My View - Upholding national identity

THE media coverage the last fortnight has been heavy on the issue of language culminating in Sultan of Perak, Sultan Nazrin Shah, expressing concern over the Malay language when delivering the Royal Address organised by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) last week.

He reminded the audience that we "must not dismiss the Unesco finding that mother tongue is the key to effective learning". This resonated with a report that the United Chinese School Committees Association and several other groups are "protesting" against the implementation of the Dual Language Programme (DLP) formulated by Pemandu.

They reckoned the programme is "too difficult for students to cope without affecting their mother tongue". Not surprisingly, a group of prominent Malay academics have been arguing along the same lines but they were swiftly labelled as Malay ultra-nationalists and then marginalised. Their Chinese counterparts were spared despite being categorical that their action was "to safeguard the characteristics" of the Chinese schools.

On hindsight one cannot help but associate all these to the speech by the deputy prime minister at the UN General Assembly. In his response to criticism he retorted that it was more shameful for Malaysians not to master Bahasa Kebangsaan. He said: "It would be more embarrassing if someone was born and raised in Malaysia but unable to speak the national language even after 25 years although some foreigners who came to work here can pick up the language within one or two months."

However, he did not elaborate what ought to be done about citizens who are not proficient in the national language. There was no suggestion on how to rectify this long-standing issue that needs some very high-level instructions to crack this intractable "problem". So far there has been only talk, no action. Maybe it is because the majority of those lacking in proficiency are not schoolchildren or youngsters. Surprisingly, they are among the many successful baby boomers or even the generations before them. Some are holding high positions with widespread influence within the government circles.

If it is true that "some foreigners who came to work here can pick up the language within one or two months", then it must be a matter of negative attitude or a deliberate choice of not wanting to learn the language. It is not a wild guess to point out that the excuses are often selfish ones – viz, it does not serve their self-interest whatsoever. At this juncture, it is appropriate to quote Sultan Nazrin when he noted, "although the national language is assumed to have no international value, it is a language that not only safeguarded historical links but also upheld the national identity".

By bringing up the issue of "national identity" I seriously think that this is where the crux of the problem lies. This is plain to see when "national identity" is one of the six student aspirations framed in both of the Malaysian Education Blueprints after almost six decades of Merdeka. Reading this alongside what the sultan reportedly observed, namely "more and more housing estates, parks, commercial buildings and tourist attractions approved by the local authorities carry English names", the issue of misplaced identity cannot be dismissed.

Perhaps Pemandu can pick it up to provide some urgent solutions like what they did with the DLP. It would be a lot simpler as there is no need for a survey or video interviews. Every Malaysian must agree with the deputy prime minister's viewpoints and go one step further to close the gaps for which Pemandu is known to be very good at. The time to act is now and the opportunity must not be missed again. The DBP must ensure that this is the case so that the royal address is not taken in vain. Let it be resolved once and for all.

After all in virtually all sovereign countries their citizens – including the rich and famous – are conversant with their national languages. Among Asean member countries only Malaysia seems to be shamefully at odds in this long-standing issue, and nowhere resolving it. This is because we have been too soft and compromising when it comes to our national identity especially concerning the national language. Sultan Nazrin even made special mention of "huge government-linked companies, for showing disrespect to the national language and not providing genuine support to entities struggling to uphold the national language". This basically sums up how dire the situation has become. This column has been categorical when it argued that "our first language must come first (My View, Feb 24), and so is our national identity.

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