Monday, 24 July 2017



Bahasa Melayu:  the national language

Historically, BM was the language for trading in the marketplaces and ports.  Thus the language has gained for itself the reputation of being the lingua franca of the Malay-archipelago of the yesteryear.  The language is still widely spoken in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei.  Many Singaporean and Southern Thais also speak the language.  Today close to 400 million people speaks the language worldwide.

The development of the language can be viewed from its usage and knowledge corpus.  In the bygone days, the language was fully developed as a language capable of satisfying the need of the society.  Communication between kingdoms then was in this language (Asmah, 1985;  Tham, 1990).  Later it was used within the Malay-speaking community for intra-group communication, encompassing the literature, culture, philosophy, and religion of the Malays.  In addition it was also the language of administration in the Malay states.

The 1967 National Language Act (NLA) was a milestone that set the stage for development of BM.  The Act not only recognizes the language as the national language, in line with the Article 152 (1) of the Constitution of Malaysia, but also as the official language to be used for the government administrative purposes.  Among other salient features of the NLA are:  (1) BM is to be utilized as the medium of instruction in all national schools and a required subject to pass the PMR (lower secondary assessment) and SPM (Malaysian Certificate of Education/O level), (2) BM is a main language of instruction in public institutions of higher learning, (3) BM is mandatory subject in non –national schools (schools not using BM as the major language of instruction), and (4) English is a mandatory subject in all schools (Hassan, 2002).

Another significant development of BM occurred in 1972 with the formation of a committee and subsequently the sealing of the Malaysia-Indonesia Spelling Agreement to standardize the spelling system between the two countries.  With the agreement, assimilation of scientific terms from foreign sources (especially English) into BM, the language became simpler and thus paving the way for its intellectualization. 

English:  a colonial legacy

The language of the government in the colonial days was English.  In written communication with the public, four languages were used namely English, BM, Mandarin and Tamil.  This quadrilingual situation was also extended to the education system.  The colonial education system then consisted of four types of school using four different languages and different set of curricula.  They were known as the English school, the Malay school, the Chinese school and the Tamil school.

The English school was initially set up mainly for those of high-class birth (children of Malay elites) and those with money (children of Chinese tin miners and businessmen and the Indian merchants).  The colonial policy of encouraging communal cooperation among the elites while separating the masses, created the image of English as ‘the language of the privileged, prosperous, and modern or up-to-date group’ (Mead, 1988, p 23).

Henceforth, the government felt that although English could have brought about educational advancement to the population, ‘it would not have fulfilled the principle of equality’ (Asmah, 1985, p. 66).  The formulation and the implementation of the NLA were also meant to address this issue.  The NLA not only ascribed BM to its sole national language status, but also enabled English to be accessed by the masses.  As the second most important language, English is to be learnt by every school child the moment he or she enters school.  It took 12 years beginning the year 1970 for the process of converting the medium of instruction from English to BM to be completed.  All Malay and English schools were later declassified as National schools.

The strengthening of the BM seems to have reciprocal effect to English.  The level of proficiency of English among the general population deteriorates.  Measures were taken to strengthen English.  The move sparked predictable fears that it could lead to the diminishing role of BM (Asiaweek, 1995).  Fearing that Malaysia will become less competitive economically in the future with the continued deterioration of English usage among the population, the government took a drastic step to prevent further decline (Asia Times Online, 2002).  Beginning 2003, English is to be used as a medium of instruction in selected core subjects within the education system.  The new directive has far reaching implication to the years of effort to develop and promote the use of BM.  There were even directives for government departments to encourage the use of English in their day-to-day transactions with the public.  This implicit reversal of the language policy created a stormy stir in the nation. 

The tussle for supremacy

Although BM is enshrined by the constitution, English remains the major challenger and competitor.  The following further deliberates on issues/contradictions that affect their competition.

Implementation of National Language Policy and political willpower

The National Language Policy (NLP) had been formulated to guide the implementation of BM and other languages in the country.  The implementation strategy may be viewed as ‘limited’ or ‘unlimited’ (Hassan, 2002).  For example according to Article 152 (1) of the Constitution of Malaysia and NLA 1967, the use of BM as the ‘official language is limited to the government administrative function, specifically in public administration, judiciary and legislation.’  Thus according to the NLP the government cannot extend the function of BM beyond the public official administrative function, for example in the private sector.

Hassan (2002) argued that since BM is a National and official language, the NLP should be implemented without limitation.  For example, the mandatory use of BM in government official functioning does not mean that BM cannot be used beyond the scope. The narrow interpretation of the NLP leads to conflicting implementation strategies. 

Lack of political commitment also affects the implementation of NLP.  The reversal to use English for selected core subjects in school after years of BM is a political directive.  Some politicians take advantage of the language issue to garner public support.

Language utilization

Proficiency in a language and using it is two different issues.  Despite the policy and education system in BM, English continues to be popularly used in certain segment of the population.  A communication pattern is affected by the user’s attitude (Asmah, 1985).  The saying ‘old habits die hard’ is appropriate in describing the way a Malaysian communicates. 
English had reigned supreme for more than a century in this country.  Many Malaysian leaders, scientists and educationists are at one stage or another during schooling or in their profession were trained in English.  The language remains to be commonly used by them, town folks, and the private sector.  A report by Asmah (1985, p. 164) describes the reality of the situation: 

At the unofficial level, English is spoken in almost every aspect of Malaysian life, particularly in the urban areas. In private and multi-national firms, it seems to be the language of the management group. English is spoken widely in shopping centers although the variety in used is mostly Malaysian English. Interaction among educated Malaysians, especially those who have had their education via the English language medium, may take place in English regardless whether the participants involved carry out their discourse entirely in English or not….

English remains a passport for better job and high position especially in private sector.  Banks, hotels and many local and especially foreign and multinational firms employ executives who are fluent in English.  English is a necessary qualification even in certain public agencies.  The government policy of requiring business organizations to employ at least 30 % indigenous people, resulting in these people filling up the lower rungs of the professional ladder.  One of the reasons given is the lack of fluency in English among the indigenous people.  The requirement for English fluency for economic and social gains contributes to English maintaining its prestige.  Since only 27% of the population is proficient in the language, it appears that the condition for economic and social gain is more available to the minority. 

Availability of learning resources

Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka puts intensive effort to translate books into BM.  Translation is time consuming and costly.  Unlike Japan, the rate is not catching up with worldwide production of learning resources in English.  Despite translation and local knowledge generation, there is still a dearth of books and other learning resources in BM.  Most references at institution of higher learning are only available in English.  Lack of reading materials in BM remains an issue in adult education in Malaysia (Mazanah, 2001b). 

Globalization and development of information communication technology

The world is fast becoming smaller.  English is one of the global international languages.  The population competency in English is an asset for the country to become one of the world players economically and politically.
Information communication technology (ICT) plays a critical role in the globalize world connecting people across place and culture.  ICT is an essential economic, political and social tool.  As a learning tool ICT makes education accessible at any time, any place, by any body.  Developed by the west, English is the ICT language.  English speaking learners have better access to worldwide educational resources through ICT like Internet. 

Competition or cooperation?
The analysis reveals that as a national language BM is crucial for the nation’s interest.  The language is making rapid progress in all fields.  The established, global English language also has lots to offer.  Both languages have their role in the nation’s development.  Both have their advantages and disadvantages.  Although the constitution enshrines their respective place, there seem to be a tug of war between them.  Taking consideration of the journey made, contemporary situation, and future challenges, Malaysians need to critically reflect what is best for them.  Should we place the importance on English by neglecting BM or vice versa, or should we take full advantage of both?  In other word, should it be a win-lose relationship or a win – win situation?

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