Off the Cuff - English – Adenan knows better

26 Nov 2015 / 19:25 H.

    I DON'T care what they say in West Malaysia. It is up to them but it suits Sarawak's condition. In our state, we don't have only the Malays but we also have the Iban, Bidayuh and Orang Ulu. In West Malaysia, such as in Kedah, Terengganu, Pahang and Johor most of the people are Malays."
    This was how Sarawak Chief Minister Tan Sri Adenan Satem hit back at his critics, who included former cabinet minister Tan Sri Dr Rais Yatim, following his announcement last week that Sarawak would adopt English as an official language alongside Bahasa Malaysia.
    Both Adenan and Rais are political veterans having been in the rough and tumble of the business for well over four decades and both are in their 70's.
    But when it comes to doing what's best for Sarawak, people like Rais should let Adenan decide what's good for his state and people and not pour cold water over something which can only benefit everyone.
    Instead Rais has come up with an argument like Adenan's move will only "sow discord among the people". I fail to see how giving greater importance to English, which will lead to the people being given greater access to mastering the language, can sow discord.
    I think if Malaysians, who by and large for the last two generations have been struggling with the mastery of English due to the education system, are more competent in the language, they will be a much happier and contented lot.
    For one thing, they can better compete in the marketplace or the job market and can easily seek employment overseas should unemployment be a local problem anytime in the future.
    Rais has misunderstood Adenan's intention. In the first place, the Sarawak chief minister said the move was not to replace Bahasa Malaysia but that English would be the official language alongside Bahasa Malaysia in the state.
    It's Adenan's contention that he's only being practical about the whole issue and that Sarawak could develop both languages so that the people are truly bilingual or trilingual.
    Rais invoked the Federal Constitution with regard to the position of Bahasa Malaysia being the national language, arguing that language is a national and not state issue.
    He even asked, rather provocatively, "Does Sarawak intend to create a state outside of Malaysia?"
    This was the unkindest cut from Rais, a sentimentalist as well as a constitutionalist at heart. Sarawakians would love to tell him that without Sarawak and for that matter Sabah as well, there is no Malaysia in the first place.
    So why blow the issue out of proportion?
    As a matter of fact, Malaysians are largely ignorant of some of the clauses in the 18 Points (for Sarawak) and 20 Points (for Sabah) Malaysia Agreement under which the federation was formed.
    Point 2 states that English shall be the official language of both states for all purposes, state and federal, without limitation of time.
    And equally significant, under Point 5 of the pact, the education system of Sabah and Sarawak existing before the formation of Malaysia shall be maintained.
    Before Malaysia came into being on Sept 16, 1963, the medium of instruction in schools in the two states was English before the gradual switch to Bahasa Malaysia in line with the national system.
    For those who have forgotten how this came about, and of course the younger generation, who were not even born then, it's worth telling here that ironically, it was a Sarawakian who changed the education landscape in the country.
    During his short stint as education minister in 1970, Tun Abdul Rahman Yakub caught everyone by surprise when he announced the switch in the medium of instruction over a period of time from English to Bahasa Malaysia.
    It was then greeted with jubilation by national language activists that made Rahman a hero in mainland Malaysia. There were even views expressed then that if Rahman, a fiery orator among other things, had been an Umno politician, he would one day become a national leader due to his move on Bahasa Malaysia.
    But the very next year, Rahman returned to Sarawak as chief minister and on hindsight, I would like to think that Points 2 and 5 under the Malaysia Agreement were either forgotten or compromised in the state because Rahman was chief minister for the next 10 years. And a powerful one at that, cutting to size any opposition to his policies with his political acumen and astuteness.
    In other words, he couldn't contradict the decisions he made as education minister by sticking to the Malaysia Agreement even if he had wanted to.
    It's the last two generations of Malaysians who have had to struggle with the study and use of English; and the issue has been the subject of raging debate over the years. In response, the government has come up with measures, which are at best stop-gap, to fix the problem.
    The latest measures were announced in Budget 2016 last month under the English Language Immersion Programme and the Dual-Language Programme. But even if these measures are going to have an impact, they will at best be tokenisms because only 3% of the total number of schools are going to benefit initially. It's a long, long way from being ideal and that's because we have seen so many policy flip-flops.
    Sidelining and drowning English in the education system has claimed many "casualties".
    We read a recent press report of how some 1,000 medical students had to abandon their ambitions to become doctors because of their poor English. Bumiputra students generally are less inclined towards English due to cultural factors.
    And one effect of this is that out of some 31,000 professional accountants in the country, hardly 8% are bumiputra, the reason being, the various examinations to qualify as professional accountants are set in English.
    But I can some see light at the end of the tunnel with the bold move by Adenan to enhance Sarawak's autonomy from the federal government and this has been agreed to in principle by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak.
    Such autonomy is expected to include education and this will lead to Adenan, who will call for a fresh state election early next year, to push ahead with his English agenda.
    He will get overwhelming support from Sarawakians for doing this.

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