Who’s really killing the Malay language?

Once again, the Malay language is in the spotlight. Once again, DAP has been labelled as the culprit in killing its honour and prestige. Once again, I have to sit in front of my computer, typing out an article to explain what seems to be obvious and pointing to the real killer in this mystery murder of the Malay language. The answer? The majority of our public universities.

First, let’s put things into proper perspective. When we gained independence, it was decided, I think, that Malay would be the official language of administration. It was also supposed to be the language of knowledge. If memory serves, the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka was set up to develop Malay as the latter. This was further strengthened by the establishment of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), to spearhead research and development to enrich the language. This was to continue the work of Institut Teknologi Mara (ITM) to help Malays become technicians and professionals under the New Economic Policy.

I don’t think that ITM was instructed at the time to use the Malay language, but obviously with that many Malay students, both languages were probably used. At UKM, lecturers were instructed to deliver their lectures in Malay. When I became a lecturer at a public university in Johor, I too was told to give all my notes and lectures in Malay. Thus, in the 1980s, things were looking up for the language. What happened?

In the 1990s, three phrases entered the picture: internationalism, world class, and university rankings. These three turned the tables on Malay as the official language, and it essentially became a form of Bahasa Kampung in university circles. Suddenly, instructions came from the top leadership of universities for all lecturers to deliver their material in English. Journal papers in Scopus journals that were written in English were given almost twice the marks for promotion. Those who wrote for local academic journals in Malay could kiss their promotions good-bye.

Let me be frank, though: the level of English at public universities was only so-so, and I had 27 years of experience in reading student assignments, vetting exam questions, and evaluating conference and journal papers as well as dissertations and theses of PhD and masters students. But writing Malay books for the Dewan Bahasa no longer held any appeal for academics. Everything was about English Scopus journal articles. I once invited colleagues to write book chapters in Malay so that I could open the minds of the Malays. No go. No quality. Tak ada class. These were the responses.

The great surprise with respect to the issue of “memartabatkan Bahasa Melayu” came when I was invited to evaluate a student’s master’s thesis at UiTM. After reading the thesis, which was written in not-so-good English, I passed the report because I could understand the research content.

On the day of the viva, I asked the chairman and the supervisor why the student had not written in her native Malay tongue. At UiTM, some more. Both the academics said it was UiTM policy for all postgraduate theses to be in English. At the university I worked for then, students had a choice. If you were a Malaysian, you had better have a good reason to write in English, or else… But at UiTM, writing in English was required. No two ways about it.

I also found out that the instruction at UiTM was to deliver all lectures at the diploma and degree levels in English, regardless of whether Malay students found it difficult or not. The rationale? To “force English fluency”.

I called this the “Mahathirian English logic”. It was Dr Mahathir Mohamad who, at the turn of the 21st century, made the decision to change the medium of teaching for maths and science to English. This project eventually failed for many reasons. Desire and logic alone was not enough to inspire teachers who had been brought up in Malay, or the students who were struggling to understand their teachers’ broken English.

There is now a movement to return the medium of instruction for maths and science to English. One of the proponents is the newly elected National Education Advisory Council (MPPK). So who do you think is killing off the Malay language? Isn’t it obvious yet?

The architecture department at the public university where I once worked had its department meeting minuted in English after we answered the call of “internationalism” and hired foreign lecturers. What happened to Malay as the official language of administration? It went down the drain because of “communicability” issues. It’s obvious that the architecture department was not out to screw with the Malay language; how else were we to operate on the so-called “international” stage?

Now, let’s analyse what happened in Johor, as well as the famous Lim Guan Eng press statement issue. In both cases, the politicians honoured Malay by having the press statement and letter to Johor residents issued in the language. Their subsequent statements and letter were issued in English and Chinese. In Lim’s case, he was targeting the Chinese news media, and in the case of the Johor politician, he was targeting mainly Chinese residents of non-English or Malay education backgrounds.

In my opinion, both of them honoured Malay as the official language and only used the other two languages for the purposes of “communicability”. I was extremely sad to see two such hardworking politicians labelled as “killers of Bahasa Melayu”.

To me, public universities are the real killers because of their ludicrous promotion criteria, desire for rankings, ignorance of internationalisation and even greater ignorance of the term “world class”. According to Prof Sham Sani of UKM, being international and world class has nothing to do with language. If a university produces academic content of value to share with the world, then that university is international and world class. Speak all the English you want; no one will listen if you do not have important findings to report.

In closing, consider the following acronyms, PAM and Umno. PAM stands for Pertubuhan Arkitek Malaysia while Umno stands for the United Malay National Organisation. PAM organises almost all of its events and publications in English. I hardly remember a single event in Malay. However, its professional magazine was once called Majalah Arkitek. The articles were all in English, with very few in Malay.

Now Umno, our favourite political party whose members keep calling themselves the warriors of the Malay language, also has many events and publications in Malay. So there you have it, in Malaysia. PAM is Pertubuhan Arkitek Malaysia which operates almost exclusively in English, and Umno is a Malay-based political party with an English name which conducts its activities in Malay.

There is a perfect Malay word to describe our policy on Malay as the official language and language of knowledge: “cacamarba”, which means confused and chaotic.

Tajuddin Rasdi is a professor of Islamic architecture at UCSI University.

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.