Close down Biro Tata Negara, replace with this

We have more and more smart and tall buildings, but we continue to produce fewer and fewer people who can say Stop! to material progress and to focus more on human intellectual development and racial tolerance, and prioritise basic needs over insatiable wants.

A Republic of Virtue 

By Dr. Azly Rahman

BTN is tsunamied. It’s demise might be inevitable. The writings are on the wall — and in cyberspace.

Malaysians wish to see the closing down of the operations of Biro Tata Negara – for good. I think it has done more harm than good. It is based on a flawed understanding of Malaysian history and promotes a communalistic and combative rather than cosmopolitan and collaborative Malaysia.

The danger is in hegemony; the fish does not know it is in the water and keeps on swimming round and round in the fish bowl.

Let us consider an alternative to teaching Malaysians how to become and behave like Malaysians. The root of this change must come from our reconceptualization of language and culture. Through education for critical consciousness, we can all begin the dismantling process of dismantling race-based institutions such as BTN.

Imagine our university students, in a class called ‘Cross-Cultural Perspectives’ exploring the grand narratives of the major cultural traditions to understand how language and culture flows.

Cultural flow

To celebrate and help preserve the diversity of languages, we need to first understand how language and culture get transmitted. I present an ‘Essentialist’ perspective; one that sees culture being passed down from one generation to the next.

According to this perspective, the core culture would remain intact, passed down as highly coded information. The level of creativity in interpretation of the values of the core elements may be guarded by the senior members of the society in order for cultural tradition to remain preserved. The major texts are called grand narratives.

Let us further illustrate what grand narratives are used for. The cultural flow and the transmission of traditions might be in the case of the teachings of the great books of world’s religious and philosophical traditions such as Ramayana, Mahabharatha, the Vedas, Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita to the Hindus, the I Ching, Tao Te Ching, and the Analects from Chinese philosophers to generations of Chinese, or the Al Quran and the Hadith and Al Ghazalli’s Ihya al-Ulumuddin, or the Granth Sahib, or the Lotus Sutras, or the Old and New Testament passed down to Christians.

All these represent knowledge/information designed to be passed down from generation to generation through a variety of media such as parables, drama, music, shadow plays, Japanese kabuki theatre and Noh drama.

Although the grand narratives above contain universal messages of human liberation, they ‘speak’ originally to distinct cultural groups. In the texts transmitted, the antagonists and protagonists, the crisis, conflict, climax, conclusions and moral lessons utilise specific cultural settings within their respective milieu.

Thus for example the Hindu texts are rich in magnificent imagery of ancient India, the Chinese grand narratives are written with pastoral ancient Chinese civilisations as backdrop, the Al Quran is revealed in the beauteous land of rolling hills of Arabic desert beauty, and the Bible are stories or parables set in the serene ancient land of Israel.

Herein lies the foundation of Malaysia’s cross-cultural civilisations. Add the grand narratives of the indigenous peoples to the list, and we have a beautiful tapestry of linguistic and cultural diversity.

How beautiful the study of language and culture can be. It is even more beautiful to a child learning about the authenticity of the human self in his/her mother tongue.

Why then do we need to make political statements accusing this and that group of being linguistic and cultural chauvinists?

Cultural contradictions

I am now humming the government-propaganda song Muhibbah which I am familiar with as a child growing up in Johor Bahru. The last few verses I can still remember are:

Marilah kita berganding tangan

Hapuskan lah jurang perbezaan

Many decades hence, we have the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer. We have the upper class few smiling broader and many in the middle class becoming quieter.

We have few schools getting the most sophisticated computers, while the rest get crumbs of the Information Age.

We have children getting all As and being recognised for memorising and regurgitating more and more facts, while some get many Fs and drop out earlier in the new Malaysian rat race.

We have more intensified problems with national integration, while the children’s multi-cultural needs are being neglected in the few crucial formative years of their language and cognitive development.

We have more and more smart and tall buildings, but we continue to produce fewer and fewer people who can say Stop! to material progress and to focus more on human intellectual development and racial tolerance, and prioritise basic needs over insatiable wants.

We have more and more arguments over the possibility of interfaith commissions with a few initiative to help explore and encourage meaningful religious dialogues.

We have more and more leaders screaming, shouting, and scheming for democracy and reformasi, but we have fewer and fewer people understanding why we must create even newer and better alternatives to this.

Constructive paths

Let us then think of newer ways to resolve the contradictions of homogeneity and heterogeneity, between the need to think as one and the necessity of respecting voices of the many.

Let us, politicians and educators alike, construct newer ways of ending squabbles and start exploring newer pastures in language and culture, building from the promising existing condition.

Politicians, let us:

  • Learn the complexity of language and nation-building.
  • Look at language as a gift not a Trojan horse.
  • Stop making statements on language and schooling that confuse and anger people.
  • Seek advice from the progressive and humanistic linguists.
  • Help the media highlight the beauty of human expressions through the languages.
  • Collaborate with the new radical multiculturalism that is emerging through the new voices.
  • Stop making references to this and that superiority in language.
  • Seek avenues for problem-solving in education that will help children enrich and explore their inner world through the language they grow up in; as a preparation to learn other languages.
  • Teach citizens to deal with the ‘imperialistic’ onslaught of the corporate English language.
  • Learn to deconstruct the meaning of language and symbolic power.

Educators, let us:

  • Educate ourselves on the beauty of all languages.
  • Look at the child as a ‘teacher’ who will teach us his/her language.
  • Help children preserve their native language.
  • Teach them to take pride in the language of their inner world.
  • Enrich our children through cross-cultural perspectives of teaching.
  • Draw out the ethical and social dimensions.
  • Perceive and conceive it as a chariot to intellectual and cognitive development.
  • Use it to combat linguistic and social dominance.
  • Teach peaceful conflict resolution through language.
  • Design trans-disciplinary connections in classroom learning.

Let us help our children develop all the possibilities of cultural imagination through the celebration and nurturance of the language they speak; to see the differences as anugeraha and not as a path to our nation’s future sengsara.

Let us also be reminded by the sage Mahatma Gandhi who once said: “I want all the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.”

While the opinion in the article is mine,
the comments are yours;
present them rationally and ethically.