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Anwar and the politics of language nationalism

Any fear of Malay being replaced as the national language would be misplaced or based on paranoia.

P Ramasamy
4 minute read

Whether or not it is sheer hypocrisy on the part of Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim to jump on the bandwagon of language nationalism to instruct government departments to return or reject correspondence or letters in languages other than Malay remains to be seen.

The question of Malay as the national language has long been settled in the country. There is no reason or rhyme to invoke language nationalism any more other than for political reasons.

Malay is the language of communication at government departments, and the medium of instruction at public schools, universities and others. 

There is no question of other languages creeping in surreptitiously to replace Malay. 

If there is fear, then certainly it is a misplaced one or based on paranoia. 

However, at schools and certain public universities, English might be used to encourage students to become proficient in the language. 

If I am not mistaken, at universities and colleges established to cater for primarily Malay students, I understand that English is used as the medium of instruction. 

While instruction in English might contradict the national language policy, the requirements of the larger good might be a countervailing factor.

I further understand that English is the medium of instruction at Universiti Islam Antarabangsa (UIA) to cater for international students. Again this is a clear contradiction, but UIA being an international university, the use of English is justified. 

However, since the use of Malay has been unevenly implemented at public institutions of higher learning, I don’t under the fuss about Anwar asking government departments not to entertain correspondence in languages other than Malay. 

I am not sure – maybe the correspondence is not from Malaysians, but from foreigners. But surely foreigners should be exempted if Malaysia wants a high international profile.

Just imagine potential foreign investors intending to pour billions in investments but their letters to government departments get rejected because they were not written in Malay. 

Are our government departments going to reject correspondence if they are written in English or languages other than Malay?

Are Malaysians that narrow-minded that they would reject letters in English when the latter has become the unofficial second language in the country, a language of international communication and discourse?

Areas like Sabah and Sarawak have the right to use both Malay and English. It was one of the conditions for the two states to come into the Federation of Malaysia. Given this, are government departments in these two states going to return or reject letters written in English and not Malay?

I am not sure whether Anwar was conscious about two languages being official ones in Sabah and Sarawak. 

How can Anwar superimpose a language requirement in these geographical areas when the terms of their entry into the Federation of Malaysia in 1963 clearly allowed for both Malay and English?

I agree that from time to time, efforts should be undertaken by the government departments to strengthen the use of Malay. If there is slack then something ought to be done. 

These are routine exercises without the need for the intervention of the prime minister.

Nobody is questioning Anwar about his commitment to the use of Malay in the country. However, as the prime policy maker in the country there is no need for him to get into the nitty gritty of the implementation of Malay.

Well, if Anwar is that nationalistic about Malay, then he should be giving speeches in the language at international forums. 

Unlike former prime minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob and the present deputy prime minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, Anwar has a pretty good command of the English language. 

Ismail had to deliver his speeches in the international arena in Malay not because he was nationalistic, but because his command of English was poor. 

Similarly, it is better for Zahid to keep to Malay in his speeches because his English is not up to mark.

Lately, Anwar has been trying to score political points to ingratiate himself to the Malays. 

The political coalition he leads has lost considerable Malay support to Perikatan Nasional. He wants to last the full term. In order to do so, he is trying his best to be popular with the Malays. 

Reminding the non-Malays of their social contract, leading religious conversions, trying to portray himself as the champion of the Palestinians as though the earlier prime ministers had failed, giving premature approval for the holding of a Palestinian Solidarity Week in schools and, recently, his advice to government departments to reject letters if they are written in languages and other than Malay are some of the prominent political antics of Anwar. 

I can understand the enforcement part of the use of Malay on the part of government departments, but the government has an open policy in the promotion of English. 

The government wants science and mathematics to be taught at national schools. This dual language programme has gained much traction among both Malays and non-Malays.

It is all right for Anwar to emphasise the importance of Malay as the official national language. But should he go to the extent of micro-managing correspondence to government departments? 

Is this the work of a prime minister? 

Isn’t there any other more respectable way that Anwar could ingratiate himself with the Malays? Are Malays that naive that they would be amenable to the political tricks of Anwar? 

I would like to advise Anwar to focus more on the economy to address the food shortage, the decline of the value of the ringgit against the US currency, and the creation of a talented workforce, and to ensure that the pledges of investments have materialised.

In order to get the economy going, he needs a good team in the Cabinet. Some of the deadwood appointed for reasons other than merit have to be dropped. It is also about time that Anwar replaces himself as the country’s finance minister.

P Ramasamy is a former deputy chief minister of Penang.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of MalaysiaNow.