Happy 100th birthday, Finland

THE Bulan Bahasa Kebangsaan (National Language Month) ended last week. I am saddened by it because I do believe that every month, indeed every day is a national language day, and thus it is never-ending.

It is absurd to have any one-limited period dedicated to any national language. I cannot imagine any other sovereign nation entertaining such an absurdity. Only in Malaysia sadly. It only implies that most Malaysians are not well versed in the national language to have such annual practice-run sessions. Simply put, not everyone is passionate about the national language unlike citizens of other nations. Even the Filipinos, who speak good English, are fluent in Tagalog. In fact they switch from one to the other readily and naturally, including in official speeches.

Similar concerns have also been raised by the prime minister, who has to cajole some segments of the community to speak and be fluent in the language. Of late, the DPM was heard speaking the national language in a slang and intonation of another ethnic group when officiating at a temple function in Bagan Datuk, hinting on a "big day" after a festive celebration next year. Why this is necessary is unclear unless on the assumption that the audience has a poor command of standard BM. That is how much we value the national language.

At times, there is a ray of hope when there are news reports like: "Malaysian Chinese schoolchildren will be groomed to master Bahasa Malaysia better with the help of specially-designed programmes."

Although it sounded like an afterthought coming 60 years after Merdeka, it does give a "good feeling" if only it is not because many of them "would enrol into National Secondary School (SMK)" as claimed, quoting a deputy education minister. Meaning for those who do not want to join the SMK then why bother. We are back to square one where self-interest precedes national ones.

Yet the deputy minister allegedly recognised the anomaly when he said: "It is our national language. Every Malaysian citizen must be fluent in it." Hence, it is not just about schools and the choice of schools after all, implicating those who are out of schools, including the corporate sector as well. Will there be a specially-designed "sekolah dewasa" programme to undertake this as successfully done at one point in our nation-building process. Otherwise, one must confess it is more of lip service because we have heard something like this several times before especially near elections. If it cannot happen six decades after Merdeka, it is hard to envisage otherwise making it somewhat schizophrenic knowing the hard realities on the ground.

The schizophrenia metaphor cannot be more apt following a survey that claimed "eight out of 10 Johoreans want the return of English-medium government schools." The survey by Singapore's ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute (no local institution can do something like this?) seems to raise more questions than answers. For one, attributing Singapore's (economic) success solely or even mainly due to its graduates' competence in English is not telling the whole story. It is not limited to any one factor or variable, rather it involves the entire education ecosystem. A more convincing example is the Scandinavian ecosystem like that of Finland, which uses their national languages – a combination of Finnish and Swedish – not English.

In fact, the system is more "humane" than any of the Far Eastern (tiger-mum) models because there is absolutely no "cramp" school or extra tuition needed. There is no homework either. And no overt standardised assessment system nor examinations imposed in the schools.

When it comes to international "tests" like TIMMS and PISA, these are not targeted the way some countries tend to be obsessed about. For the Finns it is a mere outcome of a good eco-system that they have consciously nurtured over the years. No flip-flopping. There is more learning taking place than (over-) teaching.

Evidently therefore, tragedies like suicides related to education are unheard of, which in contrast stands out like a sore thumb in several Far Eastern countries (but never officially acknowledged).

So paradoxically, it is not about using English, but more importantly the national context – values, cultures, norms and nationhood – that makes the system an envy of the world. Culturally their monarchies seem to endorse the education ecosystem as a source of national and cultural pride and inspiration. Unlike us, they do not have to import English books for use in their schools because it would be "out-of-context" making learning that much harder (and less relevant) for the students. Something that we seem to be oblivious to, somehow. To say we have no writers is an outright insult.

Needless to say only countries with that level of conviction and confidence do not need to have a national language month to promote the use of their national language. Even migrants, who are welcomed into the larger community, first learn the national language and culture so as to be bona fide citizens of their new adopted countries with a sense of real pride. At the same time they get to keep their own culture and "mother tongue". It is not an either or situation to strike a happy medium as it were.

The younger migrants of schoolgoing age are accommodated in the national schools and use the national language in their studies like all citizens. No national language month, less still separate schools of different languages, because they are single-minded as a nation of what they want in their own "mould" (remember Wawasan 2020) that is uniquely theirs. It speaks volumes about their confidence not just superficial patriotism to shape their independence through a robust education ecosystem based on their context. Period.

Today Finland's flag will fly high as its citizens celebrate the 100th anniversary of her independence with its education ecosystem sending a distinctive message to the world on what nation-building is all about. At 60, Malaysia has a lot to learn from Finland.

With some four decades of experience in education, the writer believes that "another world is possible". Comments: letters@thesundaily.com