Mahathir gives BM another slap in the face

Written by Helen Ang

Bernama reported yesterday, ‘Don’t let us be re-colonised, says Mahathir’.

Dr Mahathir Mohamad was educated in English, jousted with the ‘colonisation’ project in Malay Dilemma and appears reluctant to move on from his grotesque 1970 treatise. He’s still saying now that Malaysians have to master English so that there will be no ‘re-colonisation’ of the country; so that we’re not “invaded” again.

Hypothetically, is there a country today susceptible to neo-colonisation on account of its citizens not having mastered English? Japanese and Koreans fare poorly in English. Or take China risen to be a powerhouse. Her people have not mastered English either.

If Malaysia were ever to fall under the thumb of putative colonial powers, it certainly won’t be because we “no speak English too good”. Think the financial crisis of 1997 and our coming close to the brink which had nothing to do with language medium.

Closet Anglophile Mahathir maintains that only by mastering English can Malaysians acquire knowledge at a faster pace. I’ve no quarrel with English as a knowledge conduit but I balk at his qualifier “only by”.

As to be expected of a devout Machiavellian, Mahathir adroitly shifts the ground on the PPSMI/Math and Science in English issue by contending that “people would not lose their identity by seeking knowledge in English”, and tagging his specious statement with the disingenuous “I am not an Englishman but I speak English”.

He’s off-mark to imply that those against his PSSMI policy fear English threatening our supposedly insular identity. No one disputes that facility in languages is always advantageous. On the other hand, Mahathir of the Indian patrilineage is obviously underrating the language of this land. It is only its incompetent users who claim that BM is somehow inadequate.

But the real bone of contention is that PPSMI never had a solid case going for it in the first place.

Do not forget that Mahathir introduced his policy as a reaction to the problem of unemployed Malay graduates in the early 2000s, and their lack of marketability attributed to poor English, although the degree of this imputed correlation is arguable.

Mahathir’s theory then was that teaching Math and Science in English would help students improve their English. Let’s not permit his ever so convenient and selective amnesia to sidestep this earlier rationale!

Govt policy to strengthen English 

None of the anti-PPSMI crowd is against English per se. Our platform is the delivery of the national education system. In almost every other country in the world except Singapore (as far as I’m aware), this is carried out in the national language. Singapore, as we all know, is a unique country and Lee Kuan Yew exceptional.  

Nonetheless, Mahathir is even more exceptional than Lee. In March, he posted in his blog, “Now Singapore is in deep recession because of having made investments in America. So they may use English for their education but they can still go wrong. But we want to use English only for science and mathematics and these two subjects are based on truths and logic – not on how clever you are in making decisions or explaining things.”  

It’s amazing how Mahahthir is able to compartmentise English use as being ideally limited to the two subject areas, and confined in the classroom.  

Just as uniquely as Singapore, Malaysia has a historical quirk of vernacular schools. On a sidenote, let me touch briefly on the spurious argument put forward by the anti-Chinese school movement. To obliquely knock the Chinese medium of instruction, it has been argued that we can’t be allowing the system to go haywire with various mother tongue schools in Iban or Kadazan or Jakun on demand.  

This anti-vernacular schools argument is not supportable because we do not have any Iban-Kadazan-Jakun education system in existence to talk about, whereas the 1,300 Chinese schools are over-subscribed and Tamil schools gaining a second lease of life.  

“I don’t think the government understands the importance of English as a language of knowledge when they decided to switch from English to Malay,” Mahathir doesn’t cease complaining. Obviously the Education Minister’s briefing specially for him went in one ear and out the other.  

The government is introducing MBMMBI which seeks to ‘Memartabatkan Bahasa Malaysia’ and ‘Memperkukuh/memperkasa/memantapkan Bahasa Inggeris’. In how many different words can the authorities convey its intent to ‘strengthen’ the learning of English so that Mahathir gets it?   

Looking down on BM 

The ex-premier then claims “new discoveries are coming out in torrents in English”. Actually, new discoveries are coming alongside rapid scientific and technological expansion, and these can be in Japanese, German or in the flavour of the month, Mandarin (our favourite citation is Taiwan for being the operations base of the Malaysia-born, Chinese-educated pendrive inventor).  

But true, English is a working language in science and tech, and my stand is that we should be multilingual.  

Dr M is doggedly persistent in defending his rejected PPSMI policy and in the process denigrating the national language, whether inadvertently, or as an unintended consequence. Frankly, I can’t think of any other single individual who has given such a slap in the face to the sovereignty of Bahasa Melayu as he has. 

Malay is a rich, mature and capable language. At the same time, while proponents of Malay are always respectful of English, the reverse is not true. 

And Mahathir is one of those who uses Malay most cavalierly, like in his blog posting with the bizarre headline ‘Kaki dalam kasut’ – a literal translation of the English idiom ‘putting yourself in another man’s shoes’. In BM, one might express the idea closely as ‘Berat mata memandang, berat lagi bahu memikul’

Mahathir had once protested, “Saya bukan hendak memandang rendah bahasa bangsa saya sendiri”. Oh, but he is.  

How can outsiders look up to a country that has no confidence in her national language? Of course we want the country to forge ahead but not at the expense of negating BM and abandoning national pride without which no nation can be a world beater.  

BM, if subsumed into the Bahasa Indonesia headcount, is among the most widely spoken languages in the world. It’s a major international language and will be a significant world language in time to come.   

Describing our environment 

Language is our living, breathing relationship with our surroundings and countrymen. As a defining symbol of our citizenship, BM is much more meaningful – at least to me – than singing the national anthem, saluting the flag or having the Prime Minister’s pinky-lipped photo hanging in all the government departments.    

Not too long ago, I was in a Terengganu kampung for kenduri kesyukuran. My friend gave me a Tanduk Rusa plant to take home. I don’t know what Tanduk Rusa is called in English or Chinese but the Malay name is descriptively apt for its leaves shaped like a deer’s antlers. 

Then there is Paku Pontianak, a birdnest-like fern usually found in tree tops and where our little friend supposedly snuggles at night. Ireland has her leprechaun, Germany the elf and we, our own idiosyncratic pontianak.   

There are quaint place names like Kota Sarang Semut, Gunung Senyum, Gong Badak and Menggatal where a dear friend studied in ITM; colloquialisms like Mat Skodeng, evocative vocabulary like tenggiling or anteater – a creature which does indeed give the impression of ‘giling’ (roll). And by the way, ‘pangolin’ derives from tenggiling.  

I’m open to the idea that English might allow us a competitive edge but I would balance this economic consideration with promoting ‘placeness’ and social cohesiveness. Malaysians are of different ethnicities and religions. To keep this country together, there must be one basic commonality, don’t you think? Respect for our lingua franca is it.  

What other common denominator is there?