties conduct their meetings, congress, get-togethers in Bahasa?’

    Is about conveying yr infos, ideas to yr listeners in the most practical way!

    There is NO disrespect NOR downgrade about the position of B Malaysia. PERIOD.


  13. How many Malay blogs do most of us read? And can we leave Malay comments and argue with other commentators in Malay? I admit, I do this very infrequently, 'cos arguing in Malay is a bit taxing for me... I think in English la :P

  14. I wish this whole debate could be couched in educational terms to give what's best for the children's education, instead of bundling it up in all kinds of emotive politics.
    But I guess that's impossible to ask for in Malaysia.

    The National Education Policy has worked - everyone who passes acceptably from the school system is functionally literate in Bahasa Malaysia. In the end that's all you can ensure. Not everyone is has academic ability, not everyone is good at learning languages. A weak student or a person weak in language skills will also be weak in Bahasa Malaysia - nothing to do with racialism or politics.

    You can't "force" Bahasa to become the 1st language in the country - short of a Thai or Indonesia style assimilation policy, which is unconstitutional in Malaysia.

    Teaching Science and Maths in English ? I have no doubts whatsoever that at Secondary School, it should be taught in English. It doesn't help improve the standard of English, but it helps average to good students to access the rich amount of science and maths educational material which is available in English.

    There are always those who would compare to Japan, France, Germany, China, Korea, who conduct their school science education in their own language. I have been to all these countries - they all have a very rich publishing infrastructure churning out tons of reading material in Science and Maths in their respective languages. After 20 years of teaching Science and Maths in Bahasa Malaysia, we still do not have such a setup - and if we give another 20 years will we have it ??

    At primary school ? Let me couch it in neutral language. Small children learn basic concepts best in the language which they are most familiar with. I'm deliberately steering away from the emotive word "mother tongue".

    For a rural Malay kid, "familiar language" is probably Bahasa Malaysia. For many urban Chinese children, that's Mandarin. Tamil for many rural Indian families.
    For many kids from middle-class backgrounds, their most familiar language is actually English.

    So what's the best solution ?
    .....I'm thankful I no longer have school aged kids...its terrible to be the subject of experimentation..

  15. KTEMOC,

    There is no scientific research about the real reason of Malaysian Chinese support the vernacular education.

    You cannot ignore the fact that, besides "China raise up", there is also soul searching. No, it is not limit to the black in USA do a soul search of their origin. Every human being in the world that depart from the homeland will undergo the same process sooner or later.

    Bare in mind that, such searching DOES NOT depart from their existing society. It help human being to understand each other values. For all society, answering "WHO AM I" is pretty important. It is the cultural pillar that prevent society going berserk.

    Remember, a chicken that assimilate into the duck group will just drown them. A society/race that know their origin and culture, are much better than a Zombie citizen that succumb to the "big family".

    Oh wait, isn't the assimilation "big family" of communism concept?

  16. I don't denied the importance of Bahasa Melayu as the national language.

    However, the BM status are in alarm because DBP that you praise of, instead of solution, are becoming problem itself. Malay literature market failed to thrive. Successful writer, will adapt Bahasa Indonesia since it is bigger market compare to BM. To make things worst, the slow technical knowledge translation speed failed BM.

    OTH, Japan, China, Indian possess more resources than Malaysia DBP, thus, literature and technical translation are abundance in those language. And the country make those book dirt cheap. An technical book that cost RM100 in English, only cost 1/3 (one third)or even 1/5 for the mandarin translation.

    Just go to the Malay bookshop and compare the varieties vs Chinese bookshop vs English bookshop.

  17. Translating material into Malay is a big issue-working at a local uni in 2000 I had to personally translate a Macroeconomics textbook into Malay and that was 26 years after the BM policy for local unis was initiated (I think). DBP itself has not beena success.

  18. Having recently read Freakonomics, it strikes me that this question of:

    "Do Chinese parents favor Chinese schools, and if so, why?"

    ... would make a fascinating study for an unbiased economist with access to the right data.

  19. I have always maintained that it was a rejection of the National Education system that has caused the demand for vernacular schools to have increased. For Tamil schools which have very little economic benefit to also increase their enrolment numbers, this says a lot.

    Why reject the National Education conducted in Bahasa Malaysia?

    There are a whole host of reasons. Any one or some or all of them pushing hard core English speaking people to also consider vernacular education for my children when I too am of the believe, at the same time, taht they are parochial and not exactly mind opening.

    And all those reasons can be supported by actual incidences that some one or other or many would testify to.

    I had a single reason to want to keep my children away from the National Education system. I did not wnat them to reconcile and accept bias, prejudice and/or hatefulness. If they were not taught these, as many Malay kids are taught, they'd be victims of it. I owe it to them to keep them away from the putrifying decay in the minds of our national education system. And that I did. Not exactly proud of it , but.....

    As for the use of Bahasa, one example I like to cite was attending the wedding of the son of an Indonesian Chinese friend of mine to a Malaysian chinese girl. It was a Christian wedding and at the reception the grrom's father, my friend, stood up to speak to the guests. He spoke in English. then addressing specifically to his friends and relatives from Indonesia who had come for the wedding, he spoke Indonesian. Not Chinese as what you might find attending a Malaysian Chinese wedding where the couple might even be English educated.

    Will we in Malaysia every come to that? If not, why not?