Saturday, November 1, 2008

Of language, race and religion in Malaysia

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.


Anonymous said...

Sorry if you are offended but I think you need to separate your articles into more paragraphs. As it is currently, it is extremely hard to read.

BlueMoon said...

Fair comment Bro. Wong. I agree that it's difficult to find someone who is liberal with their race and religion. The reason is due to lack of confidence and insecurity. Naturally the chinese is championing the mandarin to a certain extent of proposing the raod signs be changed in order to accomodate this language. Obviously, this was met with fierce reaction from the Malays who feel that the sovereignty of Bahasa Malaysia has been compromised. Their objection is not not without reason since they make up more than 60% of the population here. The rule of laws is very simple in that the minority should respect the sensitivity of the majority. On one hand the chinese is asking for the malays to be liberal but yet they are not doing enough to promote the supremacy of national language. Some cannot even read the road signs in BM as Lim Guan Eng has correctly stipulated. Until the minorities themselve become liberal then the race and religion will certainly remain a bone of contention.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the voice. It's refreshing to read this kind of opinion from a mainstream person. You've started earning my respect for your courage.

I now live temporarily in Canada. A lot can be learned here. People see each other as human being. They are "colour-blind." They take pride in being tolerance. In schools and at home, kids are not taught to identify each other by their colours. One of the most famous Canadian TV series is Little Mosque On The Prairie. It reflects the harmonious lives of Canadians of different ethnics and religions. How I wish we Malaysians will get there in a near future.

Anonymous said...

uncle wong,

i so agree with what u just said..
i m doing a research on 'bahasa inggeris dalam dasar pendidikan negara'.
i need an at least 15 pages of essay written in Malay before i send in my homework..
But mostly i can only find blogs.... malays fighting for their language. how ironic of them towards making malaysia what they call 'maju'.

Anonymous said...

Ooi Datuk, we don't seak this world we seak here after.

Anonymous said...

Be careful, Chun Wai. Speaking the truth can get you into trouble. Especially with mamak back in the scene.

Ka Ea Lim said...

Excuse me, Sir. Though this may not be related to your post topic, but would it not be possible to paragraph your article?

BareSheen said...

Chun Wai,

Another excellent piece. Captured my sentiments exactly.

Malaysians may seem to be multi-lingual but most of us are not good in any of the language.

My view is that our education is in shambles. And we are still busy playing politics in the schools'corridors.

The price that we will pay for this nonsense is too horrible to fathom.

Please please continue to lament this and other related issues.

Something must be done.

Anonymous said...

You can thank the NEP for this fatal state of the nation. And the people to blame are the UMNO leaders who have been misleading the country. They tell the Malays that NEP is to help them, but in actual fact these corrupt leaders pocket most of the wealth through dirty contracts, getting APs to import cars, and demanding shares from companies doing IPO. These same people whip up racial sentiments and implement stupid policies in education, business, and other areas which actually impoverish all Malaysians of all races.These same leaders send their children oversea to study in English, while telling the Malays to study only in Bahasa Malaysia. The con job is screwing the whole country.

Anonymous said...

Chun Wai,

It is time for someone to list down
the names of Ministers/Opposition leaders who have sent their children overseas to study, I am talking about those in primary and secondary schools.

Can we start with the Education Minister, please?


Anonymous said...

Over a period of 50 years, govt policies had damaged the greatest non-tangible asset of Malaysia - i.e. language skills.

1. What used to a great selling point for Malaysia was English. This no longer true. Why would a foreign investor select Malaysia to built its factory. The labour cost is higher. There is no other differentiating factor such as English skill. Vietnam and Indonesia looks equally attractive and with lower labour cost.

Feedback from recruitment interviewers indicated that the standard of English has deteriorated to the level of non-employable. Interview candidates from many local universities, both Malay and Chinese are unable to put together a proper and complete response in Englsh.

2. New market like China. What China need in large supply are people with both written and spoken Chinese and English. This combination can only be met by a very small percentage of the population.

We cannot even supply labour to the largest market in the world.

Major Chinese corporation, especially in the high tech business, can use Malaysia as the staging point to the rest of the world.

This bilingual skill can be a good selling point.

3. The national language of India is English. This is especially true in the high tech business. Again the labour force must be conversant in English. How can we work with India.

4. What about Japanese and and and....

In a period of 50 years, the greatest legacy was destroyed.
We lost an economic asset.

amoker said...

Congratulations on this gutsy posting and your article on the Star today. I hope it will not cost you your job.

I believe that the current state of Chinese education is a relfection of the lack of good quality schools around. Either you go private ( like all the UMNO ministers) or CHinese schools. And chinese schools should not be too inclusive, be open even in issues like English for Math and Science.

Anonymous said...

Like many Malaysians, I claim to be multilingual, but actually I am a jack of many languages and master of none. I speak "pasar hokkien" which only penang people can understand, but yet the taiwanese hokkien cannot understand me, and I can't understand the hokkien news and hokkien movies. I speak "pasar bahasa malaysia" with a lot of broken grammar. I can read and write very good english,but my spoken english is OK only. I cannot read nor speak in mandarin, the official chinese. My spoken cantonese is atrocious. My Tamil is limited to "aneh" and a few swear words which my naughty indian friends taught me. I can swear a few words in hakka and hainanese, but that is about all. But I look around me, and the majority are like me, so I feel "at home".
In school, I was trained to just copy notes and do homework and pass examinations. I was not to ask too many questions, otherwise the teachers get mad at me. When I got to the USA, I was asked to ask more questions if I don't understand or if I don't agree.
And the professors don't give notes. We were supposed to read before coming to class, and we discuss the topics and we challenged the author's ideas, and challenge each other's ideas.
And yeah, they asked me to speak louder. In school here, the teachers look at me satu macham if I speak a bit louder.
No wonder we have so many silent robots in malaysia.

BeYetWiser said...

Malaysia started off with English, Chinese, Tamil and Malay schools. Then they found that the English speaking graduates secured most of the white collar position. To have equity and a level playing field, they abolished English so that the rural students can compete easier. Its better to make the rest of the country follow their standard. Give them jobs in civil service where no English is needed but send own their children overseas to study in English so they can come back and be masters over the ignorant.
Many countries do not have the advantage that we had when we were were proficient in English, but now that we had shot our own foot, these countries have caught up and overtaken us.
English is no longer a colonial language but an universal one. Its a joke when former colonies with a distintive advantage in English discard the language for nationalism while others who were handicapped before are rushing in to learn it for global trade.
Singapore while maintaining English are also proficient in Malay and Chinese. See how much they have superceded us in the international arena.

BlueMoon said...

Dato', Reading your comments yesterday and comparing them with notes written by columnists in Mingguan Malaysia, I could observe two contrasting views. On one hand the minority-chinese is asking the malay-majority to wake-up and be open-minded especially related to the proliferation of chinese language and culture here. Instead of bowing out, the majority is asking for the minority to be grateful as they would not be as what they are today if not due to the tolerance and resilience of the majority. Given two different views then naturally the voice of majority supercedes the minority. The response from the majority would be more traggic if this happens in the west. One could imagine how the english would react, if for instance, the pakistani community in Britain is proposing the english road signs be replaced with Urdu. Probably they will say "Get lost and shut your mouth trap!"

Anonymous said...

thank you, bro sir.

my intention was very clear - to make the malays more marketable. being able to understand and speak (better if they can master it) mandarin will open up more opportunities in the business and job sectors. it will also 'wash away' whatever ill-feelings they may harbor against the non-Malays as they understand each other better, ma!

Anonymous said...

New Malaysia? How about a new Datuk Wong Chun Wai? How about some real news in theStar? Are you man enough?
According to Malaysian Insider website, the recent RM5 billion injection into Valuecap was not intended as "additional" investment to support the flailing stock market as suggested by new Finance Minister Najib Abdul Razak.

Instead it was a rescue package for Valuecap to repay its original multi-billion ringgit debt, which is due in February next year.

Anonymous said...

What schools do your children go to Datuk?

Anonymous said...


How about a post to tell us how you can contribute to a new Malaysia? I am a Malaysian Chinese born and bred here and knows no other motherland. I will live and die in Malaysia. I am worried about the kind of future my children and grandchildren (yes I am a grandfather) will face. Will they also be doomed to be a second or third class citizen in the country they are born in? How will DATUK Wong and perhaps theStar which you head contributes to this New Malaysia. I look forward to reading a post here as how DATUK Wong's plan for a New Malaysia.

Anonymous said...

Datuk Wong, I apologize for badgering you with negative comments. We Malaysians need every talent we can get to work for a brighter future for our children and grandchildren of all colors. I look forward to a post on how we can contribute to a new better Malaysian.

Now humbled Malaysian.

Anonymous said...

Can we have sekolah kebngsaan with Mandarin/Tamil language option so all Malaysia (inc Malay) can learn extra language? This is win-win situation as Malays like myself can also learn the language so chinese can't talk bad to us in their mother tongue (and off course so we are qualifies to work for them)

Then chinese will have no more excuses to defend their sekolah jenis kebangssan cina

Unknown said...

Dear Wong,

Shalom! Good and thought provoking posting.

I am sure the govt. knows what is good for our education system. That is for sure.

The problem is the education minister who invariably will be an UMNO minister has to consider the political implications of his every decisions.

He is concerned with the backlash against UMNO if he makes any decisions which are perceived to be detrimental to the interest of the malays although they are good policies for the good of the nation.

In a nutshell, it is the POLITICISATION of the education system that will pull down this country's competitiveness.

Just compare Singapore's education system and you will know why our graduates are not marketable.

What is patroitism I wonder?

Is learning another language unpatriotic?

Is making this nation more able to compete globally unpatriotic?

Looking back 20 to 30 years, I can say for sure there is even better unity and no racist tendencies among my malay and indian friends even when the medium of instruction is English. Most of us can speak at least two languages.

Where do we go wrong?

Somebody please tell me. I really need to know.

Anonymous said...

"Anonymous said...
What schools do your children go to Datuk?"

Hey Anonymous fella, fyi his kid goes to kebangsaan school. Pls lay off ya, let the man do what he can. As every wage earner knows, Dato' is only doing his job and don't be too hard on him cos his hands are tied in certain matters. Pls have a heart ok.

Anonymous said...

Flowery words with little reality. Nice to ponder but lopsided views your are stating here, Chung Wai.

I concur that we must learn as many languages as possible to be competitive globally. But, can you name here a chinaman public figure, other than Ridhuan Tee Abdullah, who claim themselselves to be a Malaysian speaks Malay fluently as a MALAYSIAN should? Can you, Chung Wai?

Lu ada cakap Malayu maik ka, latok?

Ir. Dr. K.C. Ng said...

Indonesian House of Representatives just passed a bill that terms ethnic and racial discrimination as serious crimes. When will it be Malaysia's turn. It is also read that leaders of public institutions found guilty of adopting discriminatory policies would face jail terms one-third more severe than those stipulated in the Criminal Code. Hmpss.. maybe we need that too. I can't imagine how our jail will be overcrowded with our current politicians.

Unknown said...

There is some exception rule for writing in computer. One paragraph should contain not more than 5 or 6 lines.

Reading on paper is not the same as on computer screen.

Anyway, keeps the good works.