Friday, March 30, 2012

A Common Language To Bind Us All

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.


BIGCAT said...

Now only this guy want to write about this issue. Why he so slow one? Others had battled it out since the past weeks. Now he simply simply come and write trying to make himself sound so smart and genius. Calling for the closing down of Chinese schools some more. Eh, come back here in Malaysia la and mix around with people at the grass-root level la. Hanging out in places like Bangsar don't count you know. Check out the reality of this country la. Don't simply write things while pretending to be some Greek god living high up in the cloud.


aaw..bigcat. why so harsh one? you don't agree with him? to each his or her own..

bruno said...

Nuraina,this language problem thing is all to do about politics.After more than half a decade since gaining independence the people are still arguing about languages.Our politicians are bankrupted of ideals,and wouldn't know the difference between a kerbau and a lembu.

But they are good at one thing, and one thing only.That is dipping their filthy hands into the cookie jar.

Take for example Switzerland.Many Swiss nationals do not speak the English language.In fact they speak fluent German and French.In Canada,an English speaking nation,in some provinces the people speak little or no English.In fact they speak fluent French only.

In the United States,Spanish is taught in schools as a second language.Nobody complained,and nobody argued because they had better things to do.

It is time our leaders started acting like real leaders,and work their asses off.They should earn the wages that the people who put them there and paid them for.Instead of playing the blame game.

Anonymous said...

Very simple solution....close all vernacular mainstream education system and take the religion out of schools....

BIGCAT said...

hehehe, simply simply la datuk. had too much coffee la this morning. where got harsh one. no vulgarities what.
but seriously, I don't appreciate that much when liberal "high class" people who perasan pandai want to comment on things affecting ordinary people like me that they don't really understand.

Lee said...

A common national language and a common school system can only come about if we are truly, genuinely "1Malaysia"...that is a Malaysia for all Malaysians irregardless of races.As long as we have this bumi non-bumi thing there is no 1malaysia .The present status-quo will remain until we are all matured enough to call ourselves Malaysians.This will take some time....until such time when there is no discriminations based on race.Farish is not realistic...too academic and idealistic!What is wrong with veracular schools?They have contributed a lot to the countries with minimum help from the government.

HuaYong said...

nuraina, i think bigcat have a point. in fact a chinese school folk may never leave this 'home' all his life while farish seldom stay at 'home', he might even confused which country he should call 'home'. my advive to farish is he should continue his struggle in country like canada, switzerland and belgium to find out what mainstream and 'multi-mainstrean' is about.

that said, farish is one of the best writer around.

SonofIskandarKutty said...

The guilty man who is responsible for dismantling bahasa Melayu as the Lingua franca of Malaysians is that half Indian Mahathir s/o Iskandar Kutty alias Mohamed.

Growing up Mahathir had to live with constant jibe India balek kampung among the Malay youth just like Farish Noor had experienced as he retold his trauma in an interview.

Thus Mahathir act of hiding his Indianness was a masterful act to destroy Malay in Tanah Melayu by saying Malay is not suitable for Sains and Matematik.

No, no only the english are good in science as if China speak english or Japanese world class technologies speak english.

No Malay in his right mind would propose such a policy not unless he is Indian.

The current Malaysian situation is akin prior to May 13. Again the Malays are marginalised this time by a half Indian while the Chinese become billionaires and gambling, power or airlines are given to Hindus like Ananda and Tony Fernandes.

The Glib Mahathir would spout facts which wold be repaeated by Khairy and umno goons, 42 billions have been allocated to Malays but they have been sold off. So now the UMNO Government is not going to give anymore to the Malays??!!

Such akal keling logik. Who bought the 42 billion? The chinese. Where did the 42 billions goes? To the Malays. So is that wrong? If that is wrong and to ensure widespread Malay ownership, better methods should be thought off instead of fawning to the Chinese capitalists.

Trust funds, cooperatives etc are ways to keep funds in Malays hand for long periods.

But the Malays forget they are dealing with akal keling. Such gems from Mahathir must be repeated so we Malays dont forget who we are dealing with. "IF we are to share our wealth equally then we would only share poverty."

Therefore let Kuok, Ananda, Vincent Tan be billionaires and my sons be billionaires hehehe..

The rest can be poor.

Or what about "If everyone is a millionaire then things would be expensive" So let my sons only be millionaires.. and the Malays lapped it up because they cannot connect the dots..

It is only now that Mahathir Keling father has been exposed. It explains a lot irrational acts which we thought were hidden genius but in fact a plot against the Malays.

For example. Another Mahathir genius, we only want 30% of the wealth for the 70 of the population, the Chinese should not mind. The 2 % of that would benefit would be my sons of course hehe.

We will achieve this by expanding the cake and not by taking from the Chinese. What this means that Kuok and ANanda, would be come continuosly richer, the rich become richer while the Malays share 30% among 70%!

Such akal keling..haha.

Anonymous said...


I am one of few Malays who attended chinese vernacular school.

What Farish Noor said I think is not entirely correct.

The reality of the matter is this, most of the kids who attended vernacular school in primary level end up in the national school at secondary level. This is simply because there are not many secondary level vernacular school.
So, there is 5 years more of schooling at secondary level plus another 2 years more in the secondary 6 (STPM).

Surely the 7 years time is sufficient for the these student to blend in order to have a cohesive society.

I think this part is left out in Farish Noor article,most likely he is not aware of the true dynamics of the schooling scenarios in the country.

I think this subject have been have been politicized too much by some parties.


Salem said...

Hashimoto and Bruno

You must accept that this is Tanah Melayu. The Federated Malay States Sultans agreed to be united into Malaysia.

The problem is that UMNO had been hijacked by people who does not have the Malay interest at heart.

Of course language is a political problem. The weakness of BM is due to the weakness of UMNO leadership from the President who as pointed out was not Malay to the supreme councils of mediocre malays.

Lets hope the new generation of Malays are sharp enough to recognise that there could not be a nation without national language. That BM is a shield against globalisation as Japan or Korea or even Thailand has successfully done with their language.

The hysterical clamour for english in NST is by indians but look at India which was colonised and with WOGs a plenty. Are they first world?

Look at the Phillipines thoroughly colonised by Europeans until they still pray to the Pope today as Romans conquest speaking English. Are they first world? The only thing you can say about english speaking Phillipines are that they can earned more as maids...hehe.

So there is no causal relationship between english and success. If you go to London even the taxi drivers and rubbish collectors speak english..??!! So speak english and be a taxi driver?

Malay leaders especially UMNO and Perkasa should realised that the Chinese educationists want to have a separate Chinese state in Malaya or else why else would they dont even want malay teachers in SRKC?

This is not strange because Chin Peng and sympathisers was fighting to make Malaya a colony of China just 30 years ago.

The only justification of vernacular Chinese and Indians schools would to make them realised their roots and enable them to go back if they feel homesick. Perhaps a reverse migration would be good to bring race relationship to a manageable level.

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