When a particular mentality affects public policy

JULY 9 — If you wish to understand how much power the status quo wields over the country’s policies, look no further than how easily the healthcare system was swayed over the mere issue of language.

According to the Malaysian Medical Association (MMA), Putrajaya’s insistence that contract house officers have SPM-level Bahasa Malaysia (BM) qualification could force some affected graduates to wait two years before they may be employed.

As it is, president Dr Ravindran Naidu said medical graduates with no such qualification have already been waiting for placement since last year.

Potentially, this could further affect medical graduates from continuing their career for years to come, compounding the problem of distribution of doctors across the country, and an overhang of supply of graduates.

And it all started, as always, as a knee jerk reaction.

The complaint had predictably come from the ethno-religionists; from pro-Malay groups like Umno Youth, its Umno Overseas Club alumni, Perkasa, to Islamists like PAS, ABIM and Pembina.

Among the complaints given were that the BM requirement waiver will result in doctors who are unable to communicate with patients.

Of course, this is a strawman argument. Not having SPM-level qualification does not in any way imply that someone cannot already speak Malay, just as having the cert does not mean you will be competent in speaking and comprehending the language — especially when it comes to serving patients.

Yes, BM is important when dealing with Malay patients, but does an SPM certification acquired back in school — for housemen, it would be at least six years back — help with that?

Nor does it mean that doctors are “too stupid” or “too arrogant” to pass the exam.

It just means that someone does not follow the national education system, no less, no more.

In this case, the policy was waived as a response to over 20 graduates waiting for their placement because they did not attend school in Malaysia, some of them children of diplomats.

Putrajaya Hospital... the country needs qualified doctors to serve in its hospitals, but the latest kerfuffle over an SPM BM requirement is throwing a spanner into the works. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng
Putrajaya Hospital... the country needs qualified doctors to serve in its hospitals, but the latest kerfuffle over an SPM BM requirement is throwing a spanner into the works. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng

Despite some irresponsible reporting, it should be noted that the waiver was not made because they are children of diplomats, it just so happens that children of diplomats do not go to school here. And why would they when they cannot live here?

And as several doctors have told Malay Mail Online, speaking Malay is nowhere near half of the job of doctors. In real life, patients come in all languages and dialects — those posted to rural areas would inevitably have to learn to master a rudimentary understanding of whatever language, and failing that, rely on other doctors or staff to translate.

It may be hard for the Malay supremacists to understand, but Malay doctors who do well do sometimes have to learn Chinese dialects as well as part of their job.

And that still does not count the many other languages you have to deal with when it comes to foreign workers and tourists.

Compare this with how it was reported in 2015 that over 1,000 medical graduates had quit their ambitions to become doctors due to poor English. Truth is, when it comes to a science field, the language of reference is still English.

The confusion among the detractors of the Health Ministry’s decision to waive the SPM-level BM requirement stems from the failure to understand the contract system offered by the Health Ministry starting late last year.

Now, medical graduates would be given a contract of two years to complete their housemanship, and if chosen, can continue their contract for a further two years of compulsory service under the Health Ministry.

It is only then they would be absorbed into a permanent position within the ministry, if they are capable. Without the two years of housemanship, and the two years of compulsory service, graduates cannot even practise medicine.

Many will not even continue serving the government. They would go on to private practice, or may not even serve as doctors at all.

These are the people affected by the waiver. Those who enter permanent service would still be required to have the SPM-level BM qualification.

Hence there is no issue of BM being sidelined in civil service at all, despite claims by detractors.

But without the waiver, the graduates are essentially stuck, unable to continue practising even when they do not aim to serve in public service at all.

The waiver is not even a new thing, as it has been applied to foreign medical officers or physicians, and contract medical officers all this while.

There is no question about it: BM is the national language. And by right, all Malaysians should be able to speak and write it due to its inclusion in the national education system. Just like how Malaysians have learned English in school, there is no excuse to not being able to use both languages.

But when it comes to respecting BM, how that is actually being carried out is ultimately shallow.

There is little recognition and support for authors and writers who write in BM, what more if you are not a Malay. Even the evolution of the language, by preferring certain English loan words over reusing archaic words or inventing portmanteau has resulted in a slightly ugly modernist BM.

The call for the use of BM as a way of uniting the nation rings hollow when there is so much divide-and-conquer happening in the public sphere.

When it comes to a national identity, we did not follow Indonesia by only having one new identity, one people that speaks Bahasa Indonesia — no matter what their ethnicities or culture.

We also did not follow Singapore by having a melting pot with all four BM, Mandarin, Tamil, and English recognised as national languages and represented in public.

The pro-Bumiputera lobby would call for a single-stream school in Malay by abolishing vernacular schools, but they would not surrender Bumiputera-exclusive institutions, nor would they agree to the abolition of taxpayer-funded Islamic schools and the pondok stream.

There may be a reason for that. At the core of the matter, the ethno-religionists do not wish for a shared identity that all Malaysians can adopt, or the equality of all ethnic identities. What the status quo wishes is for the supremacy of one language, culture, and religion to dominate over others and in time displace them.

As long as supremacists are given leeway, and in turn decide public policy, we should never expect racial unity in this country.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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