Sympathy and insensitivity

WHEN a friend forwarded to me the Youtube link on Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s speech at the UN General Assembly recently, I thought it was not all that bad – he was making a good effort to get the pronunciation of some words right.

Having had some close encounters with the Deputy Prime Minister during the course of my work, I thought he would be able to turn the ridicule over his speech to his advantage.

As the video of his address went viral with harsh comments from many prominent people, I was all sympathy for him but still firmly believe being a seasoned politician, he could either have remained silent or said something positive to silent the critics.

But I was wrong – no doubt disappointed and even offended.

To Zahid, it would be more embarrassing if someone were born and raised in Malaysia, but yet could not speak the national language fluently.

“I would feel disheartened and embarrassed to see those born and raised in the country but are unable to even speak Bahasa Malaysia. Some of them cannot speak the language despite their advanced age and some even have titles,” he said.

Perhaps, it was beyond his wildest dreams that the collective sympathy for his UN address hiccups could have come from this group of people – the non-Malays. Yet, it was quite obvious his rebuttal – though misplaced – was aimed at them. For tell me which Malays can’t speak fluent Malay?

More importantly, I believe because of their own inadequacies, upbringing and humility, the people in this group have not even uttered a word of criticism over some of his mispronunciations at the UN last month.

If the DPM cares to learn more about the people of Sarawak in particular, he will definitely know those in their late 50’s and above did not study Bahasa Malaysia in school.

English and the local dialects are widely used in their work places and daily conversations. Therefore, the learning of BM is secondary to them.

Yet, to their credit, many in this age group are trying to be conversant in the language even though it doesn’t take rocket science to know that as one ages, learning a new language has its difficulties.

If the DPM cares enough to make a further study, he will also know for this age group, it’s not easy getting to grips with the nitty gritty of learning a second and third language as is often assumed – just he himself has difficulties of same when it comes to English.

But that doesn’t make them any less Malaysian or less human!

Regrettably, Zahid has hit back at the very people who have much sympathy and understanding for his little shortcomings in getting some English words pronounced accurately.

He may have lost his last bastion of sympathy with his lack of regard for the support from this silent majority. Though some label it arrogance, I choose to call it insensitivity.

As said, I have some close encounters with the DPM during the course of my work and he has not shown any arrogance at these meetings.

Zahid takes great pride in completing his thesis for his PhD at a Malaysian university and in being a deputy minister – both when he was over 50. At least I heard him say so.

Yes, I had expected him to hit out at his critics with the following consideration foremost in his mind – that is the great pride he attaches to his academic and political achievements despite studying at a religious school in Ipoh and completing his tertiary education at a local university.

What’s best said on the issue emanated from Syed Saddiq Abdul Rahman, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) pro-tem committee member, and the least expected to come to Zahid’s defence: “A person who struggles to speak in English should be respected and assisted, while a person who struggles to speak in Bahasa Malaysia should also be respected and assisted. In the end it’s about the content, not the enunciation or pronunciation.”

Syed Saddiq added something more which spoke to the hearts of many when he likened the issue of ridiculing Zahid’s speech to a symptom of a more toxic problem in Malaysia  – that we are quick to ridicule the efforts of Malaysians who want to try and have a go at the ‘new world.’

Indeed, we do not think any less of people who do not speak Queen’s English nor are any more likely to be impressed by people who flaunt their ‘perfect English’ – in British or American accent!

Who could refute what the DPM’s daughter Nurulhidayah Ahmad Zahid said in her father’s defence?

“He has no classy tongue to impress the classy Mat Salleh Malaysia. But for me, he is a classy man who is brave enough to speak and stand for what he believes and delivers his very best as a Deputy to his Prime Minister. That matters.”

It boils down to content. Zahid has been able to raise quite a number of issues of international concerns – terrorism, Palestine, refugees, migrants and modern slavery and climate change – and on the home front, the 11th Malaysia Plan, the National Blue Ocean strategy and volunteerism.

Malaysians should have taken time to examine what had been delivered by the DPM at the UN Assembly. And, of course, it is never a loss to spend sometime polishing up our Manglish or our Bahasa Malaysia either.

Be forgiving. There are lots of Malaysians, like Zahid, who did not benefit from the mission schools or have a chance to study in prestigious British universities.

However, while acknowledging the above, we, at the same time, must not deny that many older generation Malaysians also did not have the chance to learn Bahasa Malaysia in their school days.

Speaking perfect English does not necessarily make one a good leader.

Language is not only a tool for communication and knowledge but also a fundamental attribute of cultural identity and empowerment, both for the individual and the group.

Respect for the languages of people belonging to different linguistic communities, is therefore, essential to peaceful cohabitation. (UNESCO 2003).

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