Malay is not optional for Malaysians

JULY 6 — If a heart valve needs a fix, the ailing patient rather suffer a rude artisan surgeon refusing to speak than a mediocre cardiologist won't to flaunt Malay poetry in the hospital canteen. The scalpel can end or save a life, therefore skill trumps language.

It would be splendid if the Malay language certification furore is limited to that single qualification.

But it’s not. 

The cute replies from doctors, asking detractors to look at medicine and not hospital signboards, play to that sentiment.

They may even refer to the story less than a year ago, of trainee doctors having to give up practice due to poor language, as in their grasp of English not Malay.

Medical needs require medical answers, they’d quip. “Don’t in your blind patriotism succumb to not seeing the forest for the trees.”

Public policies, however, have more life than that.

Languages are arteries of societies, and their fortitude determines the viability of societies.

Of course populist politicians jumped directly onto the nationalist bandwagon when they found out about the misadventure. It’s a good ride.

Eventually, their interplay with technocrats will result in a compromise resolution short on actually advancing the Malay language.

Symbols are useful because they need defending. The vulnerable state of the Malay language in professional life offers limitless opportunities to the defenders of the cause.

Our doctors recusing Malay from the treatment room and politicians reducing the discussion to a photo-op are both guilty, and disserving the country.

Though, this development relates to language in our general life beyond doctors, and the prominence of a national language.

Most pertinently, the Malay language’s failure to be present in modern Malaysian professional life is the real elephant in the room, regardless of who brought this upon us.

One will do

The Malaysian Medical Council’s (MMC) website is in English. Not default, the entire site. There is no Malay version. The doctors conduct their discussions in English, and there is no need to have an unnecessary Malay site, it seems.

The European Union disagrees. Though almost all Europeans below 40 speak English, their official website sites must adopt all the official languages of the union. They may not be used enough, but ignoring them would mean they would not be used at all.

Malaysia’s own relatively short history requires us to learn from others about the position of a language. There were question marks and compromises at independence, but a series of events leading to the 70s altered the dynamics.

Malay was rushed through with inadequate support from across the board, which is why the professional class adapted but never embraced the idea wholly.

Explains the coldness to the national language.

The MMC is not alone in the snubbing. The Malaysian Medical Association, Federation of Private Medical Practitioners' Associations, Medical Practitioners Coalition Association of Malaysia and Academy of Medicine of Malaysia share the opinion. They have no Malay language website. There are limited Malay posts and usually circulars from government agencies, but it appears Malay is completely optional.

Their cousins, the lawyers, appear to be of the same thinking as the Bar Council of Malaysia’s website is most overwhelmingly in English.

Malay was foisted on white collar Malaysia, and even if it accommodates the politically charged officiousness, our professionals won’t embrace it. Though, they worked harder to circumvent it.

Most doctors possess Malay of some hue — and discharge their duties diligently — however there is language bias. They’d explain an ulcer or cancer carefully and with compassion in any language, but as lithely without realisation assume those carrying the conversation fluently in English to be deserving of better qualitative information.

As if the patient is likelier to be critical and holds a broader base of knowledge about examinations, lab reports, side-effects, treatment options, experimental drugs and palliative care because he or she speaks in English.

This is policy failure. To assume teaching Malay in all schools and forcing government correspondence in the national language will organically grow this language of the single Malaysian people, was naïve.

A charm offensive has been conspicuously missing.

In the southwest of England

Eight years ago, the United Nation declared the Cornish language dead.

Unesco then-director-general Koichiro Matsuura said on that occasion: “The death of a language leads to the disappearance of many forms of intangible cultural heritage, especially the invaluable heritage of traditions and oral expressions of the community that spoke it — from poems and legends to proverbs and jokes.”

Language is not fired up by the heartless use of it, and it is not merely about x-number of people passing examinations rating proficiency.

The discussion must proceed from the learning of it to the natural need to speak it often. And if it is not a bridge too far for this depressing present, to eventually own it.

All Malaysians do not own the Malay language even if the slogan “Bahasa Jiwa Bangsa” (Language, the soul of a people) stays flashing in the background. To begin with, the cynic would ask, which people? While all Malaysians in the public schools learn Malay, they are not expected to own the language. Ownership is separate from fluency even if related.

Malaysians daily are shocked when racial stereotypes don’t play out in the use of Malay, in terms of comfort and accent. Just yesterday, the bank teller kept explaining to me in halting English despite me speaking to her exclusively in Malay. My name I suppose was limiting to the bank representative, even if I graduated from a local university.

Politicians are the worst culprits. Malay nationalists seek to monopolise the language and demonise others over it, and minority opportunists draw up nightmare scenarios about their vernacular languages and highlight their diction.

Both live off dissimilarities, language right at the top of the pile.

Both are disinterested in all Malaysians owning Malay as a birth-right defining their nationality.

True wealth

This doctor-language entanglement is a window to what we have done so far in actuality and what lies in the horizon.

Not only peripheral languages like Cornish drown in a globalised world, even French and Hindi are outflanked by the need for a single global language.

Countries are confronted by choices: To lose talent and gain language supremacy, or to lose language and gain the world’s talents. It’s starker in nations with language uncertainties like Malaysia.

Yet, as in the case of smart aleck doctors stating their ability to handle a stethoscope weighs more than language skills, they misjudge the value of requirements tied to national policies.

No one cares if an architect waxes lyrically about Samad Said, as long as he designs an exquisite vestibule. Or if an engineer appreciates pantun (poems) at lunch time while building a dam.

But if advancement from schools to tertiary institutions is tied to proficiency not prowess of the national language, then a young nation will find its most talented glide to the language of the nation.

It is important to adhere to policies, or they’d be only wishful.

Modestly-subscribed languages require policies to not wither in this world.

Reviving tongues

The Cornish language has discovered a pulse. Community action was predicated on the precept a language cannot die if there are speakers. Its people went to work. Presently, there are few native speakers, but with many emerging speakers, those committed to learn and speak.

The same conscious choice Portuguese-Eurasians have adopted in resuscitating Kristang in Melaka and Singapore. 

Our national language is a still an oasis compared to those near-desertified languages, yet the challenges remain daunting.

The doctor test is one of the many choices to be navigated as Malaysia resolves to have Malay as part of all our people’s lives, not just some.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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