Long-expected proposals to legislate many of the wishes of the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) , the body responsible for promoting the use of the Malay language in Malaysia, are apparently ready to go to the Cabinet for approval, and may become law soon.
But first let me offer you some perspectives. We’re a nation caught between two language stools, and both are about to crash. Our standard of English, a language so critical to us being competitive on the world stage, has been deteriorating and we’re slowly losing this long-held advantage.
I saw this clearly over the decades as I hired people for big corporate jobs, including those in the C-suite. The standards of English and of education overall have dropped over the years; they probably have never been lower than they are today, except that they’ll be even lower tomorrow.
On the other hand, the standard of Bahasa Melayu, or Malay, is also poor. In the hands of social media users, much of it is a pidgin Malay, a rotten hybrid of English and Malay indiscriminately used in informal conversations such as texting or social media postings.
Such usage tends to be almost exclusively among those whose command of English is poor. They’ve taken many English words and Malayised (there is such a word now!) them into this bastardised form that’s neither English nor Malay.
I give you, in no particular order of infamy – gais, terrer, dungibap, kipidap, rekomen, eksiden, kazen, wasep, besday, eskrim, jem, rilek, kamon, femes, kol, kontek, ohsem, kondem.
You can pretty much figure out the original (ori) English words, but if you can’t, here they are: guys, terror, don’t give up, keep it up, recommend, accident, cousin, WhatsApp, birthday, ice-cream, jam, relax, come on, famous, call, contact, awesome, condemn.
Read and weep (soon to be rid n wip).
Most of these words have perfectly good Malay equivalents – why terrer (for terror, colloquially meaning great) when hebat is an even nicer word? Yet these horrible words have become commonplace, especially amongst the younger generations.
This happens more with those who aren’t good in English and pick it up from social media. Unfortunately, that is not exactly a good substitute for learning English properly. So, ironically, being poor in English also has a corrosive effect on Malay too.
If further proof is needed our language policy has failed, this clearly is it. Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, as the guardian of the language, must of course be concerned, but it must also ask why we as a nation, themselves included, have failed so miserably here.
Many champions of the Malay language are happily pushing the language down people’s throats and counting it as a political victory. But some of these champions send their children overseas to enjoy benefits and privileges of languages they want to deny to others.
Meanwhile, many of our economic elites living in their expensive ghettos, both Malays and especially non-Malays, refuse to see Malay as a lingua franca that can be useful in unifying us Malaysians.
Among the non-Malay elites, there’s almost a wilful refusal to see the language as something useful at least for nation building. You can smell the sense of superiority of not speaking Malay well apart from being able to give instructions to their maids or drivers.
Then there are the non-elite non-Malays too, where making money is more important than any other consideration, and for whom knowing the barest of Malay is all they need. They’re happy to exist in their own Little China or Little India cocoons, narrowly connecting to the rest of Malaysia only through a shared currency.
If you’re a Malaysian and your Malay is poor, you should be ashamed of yourself. You haven’t made the effort to do what good citizens should do in a multicultural and multilingual society. You probably have tons of excuses on why the faults lie elsewhere, but you still should be ashamed.
Now, in the spirit of Malaysia Boleh, the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka is coming up with major proposals in the name of safeguarding the dignity of Malay. If the proposals go through – and given the sensitive nature of it, nobody wants to be seen as against it – then we’ll see the DBP with expanded powers, workforce, budgets, associated business entities and bloated bureaucracy.
The Googles or Teslas or Alibabas of the global investing world would have yet another gate to pass before doing business in Malaysia, possibly at great cost in terms of time and money spent. The same with the local corporates and SMEs and pretty much everybody else in Malaysia, too.
Given that any costs or inefficiencies will be passed down, guess who’ll ultimately pick up the bill? The rakyat of course.
DBP’s proposals are based on French laws, but the use of such laws to justify enforcement powers makes no sense. The so-called Toubon law is a joke that does nothing except highlight the fear of the shrinking importance of French as a global language, especially at the hands of English.
Go to any western European nation, even those with such a long and proud history such as Germany and the various Viking kingdoms, and you will find a majority of the population can speak English. Among the young, it’s close to 100%.
If anybody has a reason to push back against English, it’s them. These are a people who’ve spent centuries warring against the English, yet who are also pragmatic enough today to know and do what’s good for their economic wellbeing.
You can find among them Sodexho, a French company with half a million employees worldwide, which has made English its official language. So, too, Airbus Industrie, and elsewhere, Nissan, Rakuten etc, all from countries known to be super proud of their culture and heritage.
The English language has won hands down, doing so without any laws protecting it. This success, helped tremendously by the rise of English-speaking America as a world power, has resulted in more people knowing Shakespeare and Mark Twain than literature of similar quality in China or India or other non-Anglo civilisations. A loss for the non-Anglos for sure.
Soft power, such as language and the culture it helps to drive, is often more powerful and lasting than the hard power of weapons and arms. You may hate America, but you aren’t likely to give up Hollywood or Coca Cola. China knows that, and is working hard to expand its own soft power. Ditto India.
The DBP should learn how English won and became the most spoken language in the world, by the number of speakers who use it as either their first or second language. In Malaysia itself, I’d happily guess English, whether as first or second language, ranks second only to Malay.
We should be trying to emulate those who succeed, not those who failed.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.