Malay Rights for English – Demand a New Deal NOW

By Dr. Collin Abraham

The ‘problem’ of learning English by the Malays may be said to have resulted in a negation of political justice. Apart from members of the ‘ruling class’ who were educated at MCKK and a minority in urban schools, almost the entire community had been, and continues to be, ‘barred’ from access to learning the language.

Colonial policy clearly enunciated that rural children should be taught in Malay to an educational level, only sufficient to enable them to function in rural occupations “better” than their fathers. To this extent, effectively, it is being argued that as a community the Malays have consequently been denied the full participation and contribution in matters that could have made a difference to their lives, and indeed to the well-being of the nation state. 

Specific aspects of this unhappy situation have now crystallized which could have dire consequences for nation-building and national unity. There were earlier “writings on the wall” that had been ignored. In fact, two articles one on re-introducing English as the medium of instruction, and more importantly the other asserting that the Malay political elite had ‘hijacked’ the education policy for their children to be educated in the English medium overseas, while the rakyat were placated with increasing quotas for their children to study in the BM medium in local universities, was published much earlier (Abraham, Utusan Publications 2006).

What is new however is the recognition that this situation was sustainable only as long as the ruling political elite held the monopoly of power. When this power base began to erode, particularly as an aftermath of the last GE, the policy appears to have backfired.



That the rural Malays were targeted and singled out to be barred from learning English during the colonial period, lies at the root of the ‘language problem’ being faced by the nation today. This right to learn the language, and thereby to be given exposure to an international knowledge base, should now be restored in every possible way. There has to be a ‘new deal’.

By teaching Malays English, the British were painfully aware that they would be committing political “suicide” because the Malays would gain access to the knowledge base on anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism, as well as gain confidence by their exposure to knowledge-based skills training to compete in a level playing field and thereby also challenge British hegemony and the colonial political economy. 

The roots of this discriminatory policy however is not far to seek. It can be traced to Lord Macaulay’s policy of introducing the teaching of English to the Indians when he stated that by this means the British would be creating “a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinion, in morals and in intellect”. His Lordship predicted that they would form a “class who may be interpreters (read collaborators) between us (the British) and the millions whom we govern” (1835). 

Macaulay’s policy was disastrous. Indians went on to study in the English medium at the Universities of Oxbridge and retuned to demand that the British “Quit India”! In Malaya this scenario could easily have been repeated because only the Malays (due to their Treaties with the British) could possibly have made a similar demand if, like the Indians, they had access to the English language. 

Because one whole generation of Malays lacked competency in English, the post-independent Government had no choice but to continue teaching in Bahasa Melayu in rural schools and then to ‘switch’ the medium from English to BM in urban schools and universities. There was also a political motive in that the government adopted the ‘easy way out’ to generate Malay political support of the status quo, despite the obvious long term serious negative consequences, especially in switching to BM at universities and centres of higher learning. 


When this language question is juxtaposed against that of the constitutional provision of the ‘special position of the Malays’ there might be a real danger, at least among certain circles, to see the retention of Malay also as an extension of this ‘special position’. These groups could argue that after all, if the political and economic institutions in both private and public sectors were directly or indirectly supposedly ‘controlled’ by Malays then why should the Malays want to revert to English,even if it be only in Maths and Science as is presently the case? 

As succinctly argued by Azly Rahman “Reliving the myth of the lazy native: the PPSMI issue and the denying of success to the poor” the argument advanced is that apparently Malay students find difficulty in following instructions in English. For what it is worth, I can testify that my late Mother, in addition to her duties as Primary School Supervisor and Music Teacher at the Pasar Road School, volunteered to teach the Special Malay Classes for over a decade. She told me it was a delight to teach these students because they diligently followed instructions, were eager to learn, were most disciplined and above all, passed their exams with flying colours!  

But more importantly, Azly warns of the serious polarization between Malays students “limited” to BM, and non-Malays having access to English medium education in private international schools. This situation can be said to be especially alarming, considering that while non-Malays in national schools, are ‘forced’ to learn Malay as a new additional language,(while retaining their mother tongue languages) Malay students simply ‘sail along’ only with Bahasa Melayu from ‘ponduk’ to primary, secondary school, and then to university.  

Therefore, in terms of learning a new language, as well as mastering the rigourous grammar involved, the Malays have linguistically learned “nothing” since pre-independence to the present date. Unlike the Chinese and the Indian students, only the Malays remain mono-lingual and linguistically speaking may be said to be ‘wrapped and trapped’ in a language cocoon. 

What is even more serious is that because the language of ICT in Malaysia is also mainly English, the implications of not being able to ‘stretch the mind’ through the application of the language in the use of computers can be absolutely fatal. We are painfully reminded of this negative outcome in that of the thousands of Malay graduates, who continue to be unemployed at for at least five years after graduation, an estimated 30-40 thousand are said to be “unemployable” because of poor English and related computer skills. Unfortunately this is due to no fault of their own. 


On the basis of the above, an additional dimension on the language question may be said to present itself in the context of the “tsunami” in the last GE, together with the accompanying radical political public institutional changes arising therefrom. Now, as never before, one must recognize the dire need to widen the linguistic structural debate, to try to understand whether there could be any connection to the recent ‘slide in public institutions’ that may have political underpinnings (Farish A Noor 22/7) 

In this connection the posting titled “Power is not what Corrupts UMNO” may also be said to be timely. (G.Krishnan, M2day 19/7). Quoting Aung San Sui Kyi, Krishnan argues that it is ‘fear of losing power(that) corrupts’ and goes on to assert that this fear has now permeated the UMNO political elite itself and that it will become progressively worse as further fears as the ‘erosion of its credibility to hold on to power’ continues. Krishnan further asserts that this fear is understandable, because of ‘the years of monopoly of power (UMNO) has been allowed to practically assume that it is preordained or part of some natural law of the universe for (it) to govern” 

When an attempt is made to try to analyze these two postings, it can be argued that UMNO may have become desperate in the fear of losing power (Syed Jaymal Zahid (24/7) and would expect the public institutions and the other apparatus of government to “stand by” the government in their moment of being ‘in the dock’ so to speak. The fact that this group, and in particular the UNMO political elite, are additionally being challenged as to their ’special privileges’ and especially when this ‘struggle’ is also being fought against the background of a ‘siege mentality’, the English linguistic limitation only for the Malays can constitute a real danger to further constraining the continued peace and stability in the country. 

I believe right thinking Malaysians would agree that there can never be peace and harmony in multi-cultural Malaysia, if the Malays cannot reach out to compete in a level-playing field and to the wider world in terms of new and alternative socio-economic opportunities. This situation is particularly worrying because the Government seems oblivious to this scenario where the Malay political elites, having entrenched themselves in dominant monopolistic power positions for so long, have no alternative but to demand that this situation continues not only for themselves but also for their children. 

Indeed, the entire rural Malay rakyat is also likely to face the same negative backlash

for the simple reason that, in the absence of institutional reforms (such as land reform), they are forced to depend on patron-client relationships, monetary incentives, and handouts from the political elite to survive.

The social impact is that the government will be unable to deliver to the Malay political elites who in turn would likewise be unable to deliver to the rakyat. 


This is not a policy paper, so suggesting possible strategies will not be in order.

One cannot however escape the conclusion, that only a concerted national policy to change the mindset of ALL Malaysians towards the objective of total exposure to the English language, not only in educational institutions, but also in knowledge-based skills training centres as well as in the corporate sector needs to be adopted, before there can be any real change towards a more viable and robust political culture for all Malaysians. 

The general impression amongst most thinking Malaysians is that such a massive re-set to English may be beyond the capacity and capability of the Education Ministry. It is therefore humbly suggested that the Prime Minister may wish to seriously consider appointing an Ombudsman, flanked by a five member panel of NGO’s, to be fully responsible for the initiation and implementation of a comprehensive policy and programme-before it is too late.