What ails the National Language

bahasa-melayuYesterday, after a frenzy of protests, the Cabinet effectively vetoed a move by the health ministry (MOH) to exempt trainee doctors from Bahasa Melayu secondary school qualification.

Not long ago, a similar protest erupted over the ministry’s stance on vape, when suddenly the health of Malaysians took backstage in favour of budding Bumiputera businessmen who feared their trade could go up in smoke and thereby undermine the government’s policy of helping them.

But the latest storm over MOH’s decision to relax the SPM BM requirement is really unnecessary. It would only have affected a handful of graduates who wish to pursue their medical career locally despite being trained in a foreign syllabus. Like, about two dozen out of more than 4,000, according to the health minister.

The gist of the MOH move was this: Not sitting for the SPM BM paper should not deny medical graduates the opportunity to do what they have been preparing many years for.

When treating the sick, should one be able to communicate in Malay? Yes, especially when one is posted in the interiors.

Does that mean one needs a pass in SPM BM? No. Ask Mustaqim, or Muneerul Islam, or Abdul Salam. These Bangladeshis speak Malay but have no clue about this animal called SPM.

There was no need to bring in the debate about the status of the national language in this whole episode. Yet we find everyone from a state mufti to politicians suddenly raising the spectre of the national language being undermined.

There was no such outrage from them when the use of BM was restricted by self-styled guardians on the pretext of protecting its sanctity, even if it meant denying almost half of the population their right to the national language.

Where were these defenders of the Malay language when its role as a language of unity was undermined by those restricting its use by non-Muslims for their religious needs?

This is not the case in other Muslim countries, even those that are overwhelmingly Muslim.

In Iran, Islam grew together with Farsi, the same language still used freely by local Christians and Jews in churches and synagogues. In Egypt, Arabic, the language of the Quran, is used by Christians and Jews. So too in Pakistan, Turkey and other places, where the mediums of the Muslim majorities are also those of their non-Muslim minorities.

Closer to home, Indonesia’s minority ethnic communities such as the Chinese are at ease using their version of Malay, or Bahasa Indonesia, because everyone has a sense of ownership – indeed belonging – to the language. No one would tell an Indonesian non-Muslim, for example, that their use of Bahasa Indonesia stops at the steps of the church or temple.

Has such a proper status been accorded to BM, our national language? Can the Hindu or Christian holy books be made available openly in local bookshops, in the same language that is now being touted as a tool for national unity?

Perhaps the real question is, what makes a national language?

Is it a language we use in the national anthem, on road signs, on our identification papers and documents, or as a requirement for foreigners seeking permanent residence (though a certain medical doctor shuttling across the Indian Ocean has recently managed to evade this rule)? If these are the criteria, then BM has achieved the status of national language.

But the truth is, the Malay language, at least the version that is promoted and formally adopted in Malaysia, is not ready to pervade all spheres of our lives, be they economic, religious or academic.

The strength of a language is organic – it cannot be imposed. Decades of such attempts in Tamil-speaking Tamil Nadu have failed.

BM can only attain its proper status if it’s devoid of the artificial restrictions and is liberated from its narrow communal sentiments.

Forcing trainee doctors to have academic qualifications in BM is not the answer.

Because the national language will still be on life-support, thanks to the attitude of those guarding it.

Abdar Rahman Koya is the editor-in-chief of FMT.