DECEMBER 7 — My friend said Malaysian Chinese learn Chinese because it is their culture and identity, and duly learn English for commerce. Have to talk to the world-mah (apologies for the lame stereotype suffix).

Which brings them (us) to the elephant in the room.

How useful is Malay?


It came to mind, thinking about the woman and her daughter’s passport renewal debacle in Johor.

A small kerfuffle which landed on the home minister’s desk.

A report reads that Saifuddin Nasution defended immigration officers. They use discreet oral language tests to flag infringers in a climate of fake passports. Fair enough.


The minister is right that many countries require language proficiency to acquire citizenship, and language matters.

However, while it can be a precondition for applicants, it is not a condition for present citizens.

Hypothetically, tomorrow, 33 million Malaysians can wake up and forget how to speak Malay but they will still be Malaysians. Their legal status is not determined by language proficiency.

Malaysians today can grow up with zero Malay and not fear they have to forfeit their MyKad or passport.

Which brings us to the central question, are Malaysians not Malaysians when they fail to muster enough Malay to order at a burger stall? Unable to order their mamak mee with tambah telur.

The obvious answer is that they remain Malaysians even if they do not care for Malaysia or anything about it. The language, the culture, the people, the very geography of the country. If they are citizens they remain citizens regardless of how poorly they treat the country.

Nevertheless, there is a wider moral obligation.

I’ve condemned Malaysian leaders before, for having never built depth for Malay in our commerce, law-making and education, as evidenced by industries eschewing the national language and a fractured public school system which further alienates large sections from Malay.

Parallelly, Malay is projected as a race property rather than of the people regardless of creed. Look no further than mainstream Malay films, TV and music which by large exclude other Malaysians.

Spend 11 years in school speaking Malay only to see media excluding the likes of you traumatises. It fosters defensiveness, where Malaysians with other mother tongues utilise Malay to the barest minimum.

These I’ve articulated before.

The more underlying point is that Malay is our language and we have to defend it. This needs a bit more talking into.

We need to speak our Malay because that’s how we speak among us. Us, the Malaysians. — Picture By Raymond Manuel
We need to speak our Malay because that’s how we speak among us. Us, the Malaysians. — Picture By Raymond Manuel

Truth rather than faith

The latest development signals a nadir.

The involved — the woman, the child, the officers, the minister — have valid reasons for their positions.

They unintentionally speak about the world as it is, as it continues to be and most scaringly, how the world is irrevocably heading to and its ramifications for nations with non-major languages.

The woman works in the neighbouring country with a different language policy, and Malay not being it.

The child is a dependent and lives the life her parents decided for her. Born in a new century which celebrates internationalism, which is similar to saying English first.

The officers, as do all personnel in government service, defend the importance of the national language in a world too globalised to care about local considerations. Global consciousness will say it, that it cares for local languages, but do what it pleases.

The minister defends a different time. One he was born to. One his own boss, the prime minister wants to keep while leaning to lead the country to the world that is.

There are more families in Malaysia, regardless of Chinese, Malay or Iban, as they get more educated who inevitably use English to get hold of their children’s attention. Internet, TV and other multimedia is dominated by one language.

Honest about realities

It is a slog to keep Malay dominant. Or the official Malay sanctified by the state.

Malay purists rue the contamination. Hardly a Malay speaker — let’s say charitably any given Malaysian — speaks unadulterated Malay. OK, cool, chill, yo, come on lah and otw, inundate language use, in speech and text. In response, language controllers raise standards in syllabi, which students adopt to conquer exams and drop at the first chance.

Whether formal or contaminated Malay, the language is under attack. It is not the only language in the world under attack.

However, our administrators differ from those elsewhere. Rather than work to persuade and attract attention, they double-down to condemn. The prime minister’s effort to ask all international companies to write to the government in Malay in a time AI writes the letters as asked in whatever language of asking is banal. They inadvertently comply but it does absolutely nothing to increase spoken Malay in their organisations.

The time to employ widespread policies to force adherence is over. To scold the woman, or to scold her in front of her daughter does nothing to draw her closer to Malay. If anything, it justifies her victimisation claims and strengthens the resolve to withdraw further from the national language.

And if the statistics indicate the steady corrosion of languages, and their gradual dissipation based on use, why bother to defend minor languages?

Now we come to the matter of the heart.

Is Malay worth saving?

All the clever answers set aside

Back to my friend, from the start.

Well not to him, but what was recounted to him.

The minimal role of Malay in the world we live in.

We should be encouraged to speak our mother tongue because identity and culture invariably is tied to it.

We should speak English, for the obvious — every reason a cliché but overwhelmingly valid.

We need to speak our Malay because that’s how we speak among us. Us, the Malaysians. Unless speaking to each other is not important to keep what we love, Malaysia, together.

By the day, in a world where people can live in silos, minor languages struggle.

That’s too complex and for a more complicated analysis.

But as far as Malay in our Malaysian lives goes, it is the glue that keeps us similar.

It is taken for granted but the national identity, not the one foisted upon us by politicians but the one which organically developed through our Malaysian lives travels through Malay. That’s what keeps us different from the rest.

That which keeps us together.

Together, think about that.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.