English or Malay? Why not both?

This was the topic of the past week.

It started with Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang saying that those promoting the use of English over the Malay language are “trapped in a colonial mindset”.

“They are behaving like slaves to the former colonial masters despite having been freed from their clutches,” he said in his column in the PAS organ Harakah.

Unsurprisingly, the remark by the Islamist party leader did not go well with several netizens – especially English speakers.

It was on the back of the federal government’s ongoing campaign to prioritise the use of the Malay language.

Last month, the government announced that the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) Act 1959 will be amended to enable authorities to take action against those who disrespect the national language, by imposing a fine of up to RM50,000 or a jail term.

DBP chairman Datuk Seri Awang Sariyan said these were among the items proposed in the amendments to the act, which is now in the final stage of discussion.

Sarawak, the only state in Malaysia where English is used as an official language apart from Malay, wasn’t too pleased with Abdul Hadi’s statement.

To Sarawakians, it represents shallow-mindedness as well as ignorance about the importance of mastering English for advancement in science and technology.

Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP) secretary-general Datuk Sebastian Ting hit the nail on the head when he said the PAS president’s views were disrespectful to Sarawakians.

“Our right to use English as an official language was promised to us as it was one of our fundamental requirements when our founding fathers negotiated to form Malaysia,” he said in a statement.

He was echoing a separate rebuttal by Tourism, Creative Industry and Performing Arts Minister Datuk Seri Abdul Karim Rahman Hamzah.

Abdul Karim had earlier trained his guns on Abdul Hadi, describing that “it’s unfortunate for PAS to have a leader with such a shallow mindset”.

The Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB) vice-president told Islam advocates and believers to acquire as much knowledge as possible. Being proficient in as many languages as possible would enable better communication with the rest of the world.

“Being good in English doesn’t mean someone has a colonial mindset,” he said. “Arabic is not the language of our region. Does learning Arabic mean we have a colonial mindset? No.”

The debate on the use of English has been a rather prolonged one and Premier Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Abang Johari Tun Openg had expressed his dismay over attempts to punish federal civil servants for using English.

He has since maintained that Sarawak’s civil servants will continue to use English as the state’s official language.

“We will not be penalised for using English. Sarawak civil servants, you can use English. Federal officers, I don’t know lah because your master is different,” he said.

Against all arguments, I thought that there should be a middle ground in this, that is, Malaysians, should embrace all languages, especially Malay and English.

Believe me, I’ve met people who have spoken flawless Malay and very articulate when speaking publicly. Very talented orators I might say. But when a language isn’t on their side, that is, when they have to talk in English, then everything falls apart.

Often, after a few minutes of struggling to find the exact words in English to directly translate their thoughts, they would end with something like this: “Sir, can I speak in Malay?” They gave up.

Truthfully, it is not easy for me, who predominantly writes in English, to write in Malay, but I took a crack at it.

Some years ago, when I was a student leader, I had to learn to deliver speeches in Malay which is not my first language. In this I often humbled my Malayan counterparts who spoke fluent Malay, their mother tongue.

But duality in terms of language mastery is crucial; it opens doors that otherwise would remain closed. Many would attest to this.

In essence, we should not be in arguments over which language takes precedence over the other. Instead, we should look to broaden our language skills, both spoken and written.

Only then can we claim to be intellectuals in the sense that we are able to take in and utilise new knowledge without having any language barring our development.

New Sarawak Tribune e-Paper


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