‘Can the owner of Malay, come to aisle Malaysia?’

SEPT 9 — Perfect time to ask one of THE Malaysian identity questions, who owns Bahasa Melayu — the Malay language?

Before, this column rabble-roused whether Malay is used enough in the country.

Asked why public-school examinations require a pass in Malay, while local tertiary institutions eschew Malay in research and postgraduate studies. Or how the civil service prioritises Malay while other languages dominate the private sector. The higher the court, Malay is an afterthought.

The unfortunate summary at the end, Malay’s prominence is suspect.

Today, the gun is trained on ownership. Of the language.

Do all Malaysians own the national language or Malays own it?

Every person I ask struggles to answer, regardless of ethnicity. It perplexes.

I, me, mine

Here’s a fact. Language does not belong to anyone. Languages exist or perish based on use. 

A Malay ultra from Permatang in Selangor does not own Malay any more than a Kadazan from Penampang in Sabah. Both will likely argue their respective points of view — inside or outside their UiTM campus — using Malay.

Do 260 million English speakers in India own the language more than the 56 million English people in the United Kingdom?

Should X number of secondary school students in Birmingham with South Asian blood feel less passion for Chaucer and Shakespeare because their ancestors were physically closer to Shah Jehan’s majestic Moghul Delhi in the 17th century than London during the Plague? Should teachers tell Ranjit and Aisyah, they speak English well for grandchildren of migrants?

It always rankled me when Malay teachers innocently in the 1980s said when referring to idioms and metaphors qualified them “in my language” when speaking to those other than Malay students.

Is it not our language too by virtue of requiring it as the language of our education?

Our education, our language. No?

It’s diabolical if it’s still the case today.

By the way minority kids generally disassociate from Malay, from the limited view here in Cheras, it appears not enough has changed in our classrooms. 

This is how I say I love you

Tools are chosen on use and connections.

When the universal use of national languages is measured across South-east Asia, Malaysia sticks out like a sore thumb. A high percentage of Malaysians are woeful in Malay, they would rather not speak than try it.

Nothing is more damning. However, it is evidence that connections matter more when people choose the language to use.

Malay is not heralded by minority communities — In a nation of 33 official ethnic groups — by the lack of a connect.

It’s hardly an issue in Indonesia, as Javanese and Bahasa Indonesia differ considerably. There was a conscious choice to demarcate the majority race’s language from the national language. And now seamlessly used from Acheh to Irian Jaya without rancour by ethnic groups and regions.

Bangsa Malaysia is realised quicker when the national language is not a tug-of-war. — Picture by Sayuti Zainudin
Bangsa Malaysia is realised quicker when the national language is not a tug-of-war. — Picture by Sayuti Zainudin

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Malaysia’s national language problem is that it intersects with national race politics.  Which clouds the narrative.

To one side, the use of Malay proves migrants submit to Malay rule. To the minorities, its passive-aggressive defiance — vernacular schools, economic exclusivity and minimised use of Malay — counters that claim.

It is standoff after standoff in this silent war.

Cafés in Bangsar — a high-end neighbourhood — encapsulate the situation. It’s forced by city ordinance to use Malay for its signboards, but the affluent residents inside sitting at their tables converse in the vernacular or English.

Obviously, in a multicultural country, various languages would be present. However, the gradient drop of Malay as the venue becomes more affluent or minority-dominated serves as a powerful indicator of the language divide.

This is repeated elsewhere because they do not want to have more Malay than necessary, it is not their language. They are told so. As such, they react accordingly.

The superior objective of Malay to unify the people is sacrificed.

Ultras do not bemoan the language divide as race politics survives because of it and therefore they have oxygen.

Engine oil

Language, the voluntary use of it leads to cultural absorption. Simply put, Bangsa Malaysia is realised quicker when the national language is not a tug-of-war.

While languages cannot be owned, the perception it is dissuades cultural immersion.  

Malay movies, dramas, music and celebrity gossip are bypassed by the minorities.

One of the easiest ways Joe Public relates to each other is through banal banter about movies, dramas, music and celebrity gossip.

Mainstream news and entertainment in an increasingly Malay speaking country is in Malay.

Access works both ways too.

Ho Sok Fong’s Lake Like A Mirror should be a must-read for Malaysians, its Joyce-like capture of a mood and our people. 

It took me a decade to know it because the Malaysian author wrote in Chinese, and British taxpayers paid for its translation into English under its PEN award-project. 

From Kuala Lumpur to London and back here in the colonial language for Malaysians to consume a story about Malaysia.

So many Malaysians can learn more about themselves through Ho’s work but alas it was in Chinese, and now in English.

If Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) assumed her a national treasure, they’d not hesitate to translate her collection of short stories into Malay. It is Ho’s language, no? But more importantly, DBP services Ho’s people?

A little too conceptual? Perhaps. But language and its place, and critically its adoption is multi-layered and complex, but trust and confidence is high up on the list to ensure any language’s longevity.

It is in all Malaysians interest to protect our language. But that only happens when enough believe it is their language.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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