We like to tell ourselves and the world that we are a multi-racial, multi-religious and multi-cultural country but our greatest failure as Malaysians is that we are not very good in our own languages. Forget about English. It went down the drain long ago after we switched from English to Bahasa Malaysia as the medium of instruction. Most of our graduates from local universities cannot even string together a sentence in correct English. The victims of this flawed policy are not just the Malays but also the Chinese and the Indians.
But the Malays are the hardest hit because many, especially those in the rural areas, lack the opportunities to use the language. So when local graduates attend interviews, they lose out. One prominent politician is said to have gone on a tourism promotion in Singapore, where he told his stunned listeners of his state's famous "burnt fish" - that's ikan bakar for him. There are worse cases. Mandarin? Many are not aware that the quality of Mandarin, as spoken by Malaysian Chinese, is ridiculed in mainland China and Taiwan. The only consolation is the Cantonese-speaking Hong Kongers are worse off but given the exposure and close proximity, they have improved.
And many also do not seem to realise that many Malaysian Chinese cannot speak or write Mandarin, being either products of the previous English-medium schools or the current sekolah kebangsaan. So if an employer places a recruitment advertisement for Chinese-speaking staff, it may be natural for non-speakers to be offended. But the fact is that it doesn't affect just Malays but Chinese and Indians as well. I cannot speak nor write Mandarin, so I am out. Doing businesses in China is essential now, so what good is a staff who cannot converse in Mandarin? That's the reality. Unlike India or the Middle East, where English is used widely, the situation is different in China.
Instead of getting angry or feeling discriminated, it is better to just learn the language. In many schools in UK, Mandarin is already offered as a language in schools and students are encouraged to sit for it as an exam paper for the A levels. Unlike countries like Belgium, Switzerland, Austria and many European countries, where the people can speak at least three or four languages, we have actually fared badly. Blogger Jailani Harun has asked that Mandarin or Tamil be taught as compulsory subjects in primary schools. Unfortunately, there are not so many liberal and open minded people like him around. Forget about it. If we cannot even accept the idea making English as a compulsory subject to pass in schools, what more can we ask?
Deep in our hearts of hearts, we know scoring 16 As means little in comparison to the maximum 6As for the Lower Certificate of Examination (LCE) of the early days. So as the politicians continue to tell us we have a "world class" education system, we know how fast we have plunged. These are the same politicians who send their kids to schools in the United Kingdom or Australia. In Malaysia, it's probably to a private school or international school. If we are doing that greatly, as they want us to believe, they should be sending their kids to the same local schools. And how well do we really know each other's culture and religion? Not much.
How many of us can truly say that we or our children have stepped into a mosque, temple or church? Some conservatives, Christians included, are so frightened that their faith would be tested or shaken, that they would not even step into a place of worship that is different from theirs, when they are in Thailand, China, Egypt, Turkey, India, Indonesia or at the Vatican. In Singapore, they have started weekend trips for students to visit these places of worship in their neighhbourhoods. What's wrong with getting Chinese and Indian students to meet the neighbourhood's imam at the mosque? What's wrong in knowing more about the azan? And what's wrong with just saying hello to a pastor or priest or to attend the Thaipusam festival that is so unique?. No one's out to convert anyone. These places have been around for centuries. Let's keep Malaysians tolerant of each other. We need more liberals ike Jailani Haruns of all races and faith. But the majority liberals must speak up louder than the conversatives, nationalists and right-wingers. Read On The Beat for more.