Baseless xenophobic fear of the English language

SOCIAL and Cultural Affairs Advisor Tan Sri Dr Rais Yatim not only openly ignored an elephant in the room but also flogged a dead horse when he asked Sarawak to reconsider adopting English as an official language, arguing that such a move could sow discord among Sarawakians and affect unity between the State and Peninsular Malaysia.

Such a statement from a learned scholar like Rais sounded misinformed, if not uninformed. Netizens were quick to point this out, so was Land Development Minister Tan Sri Dr James Jemut Masing who said “Rais is wrong” in his reading of the situation.

“Rais is a scholar but the need to be seen as very nationalistic gets the better of him, thus his statement that the push for learning English in Sarawak will disunite East and West Malaysia. Rais is wrong. I am disappointed with his statement. Rais must understand learning English is not a zero sum game — just as the English learnt by Rais did not make him any less Malay,” Masing pointed out.

It has been the Land Development Minister’s conviction that mastering English in the long term will not create division between East and West Malaysia but rather spur on the latter to also head in the same direction.

“Within Sarawak itself, mastering of the English language will not only serve to unite Sarawakians even more but also make us stronger as we can be part of the international community whereby we can easily join the global market force,” he explained.

 

 

 

 

 

Indeed, if Rais had detected some degree of disharmony between Sarawak and Peninsular Malaysia, perhaps, he, in his capacity as Social and Cultural Affairs Advisor, should look into the root cause and not simply blame it on the State government’s well-meaning purpose to address the English deficiency problem so as to sharpen our competitive edge in a globalised world where English is the lingua franca for the development — and advancement — of technology, science, medicine, social science, diplomacy, humanity and more.

 

Rais may be right though to perceive that the relationship between Sarawak and federal government has not been as “good” as desired. Yet, this is not because of the push to use English as an official language in the State but rather, the fact that the federal government has been foisting upon us many of its policies and programmes which may not be suitable for us.

 

Welfare, Women and Family Development Minister Datuk Fatimah Abdullah struck the nail on the head when she said: “The way policies, programmes and activities are implemented without consultation and engagement of local stakeholders can and has contributed to dissatisfaction and thus, the regional divide.”

 

Evidently, the root cause of disharmony is that the peninsular policy-makers do not know what we need — and constantly turning a deaf to our requests for such needs to be fulfilled only serves to aggravate the situation.

 

Sarawak’s English language policy is a good example. Even before further studies were conducted or a better understanding of the rationale behind the policy was reached, Rais has started branding the policy as “divisive” in nature.

 

In fact, the notion of bolstering English efficiency is not new as it is part of MBMMBI (upholding Bahasa Malaysia and Strengthening English) programme in the Education Blueprint which places equal emphasis on the two languages.

 

Fatimah, who is keeping watching brief for Sarawak’s education, further noted: “The Chief Minister is only taking the practicality of English usage a step further to ensure our people are not left behind forever. The strategy is a wake-up call.  If we don’t help ourselves and walk the talk, we will always be at the losing end.

 

“The bold step taken (by Adenan) is meant to overcome our deficiencies and defects.  I have seen how Terengganu carried out its educational programmes that propelled it ahead of others in terms of academic achievements and its pre-school education. Because of circumstances peculiar to themselves, different states may need different educational strategies to produce the desirable outcome.”

 

To Fatimah, Adenan’s assertiveness in making English an official language in Sarawak is simply a policy that is suitable for the State — one well-accepted by all. Such a policy will not create disunity. In fact, rather than creating disunity, making English an official language, besides Bahasa Malaysia as the national language, or making English a working second language as is done in countries like Germany, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands, will not only strengthen unity among the various ethnic groups but also serve as a tool to bridge the economic disparity between the rich and the poor in Sarawak.

 

In 2014, former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohammad made an interesting observation in his blog to the effect that the present education system has not achieved much but created an education gap among the various races as well as a socio-economic schism between the rich and the poor.

 

His argument was that when the government decided to replace English with Bahasa Malaysia, the Chinese and the Tamils made a beeline to vernacular schools. Later, the opening up of international schools to the locals resulted in the mass exodus of rich children from national schools to these premium educational institutions.

Of course, the offspring of the super rich — both politicians and businessmen included – will always have a third option — overseas grammar schools. So what this entails is that at the end of the day, only the children of the poor remain in national schools.

Dr Mahathir concluded that the Malaysian education system not only contributed to the disintegration of racial unity but also created a conspicuous disparity between the rich and the poor. Look around and we know Dr Mahathir’s observation is right.

Sarawak, known for its social harmony and communal integration, has more than 27 ethnic groups. We have been living in peace and harmony since Bahasa Malaysia and English have been used equally as the languages of communication for the different races.

However, it is apparent that for the not-so-well-educated, Bahasa Malaysia is the language used to communicate with those outside their own community. Meanwhile, for the well-educated or the well-to-do and their offspring, the language used to communicate outside their ethnicity has always been English. This has led to a situation where the rich are observed to have a better command of English while the poor lag behind in proficiency of the language.

Contrary to the views of doomsayers, Adenan’s move to re-introduce English into our school syllabus will not be a cause of disunity among Sarawakians from different ethnic backgrounds who have been living side by side in peace and harmony since time immemorial. Unity has always been intrinsic to our culture and way of life. Moreover, making learning of English accessible to all will help prepare Sarawakians to face the world beyond the proverbial tempurung.

With the re-introduction of English as the medium of instruction alongside Bahasa Malaysia, many, regardless of race, will return to mainstream education where children across the racial and economic spectrums will meet, play and learn together again. This not only fosters greater racial integration but also revives the all but forgotten scenario where children of farmers and fishermen had the opportunity to compete with the children of YBs on a level playing field.

If many of those educated in mission schools are still reminiscing about the good old days, then there must be a very good reason for it. If inter-ethnic friendship born out of those good times could endure over the decades till now, and continue to flourish through exchange of messages on Internet-related conveyances such Whatsapp, Facebook and the like, there are valid reasons not to be hasty in dismissing outright the positivity of yesteryear with a wave of hand or a shrug of shoulders.

The education system that has given birth to such faithful friendships and ties should be revived. We have experienced it. Sarawak’s education history and Sarawakians’ vivid memory and knowledge of it tell us English connects rather than divides — contrary to Rais Yatim’s personal view.

But most importantly, when national schools are failing so miserably after decades of existence, it is the right time for Adenan to call for the revival of English in our education system.

And as an afterthought, it does seem discriminatory and unbalanced that English has been allowed as medium of instruction in MARA but not Sarawak? More fundamentally why has MARA been given the blessing to choose English as the medium of instruction in its schools in the first place?

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