The Other Malay Dilemma
It perhaps amounts to information that divulges more than is strictly necessary about the personal condition of the author to disclose that in the early years of one’s primary school education, Science and Maths were taught in Malay. This was changed within a year or two of my beginning school proper to English being used as a medium of instruction, only for that change to be itself partially reversed near the end of my time at primary school – I remember distinctly that the Science and Maths UPSR papers for which we sat were bilingual, printing questions in both Malay and English in what can in retrospect only have been described as taxpayer-funded indecisiveness. It seemed then, and does now, that the relationship this country has with its national language has always been a tense one – a statement which hardly seems an insightful or controversial revelation to anyone with a cursory understanding of this nation’s political history. Equally self-evident, however, is the seemingly universally tenterhooked approach contemporary political actors have taken to this question; or the effort put into making the question seem a firmly and unanimously settled one. To quote from the DAP website’s PH Manifesto, at page 12:
The unforgiving fact about the use of language – any language – is that very act of choosing words consciously or unconsciously belies biases and unspoken assumptions far more telling than the immediate meaning of the text. That Malay requires “uplift(ing)” in “status and usage” cannot help but imply that presently the Malay language is oft perceived as generally lower status and under-utilisation. That Malay requires championing to become a “language of knowledge and a regional lingua franca” suggests it is failing to be either today. That “mother tongue languages” require defending necessarily requires some party to be attacking them, and that “English proficiency” needs improvement shows how successive generations of politicised education has squandered the legacy institutional advantage we possessed in kind with other Commonwealth states – in stark contrast to our Singaporean neighbours.
These concerns – criticisms? faults? – are not solely the rhetorical purview of the liberal opposition. Conventional, status quo Ketuanan politicians including the current Prime Minister have raised concerns about the lack of adoption of the Malay Language in the same breath as they celebrate its apparent widespread use and popularity. It is difficult to deny that conversation and controversy surrounding the use of the Malay language within Malaysia extends far beyond the confines of effective communication – it is an unsurprisingly heavily-politicised football, brandished unconstitutionally as a loyalty test by some elements of the political class. It seems pertinent and appropriate, then, to re-visit the seemingly settled question of what should be our National and/or Official language(s); and whether the Malay language is the choice for either or both of these languages that will contribute most beneficially towards the construction of a post-racial, post-religious, multi-ethnic Malaysian polity.
It is often the most difficult task of all to imagine the myriad ways in which malicious but intellectually uncurious people may misunderstand one’s work. For the avoidance of doubt – and perhaps too in an attempt at providing unambiguous evidence for pre-emptive legal exculpation – the author is explicitly not making any or indeed all of the following arguments:
· That non-English languages in general, or Malay in particular, cannot be used as a language of serious science, industry, government, or culture. This is self-evident in China, Japan, Korea, and in most of the EU (though it should be noted that for both demographic and practical reasons, English will likely remain the EU’s primary working language). We make no claim that any arbitrary language can be objectively better or worse at communicating ideas of any kind – though the interested reader might benefit from investigating around the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.
· That Malay should not be the – in absolute terms – national language of the Federation, and/or an (but specifically not using the definite the) official language of the Federation. Indeed, the constitutional position of the Malay language as defined generally by Article 152 of the Constitution seems in no urgent need of amendment – though statutory amendment to the National Language Acts 1963/67 should certainly be considered. It is unmistakeable that so much of the history, culture, important documents, and ceremony of the state of Malaysia has been, is, and should continue to be conducted in Malay. It is essential to also realise that this does not mean that official business cannot – or should not – be conducted in languages other than Malay, as they already are in the Borneo states.
· That Malay should be made in any way less prominent in the curriculum of government schools; though it is relevant to point out that whilst the working aged population of Malaysia today possesses a relatively strong command of the English language – which has been a key enabler in the approachability of this country for foreign investment – this fluency is not guaranteed by fresh entrants to the labour market. Quoting the Ministry of Education’s Blueprint 2013-2025:
Only 28% of students achieve at least a Credit benchmarked to Cambridge 1119 in English language SPM. While performance in English language also varies by ethnicity, all three major ethnic groups fall significantly short of the 70% proficiency target. Only 23% Bumiputera, 42% Chinese, and 35% of Indian students achieve at least a Credit benchmarked to Cambridge 1119.
· That individual citizens who elect to live their lives in such a way that they are monolingual Malay speakers do not have the absolute, constitutionally-protected right to do so, or that they should be in any way deprived, limited, or restricted from accessing any government service, recourse, or agency as a result of their choice to communicate solely in the Malay language.
· That the state does not have an interest in promoting the Malay language for its cultural, historical, and literary heritage; or that people who speak Malay as a native language should not take pride in the culture and heritage that language brings with it. It is a relevant segue at this point to point out that the overzealousness of the censors does the language no favours. Control of art produced in the only country where Malay-language art is likely to be produced in any great quantity necessarily restricts the quality and artistic authenticity of that art. Ideas that are constricted before birth are rarely widely spread – there is a reason embarrassingly fawning white people fumble to learn Korean or Japanese, not Mandarin (with the possible famous exception of comrade 忠西拿). The media – and there certainly is a lot of it – created by the much larger and economically more powerful China does not pierce the cultural consciousness outside the Sinosphere in the ubiquitous way its East Asian rivals do.
At the risk of pivoting on technicalities, it is important to discuss the distinction between National and Official Languages. A National Language certainly represents something far more emotional and cultural than any form of pronouncement of governmental operation – to return to linguistic fundamentals, a National Language must represent and embody the Nation. As laid out above, we take no issue with Malay being the National Language – though it is certainly important to register some concern with the methods and motivations behind the implementation of such policy since Merdeka. The Malay language reflects the character and spirit of the Nation, especially of what Bageshot would have described as the dignified part of our Constitution – the language of ceremony and grandeur and regalia. But if the Malay language is to ever be earnestly adopted as a badge of identity amongst Malaysians irrespective of ethnicity, it has to be erased of the stain of politicisation by Ketuanan nationalists. It should hardly have to be said, but it should be and is unacceptable in a civilised society to, as an elected official, dodge a perfectly valid question by a member of the media and simultaneously brazenly insult them whilst insinuating pendatangism or a lack of patriotism from that reporter because of the language she chose to ask that question in. It is admittedly potentially overly-egregious scrutiny to read this much meaning into a cheap political tactic no doubt intended to one degree or another to solidify grassroots support – though it is relevant to reflect on the fact that that basic admission belies the underlying divisive cultural poison that Ketuanan nationalism’s co-opting of the Malay language as a political cause; and the resultant subtle, pussyfooting, half-hearted pushback by Malaysia’s broadly liberal opposition; has created.
An Official Language, by comparison, is a language recognised by a state; and perhaps more specifically is a language in which the state will validly conduct its operations both public and secluded. To allay any further potential suspense, our main assertion is that the Official Language of Malaysia should not just be Malay, but instead we should be officially multilingual. Having official monolingualism explicitly or implicitly communicates that all interaction with any arm of the state in an official capacity should by default be done only in the Malay language, and that any provision of that access or service in another language is an accommodation or privilege that can be taken away at the whim of executive power. This legal reality does not conform to the basic expectation of a citizenry to be afforded a right to fair access to government services; both in practice as well as in principle. This is self-evidently fundamentally unjust, and does not descriptively address the reality of the multiracial – and indeed multilingual – population of Malaysia. It is difficult to comprehend how such policy can be anything other than the subtle hand of Ketuanan nationalism attempting to culturally homogenise the population of the nation. At minimum it seems reasonable to expect English, Mandarin, and Tamil to be given official status at a Federal level; with state- or regional-level support for other languages (Iban, Kadazan, perhaps Thai in the northern peninsular) and dialects (Chinese dialects like Hakka or Hokkien, or perhaps Kelantanese Malay) as the needs may require. The Federal aspect of this proposal is an arrangement which the observant reader will note is already the present constitutional arrangement of Singapore, though this proposal is materially different in that we would expect at a Federal level any citizen to be able to conduct their affairs with any and all representatives or organs of the state to a materially equivalent level in any of the Federally Official Languages – an arrangement which we readily admit is inspired by the standards set for Working Languages of the European Union.
As noted – hopefully uncontroversially – above, the matter of official language is clearly not a constitutional one. The drafting of the Constitution does not imply at basic construction that the Malay language should be the sole official language, or specify that more than one language cannot be appointed as official. Indeed, the National Language Acts read together with the Constitution grant provisions for Sarawak and Sabah to continue to use English in an official capacity. The current position of Malay is a purely statutory one that could easily be repealed or amended by simple majority in Parliament.
In addition to the societally beneficial changes outlined above, it should be noted that there are compelling arguments as to why Malay should not be the sole official language; should the reader believe in the principle of a secular, ethnically diverse Malaysian state.
As can be seen in the previously noted reactions of the Minister for Islamic Affairs and the Deputy Minister for Human Resources to questions from reporters, native fluency of the Malay language and/or the habitual speaking of it on a day-to-day basis is used as a crude and aggressive purity test by Ketuanan Nationalists and their sympathisers to arbitrarily define who is and is not a ‘true’ Malaysian. Any such claims to test purity and loyalty through a test of the Malay Language run counter to Articles 15-16A of the Federal Constitution, which clearly state that a Malaysian Citizen by birth need not prove anything beyond their paternity or maternity, as the case may be. Moving past the dangerous act of seeking to qualify citizenship, the implicit declaration of an officially monolingual language policy in this intrinsically multilingual society cannot be cognisanced as anything other than a practically and symbolically exclusionary exercise conducted to solidify the control of a ruling elite that reign by virtue of the subtle manipulation of ethno-cultural fears and the pseudoscientific taxonomification of ethnicity and identity.
If a citizen is unable to; in a language with which they are comfortable; effectively interact with, beg aid from, or register grievance with their government, then that citizen for all intents and purposes cannot effectively rely on the protection or auspices of such government. In essence, such a government declares a linguistic conditionality to the extent to which its protection extends over its citizens. Exclusive use of Malay by the government and its representatives is simply not accessible in a factual sense – it is prescriptive of the population as opposed to descriptive. Official monolingualism is an attempt to impose through executive and government fiat a means of behaviour upon the population that is simple and incontrovertibly foreign to a significant minority thereof. It is important that we make this point in no uncertain terms – the state, indirectly through its explicit monopoly on legitimate coercive violence, establishes subsidiary monopolies on regulation of behaviour and custom in a manner that arguably oversteps reasonable limits, and through doing so disincentivises (through implicit threat of violence) behaviour that is by no means harmful on an individual or societal basis but which is nonetheless made pariah and implicitly repugnant by the state for its own narrow benefit.
Malay – as with all other languages – is not a culturally or politically neutral language. It is intrinsically linked to the cultural identity and being of the Malay people and holds stronger emotional pride for them than it does for non-Malay Malaysians. This seemingly obvious description of the facts – and the concerns it raises – cannot truly be ignored if we are to earnestly discuss the Official Language question. That is, of course, unless the concerns of ethnic minority Malaysians simply do not enter into your particular political calculus – as is the factual case for many politicians running on a Ketuanan nationalist platform. Though no doubt morally dubious, it is difficult to judge them for that decision given the obvious personal stakes of championing any minority rights issue whilst contesting a demographically majority-Malay constituency and risking losing such a seat to PAS, BERSATU, PEJUANG, UMNO, or whichever the next party in this particular cavalcade might be. This same political power structure, however, has also made the Malay language subtly culturally taboo within minority communities. Resistance to complete native assimilation with the Malay language is in many corners now inevitably viewed through the political lens constructed in direct opposition to the consuming, homogenising efforts of Ketuanan nationalists – as preservation of distinct and historied cultural identity against Borg-like assimilation, of pride in one’s own heritage. This is of course a self-perpetuating cycle – but not one which we posit could possibly be won through bullishly pushing the Malay language onto segments of the population that will no doubt respond to such efforts with even more stubborn digging-in. In a crude sense, the goal should not be to abolish all SMJKs, but to ensure all SMKs have competitive Mandarin instruction, and that all SMJKs have excellent standards of Malay teaching, that the difference becomes negligible in terms of educational opportunities afforded. It is with dispirited resignation that we point out that as long as ethnic politicisation and cultural indoctrination form the primary focus of education – that it is used as a tool of politics as opposed to an investment in future labour resources; this is not a feasible outcome, or even in many cases a desirable one to the inhabitants of positions of authority within the current state structure.
The imposition of the Malay language by subtle force is one of the numerous tendrils of an insidious programme of cultural erasure – most grotesquely seen in attempts to without consent convert minors in East Malaysia to Islam. It would of course be hyperbolic and sensationalist to place the policy of Malay as the sole official language on the same continuum as a horrific act such as this without reason. We need look only to a previous entry in this Journal and recall that the Constitution explicitly defines one of the markers of being legally Malay as speaking the Malay Language to understand that cultural programming is an essential part of the Ketuanan nationalism project – by its structural design it seeks to aggressively (re)categorise individuals through the replacement of any and all distinctive cultural markers. Even the most subtle and minor differences cause disproportionate consternation: though the dear doctor’s discomfort with chopsticks made for amusing outrage for the briefest of moments; his underlying, dog-whistle message can only be described as malicious and ominous when taken in any context. For him and those of his political persuasion, difference of even the subtlest variety from what he considers the norm in any form, whether in habit, thought, belief, or practice is abhorrent and deviant. Down to the smallest detail – in how you choose to put food into your mouth – the Ketuanan vision of nationalism that the doctor and people of his ilk imagine does not allow for anything but a self-described purity they doubtless see nowhere but in the bathroom mirror. It would hardly surprise, had he been given an island of only Malays to govern, to find that he would invent some way to divide them up as well, into pures and impures by some arbitrary genetic peculiarity. We are, after all, the People’s Front of Judea, not those bastards in the Judean People’s Front. It is additionally interesting the surprising silence of much of the Malay political establishment after this comment, though simultaneously of course hardly surprising since there is no political capital to be gained from their constituents in defending the pendatang Chinamen, even as they socialise with and grant lucrative contracts to those same Chinamen. It must be said in no uncertain terms enforced integration and cultural-assimilation-by-erasure are not morally neutral acts – especially not when they are spurred on by the malignancy of Ketuanan nationalism. It is essential that the half-amusing banality and seemingly benign comments about chopsticks later pleaded unconvincingly to have been taken out of context must be understood in the dogwhistling, subtly threatening tones that underpin it – to do otherwise would be to underestimate both the old man and his many disciples - both his rotating court of rivals and enemies, and his ever-erstwhile allies
The dear doctor’s Malay Dilemma was about the place He envisaged for His people (using the regal – or perhaps Divine – capitalised pronoun here, of course). Ours, on the other hand, was always far more literal: the problem of being asked (or indeed forced) to use, mentally & culturally associate with, and appear native in a language that one had never used to communicate with loved ones, or indeed with which one had never communicated with at all outside of specified lesson times through no fault of one’s own, but merely as a result of the environment. This is no doubt true to a greater or lesser degree for many non-Malay citizens of this country, and yet the reality presented by the current legislative policy disregards this linguistic reality. It is of course important to remember that this is not a new argument or a concern; indeed we can only hope to have added some value to this long-running discussion. The question that emerges and begs to be asked: To defend Malay, must you sacrifice Malaysia?