Constitutional misconceptions around vernacular schools — ANR Hussin

SEPTEMBER 3 — I refer to several legal and constitutional misconceptions in Nur Farrah Nadia Najib’s article which must be addressed.

Firstly, it is clearly against the clear and express wordings of the Federal Constitution to call or request for the abolition of vernacular schools. Article 152(1) of the Constitution states that the Malay language (the actual words used) shall be the national language, but, Article 152(1)(a) and (b) qualify this by saying: “[p]rovided that no person shall be prohibited or prevented from using (otherwise than for official purposes), or from teaching or learning, any other language” and that “nothing in this Clause shall prejudice the right of the Federal Government or of any State Government to preserve and sustain the use and study of the language of any other community in the Federation.”

Two points are crystal clear. First, the principle that BM is the national language is qualified because of the words “provided that.” This means that the moment the people are prohibited or prevented from using, teaching or learning their language, Article 152(1) shall cease to be in force, valid and justifiable.

This view is even fortified, and one cannot simply go against this reading when the Federal Court had in the case of Indira Gandhi a/p Mutho ruled that “the protection of the minorities” forms the Constitution’s basic structure.

Besides, “nothing in this Clause” in Article 152(1)(b) means that notwithstanding the official status of BM, the Federal or any state government has the absolute right “to preserve and sustain the use and study of the language of any other community in the Federation.”

As long as the federal or state government wishes, there is nothing in the Constitution to stop the government from sustaining the use and study of the language of any other community in whatever medium or manner.

Second, Farrah appeared to imply that since Bahasa Malaysia (BM) is the national or official language of our country, there is an obligation to learn BM. I afraid I cannot concur with this view when we again refer to the Federal Constitution which simply only provides for the use of BM for “official purposes.”

In brief, “official purposes” include government functions and communications and that could include national schools.

The teaching of BM in national schools is therefore mandatory not because, as what Farrah said, for the purpose of assimilation, but simply because the national schools are treated as public bodies. Thus, one will find that the teaching or learning of BM is not mandatory in non-national schools such as International schools.

On the point of assimilation, one must first refer to the spirit of the Merdeka Constitution before a comparison with other countries is made. Unlike Indonesia, an example Farrah alluded to, the Constitution was the product of negotiations and agreements achieved between all races.

Tunku Abdul Rahman and other framers of the Constitution recognised that each race has the freedom to preserve and practice their culture, language and their communal way of life.

Therefore, other than for “official purposes”, nowhere in the Constitution is there any reference to the obligatory use of BM for the purpose of unity or some other purposes not stated in the Constitution.

To describe the language of other communities as the “language of disunity” is clearly against this spirit and the wordings of the Constitution. This is also an affront to national unity, and to substantial populations of other communities who mostly converse in their mother tongue in their daily life as what we everyone also do so naturally.

It also does not help when the National Language Act 1963/67 is not in force in Sarawak as more emphasis is placed on English as an official language.

Therefore, in fairness to the teenage boy, it is wrong to place fault on those who are not fluent in BM when it is not one’s mother tongue whereby one has more opportunities to converse other than in schools.

It is now clear that the liberal use of language is part of the Merdeka Constitution’s spirit.

Otherwise, the safeguards in Article 152(1)(a) and (b) would not exist. It is also clear that forced assimilation through language and education would be unconstitutional and implausible due to the ingrained communal way of life of Malaysian. Multiculturalism is therefore the only plausible solution.

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

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