AUGUST 29 ― One Sunday afternoon, an elderly lady came into clinic with her teenage grandson. After greeting them, I invited them to take their respective seats, the teenage boy being the patient then sat on the examination chair. I started asking the boy questions about his condition in Malay but he just stared at me blankly. The grandmother quickly started translating every word I said into  Chinese language to her grandson.

I was quite astonished that this boy didn't even know simple words like “demam”, “batuk” or “selsema”. I could have tried speaking in English but this poor grandma will be more confused then. She then said “Sorry Dr, saya tak pandai cakap Melayu tapi saya boleh faham apa Dr cakap, tapi ini cucu tak boleh faham”. I then reassured the grandma that I appreciate her being able to converse in Bahasa Malaysia and throughout the consultation she was able to interact well. History and examinations done, I wrote the prescription and they left the room.

Well, I was quite taken aback with the incident although I must admit that this isn't the first time something like this happened to me.

How can a teenage boy, living in Malaysia with Bahasa Malaysia as the Bahasa Kebangsaan not understand a single word of Malay? I myself have picked up a few Mandarin words from my patients because I know this will help in building rapport with them.

We live in a multicultural community and picking up each others' language is most often useful and gives the sense of tolerance and friendship.

However, Bahasa Malaysia is the national language of our country, so how can ANYONE with a Malaysian identity card not being able to understand the language? I am sure this situation has not occured in any other country in the world. We know that the French and Japanese for instance, are very proud of their own language more so than the international English language.

A multicultural country like Indonesia is another example of how racial and cultural differences are assimilated into a common Bahasa Indonesia.

Cultural and language diversities are to be appreciated but in order for a country to be blessed with unity and stability, a common language is the key. If we are unable to interact with each other effectively, how can we develop the bonding, care and respect that we need for Malaysia to become a stable country?

If we look into history, the earliest development of the education system in Malaysia dated back to the 15th century in which formal education was still a privilege of feudal societies. During the British colonialisation, workers from China and India immigrate to the land of Malaya. With the growing demand for education, each ethnicity developed their own vernacular schools and curriculums under the British divide and rule policy. This resulted in 4 different types of language based schools. After World War II, the education system in Malaysia started to face the challenges of a mutual agreement on the language that unites us all. 

The Barnes Report in 1951 states that all primary vernacular schools became national schools to use one single standardised system with bilingual languages (Malay and English). However to protect mother-tongue education, the United Chinese School Teachers’ Association of Malaysia (UCSTAM) or Jiao Zong and later the United Chinese School Committees’ Association of Malaysia (UCSCAM) or Dong Zong were established in response. This is later known as Dong Jiao Zong which is responsible until today for the fight for vernacular schools in Malaysia.

Although the newly independent country identified that language disunity is a problem early on, which was stated in The Razak Report Clause 12 “the ultimate objective of educational policy in this country must be to bring together the children of all races under a national educational system in which the national language is the main medium of instruction...”, sadly due to strong protest from the non Malay communities, the 'ultimate objective' was not included in the new Education Ordinance 1957. Since then the language issue has been put forth on and off depending on who is the Education Minister at the time.

So, to keep it in a nutshell, Malaysia has never been united in a “language” sense eversince independence day. If we look at the chronology of the development of the education system, we can clearly see which generation the grandmother and her grandson came from.

This article is not meant to become an essay on history, BUT to understand the implications of vernacular schools in this country, we need to know the above facts. Some may argue that vernacular schools also teach the Bahasa Malaysia subject, but learning the subject alone without interacting with each other at school is not going to serve the purpose of unity which needs to be nurtured from small. This interaction will later result in patriotism, helping each other and a deep sense of belonging to this country.

In fact, by saying that vernacular schools should be abolished, is far from being racist. It is not targeted at diminishing racial rights but we need to realise that is has been a big block in preventing racial unity in this country.

I believe if we manage to solve this issue, we will even bring the economic, knowledge and leadership gap in between different racial groups in Malaysia closer.

For the first time in history Malaysians will be united in hands and at heart.

* Dr Nur Farrah Nadia Najib works in Johor Baru.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or organisation and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.