By Farish A Noor
ONCE again vernacular education has become an issue in Malaysian politics, though with much speculation about the date of the election going around at the moment, one cannot help but feel that the issue has been raised by some parties for the sake of gaining the popular vote above all.
It would be difficult not to draw an association between the proponents of vernacular schooling and the opposition parties after what happened at the rally for Chinese schools that took place last week.
ONCE again vernacular education has become an issue in Malaysian politics, though with much speculation about the date of the election going around at the moment, one cannot help but feel that the issue has been raised by some parties for the sake of gaining the popular vote above all. It would be difficult not to draw an association between the proponents of vernacular schooling and the opposition parties after what happened at the rally for Chinese schools that took place last week.
But the question remains unanswered by all: Can we seriously expect there to be some semblance of a Malaysian nation as long as young Malaysian children are taught separately, in different language streams? And are we naïve enough to think that nations invent themselves, without there having to be some form of intervention and direction by the state?
I have written about this so many times that I am close to giving up altogether, for fear that any more articles would simply amount to a waste of paper.
But for the umpteenth time, let me repeat some of the things I have said before: If we were to look at the major developed countries of the world such as Britain, France and Germany, we will see that historically these countries used to be far more linguistically diverse than they are today. In France alone hundreds of dialects were spoken, as was the case in Germany, where each region had a dialect unique to itself.
As Robert Bartlett has argued in his work The Making Of Europe, the coming together of these small principalities and feudal states was only possible through the centralisation of power and the streamlining of language, giving birth to the national languages we know today: French, German and English. Bartlett notes, of course, that this did not happen without some degree of discomfort, but in the long run the sacrifices of the past seem to have paid off. Disparate communities (that may not have even been able to speak to each other) are now part of larger nations.
Malaysia is likewise at a stage of its history where it has to decide firmly and decisively if it wishes to be one nation or a number of nations living side-by-side but never really communicating or understanding one another. As elections draw close, my worry is that the political parties of the country will pander to the most exclusive of communitarian voices, calling for linguistic isolationism as if it was the only benchmark of identity.
Surely, in the midst of the economically troubling times we live in, there are other matters that ought to gain our attention, such as protecting Malaysia from capital flight, securing our human resources and talent, and so on.
This also means having to create the opportunity structures whereby minorities feel that they can succeed by remaining in the mainstream, and working upwards in society by using the same common national language that is the language of one and all. For more than two decades now, I have lived as a member of the minority, first in Britain, then in France, Holland, Germany and now in Singapore.
In all these countries, I found myself struggling to get into the mainstream in order to succeed and to be the best I could be; proud enough to say that at least one Malaysian managed to teach in some of the best universities of the world. In places like France and Germany it also meant trying to master at least some basic French and German. And in all these instances my struggle was for and in the mainstream of society.
My concern about what is happening in Malaysia today is that the continued existence of separate language schools means that we do not know where the mainstream is any longer. It beggars belief that in a plural society like ours, young children may spend their entire childhood in the company of other children of the same cultural-linguistic background, and need not meet or even shake hands with another Malaysian child of a different culture or religion.
Worse still, this trend towards linguistic-cultural exclusivism seems to be on the rise among all the communities of the country. So we are back to the original question: How can we build a Malaysian nation if Malaysian children don't even go to the same schools, together?
As the tone and tenor of political contestation heats up in Malaysia in the lead-up to the elections, I also hope that the parties in the country will not jump on the language bandwagon to further aggravate things and to drive a wedge between Malaysians. In other developed countries, even parties that are bitterly hostile to each other conduct themselves with one eye on the national interest, and put national interest first.
In any plural society there are bound to be both centrifugal forces and centripetal forces, at times working against each other. To build a Malaysian nation means necessarily seeking those positive centripetal forces that want there to be a Malaysian nation that we can all call home. Parties should actively seek these forces, and lend their support to Malaysians who want there to be a national language, a national educational system and a national culture that everyone can identify with.
These forces, I believe, are there and have always been there; but what baffles me is why the political parties of the country have not reached out to them in an effective manner.
The aim, surely, has to be the creation of a common, inclusive mainstream; and then the expansion of that mainstream to make it even more inclusive and empowering for all.
Surely that is what education is for, and what smart politics is all about.