Against the grain: When will we take the national language seriously?

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on February 24, 2020 - March 01, 2020.
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The second reading of the National Language Bill was moved in the Dewan Rakyat on March 2, 1967, in a speech by the then prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman. Efforts were made to make Bahasa Malaysia the national language, to enable all Malaysians to gain proficiency in this language and create a national identity forged by, among other things, language. Nevertheless, more than 60 years after independence, the question of the role of Bahasa Malaysia in national education does not seem to have been settled.

From 2003, mathematics and science were taught in English. This was implemented under Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad with the purpose of helping graduates improve their English and employability. Then, it was announced that the country would revert to using Bahasa Malaysia to teach mathematics and science from 2012 (but, in certain schools, a few classes were allowed to teach these subjects in English under the dual-language programme).

Part of the reason for abandoning the policy of teaching in English was that it had failed to improve students’ grades. In fact, it was found that mathematics and science grades had fallen during the period when English was introduced as the medium of instruction. But the reversal in policy was not merely due to concerns about grades — it was also the result of a period of lobbying by Malay nationalists who felt that the English policy was a reflection of the erosion of the national language.

Students in rural areas, mostly Malays, were the most disadvantaged by the English policy as they had a far lower level of English proficiency than those who lived in urban areas.

Now, it appears that Malaysia will once again use English to teach mathematics and science. This was recently proposed by Mahathir, who is also the acting minister of education. His reason for the reversal of policy is to promote the use and mastery of English in the country’s education system. Mahathir argued that while fields such as geography and history can be taught in any language, mathematics and science — not being indigenous fields of knowledge — have come to us from abroad in the English language and, thus, should be taught in English.

For Mahathir, such a policy was in no way against the promotion of Malay as the national language. The problem was the lack of proficiency in English. For example, it was said that there were Malaysian scientists who could not understand discussions when they attended international scientific conferences. This showed that the Malays cannot afford to just focus on their mother tongue.

The prime minister said, “I am a Malay. I love the community and the Malay language. But we need to consider the advancement of the community. If we care for the community, we must emphasise their success more than focusing on the mother tongue.”

The continuous reversal of policy in our education system has been upsetting for many Malaysians. Indeed, there are several issues that need to be highlighted in connection with the view that mathematics and science should be taught in English rather than Malay.

First, it is simply unsettling for teachers and parents for the language policy to be changed every few years. An enormous amount of resources and energy need to be spent as a result of the reversal. New textbooks have to be commissioned, teachers need to be trained and parents worry whether their children would be able to cope.

More serious, however, is the erroneous assumption that Bahasa Malaysia is an inferior language compared with English and is incapable of being the carrier of scientific thought. Many people imagine that it is the development of a language that determines the progress of a community.

According to this logic, if the Malay language were underdeveloped, scientific and progressive ideas could not be adequately expressed and taught in that language, keeping the Malays backward. This logic is flawed. Actually, it is the backwardness of a community that determines the quality of a language, not the other way around.

More than a thousand years ago, when Arabic was a foremost language of scientific, philosophical and literary discourse, one could hardly find scientific works in the English language. This underdevelopment of the English language was not due to any inherent deficiencies in the language but to the relative backwardness of the English in those days. Today, the situation has reversed. English is the main language of scientific discourse the world over while scientific output in Arabic tends to be low and of poor quality.

The idea that mathematics and science should be taught in English to enable Malaysians to communicate internationally is also flawed. Teaching mathematics and science in English is not the only way to facilitate international communication. We should be able to teach in the national language while enabling our scientists to participate in scientific discourse internationally. This we can do by ensuring that our children are exposed to a high standard of English language instruction and develop rich verbal and written skills in English. But something has to be done about the way English is taught as a second language.

It must also be pointed out that Malay is a scientific language. We can find many works in Malay from the 16th century that are able to express complex meta­physical and epistemological ideas to their readers. This suggests that not only is the language adequate to the task but also that there were Malay readers at the time who formed the market for such works. Many technical terms employed by these works that were known to the readers then would not be known today, even to the more educated.

For example, there is an important term in philosophy, arad, which means “accident”. This refers to the accidental, as opposed to the essential, traits of a phenomenon. Derived from Arabic, as many technical terms were in both Malay and English, arad appears in 16th century Malay texts as untranslated, simply because it had become part of the Malay language and was understood by the community of scholars. This is not true today. Many scholars would not understand what arad means.

The view that the Malay language is inferior in terms of being a conveyor of scientific knowledge and rational thought is based on a lack of understanding of the development of languages. The fact that there are many borrowed scientific terms from English does not mean that Malay is an inferior language. The scientific terms of all European languages originate from Greek, Latin and Arabic. But we would not conclude that English, French and German, for example, are not adequate as languages of scientific discourse.

It is high time we took Bahasa Malaysia as the national language seriously. The medium of instruction in our school system should be Bahasa Malaysia. We should take the view that the national language should be treated as such. All Malaysians should be able to converse with each other in Malay and express complex ideas in Malay, whether these are literary or scientific ideas.

At the same time, we should recognise that vast amounts of knowledge are to be gained from the ability to read, study and research in English. Thus, we should teach English with an extremely high standard such that our children become effectively bilingual, as is the case in European countries such as the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway and Denmark.

Syed Farid Alatas is professor of sociology at the National University of Singapore

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