AUGUST 23 ― There are places in Sabah where children wake up at 3.30am to go to school.
And start walking there at 4.30am.
They are not your average students who are picked up from one door to be delivered to another. Once, we drove past a few children and asked, “Berapa jauh lagi kampung?” to a reply, “Tak jauh sudah, dekat saja tu.”
Their “dekat” took us another hour in our 4x4 to reach.
I remember asking the driver about some colourful shoes I saw lined up outside a classroom. Only to be told that they were originally white but had turned pink, brown and shades of orange after going through the dusty, muddy, unlit roads day after day.
The school was essentially a building on stilts with an unkept area, long grass and rusty goalpost for a playing field, a rundown shack as canteen... and electricity is supplied by a diesel-run generator.
There are villages where the elderly and sick need to walk for hours to the nearest clinic, when and if they can walk. They have an “ambulance”, well... sort of, that is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week depending on whether it's well fed on grass and greens.
Where resilient, tolerant and very patient people feed their children rice and salt. And a “good” meal consists of rice, one fish, a plate of vegetables shared by a “small” family of five. And eating, working and studying by candlelight is a not a romantic novelty or pastime.
But a necessity.
A place where 1Malaysia laptops are carried proudly, like you would a Birkin or Hermes handbag. Expensive. With pride. Never mind that they they can’t turn it on because it can’t be charged, or that the mobile reception is patchy. Even more baffling is that many of them can’t even read or write.
A place a few hundred ringgit would actually tide them over for months. Where the number of zeroes in a billion USD is lost after the first few, and the United States is another foreign land that most of them will not see except in movies this lifetime.
When asked about the importance of English, they say, “Penting. Tapi kita orang Malaysia bah. Bahasa Malaysia pun cukup.”
A statement that would make many politicians proud. But on that note, let’s digress a bit.
An educated society that is truly Merdeka
A former Universiti Malaya vice-chancellor said not too long ago that the private sector prefers hiring graduates from private universities and colleges.
According to him, the number of unemployed from public universities will rise higher than the present 400,000 if nothing is done to improve university education.
He said, “The private sector needs graduates who speak and write English. Many public university graduates are hired by the government and join the civil service. But the government cannot hire everyone.”
Now, believe it or not, English opens up opportunities to Malaysians, and offers them a world of possibilities.
In a survey by a leading online job search site about 60 per cent of unemployed graduates fail to land a job due to poor command of English.
Can you believe it? It's just English. Just, English. And our youth aren’t realising their full potential because of a language. And with their potential goes national growth and progress.
Why can’t we, as a nation, get this right?
And with the answer lies the problem. We don’t think of and for the nation. We think along political, racial and sentimental lines. And that is alright, truly, if what we want is confine the work of our youth to their villages and small towns.
But if you want them to soar, to grow, to learn and become world leaders, if you want them to develop their villages into technological hubs, and attract multinational companies offering better job prospects, and if, just if, you really, truly want to put Bahasa Malaysia, Melayu ― whatever you call it ― on the map, you need English.
Yes, the Japanese, Koreans made it without English because they are by and large creative, innovative people. They redefined existing industries. They revolutionised the electronics, automotive industries into one that is better, more efficient, beautiful and cheap. Today, the world goes to them to learn the best practice and approach in designing and manufacturing products.
So, yes, they thrived without English.
But we are neither the Koreans nor the Japanese. The only industry we are redefining and making an impression in, is the religious industry.
And until the world starts using coconuts to find missing planes, treat multiple diseases with our “miracle waters”, and treat mass hysteria with vinegar and lime, we aren’t worth that much to the world.
And till then, we need English.
The soul of independent Malaysia
Our leaders need to start thinking about what is best for Malaysia and her people. Instead of what is best for the Malays. The Chinese. The Indians. They need to rise above their race, religion, politics, their village and avid supporters. They need to think about the nation and beyond.
They need to lead. Not follow.
Because what is best for each race is not necessarily what’s best for the country. What is best for Malaysia otherwise, is best for Malaysians.
Tunku Abdul Rahman, in the Proclamation of Independence said, “At this solemn moment therefore I call upon you all to dedicate yourselves to the service of the new Malaya; to work and strive with hand and brain to create a new nation, inspired by the ideals of justice and liberty, a beacon of light in a disturbed and distracted world.”
So as we celebrate Merdeka, it would be good to remember that our nation’s interest supersedes that of the prime minister, members of the Cabinet, their wives and their families.
It supersedes the survival of any race and political affiliation. No matter their worth and past contribution. Their survival or extinction must not have any consequences on Malaysia.
The politics of sentiment should never cloud our judgement when deciding what’s best for the country.
While politicians might want to keep as many of us happy as they can with 1Malaysia laptops and all that it entails, that is not the country and future we deserve. It is certainly not the independent Malaysia our forefathers envisioned.
Underneath the aspiration, dreams and values that define us as a nation lies the foundation of a great country. A foundation that is built upon the freedom and right of people to live, speak and practise their beliefs no matter their religion and skin colour.
That is the essence, the soul, the pride and joy of a country that is truly liberal, truly democratic and truly Merdeka.
One that should and must be jealously guarded, defended by every individual who calls himself or herself a Malaysian.
Selamat Hari Merdeka Malaysia. To you and the Jalur Gemilang, my loyalty lie.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.