Without xenophobia and prejudice

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ENGLISH has always been the language of business in Malaysia but it has also been a chosen medium of everyday communication among the local elites.

If you’re running a business in the country and do not have the ability to socialise in English, you may be getting the short end of the stick. However, we still should not generalise. It does not necessarily mean that a person with a good command of English is an elite.

A language is just a tool for communication. Around the world, thousands of languages are being used for learning, communicating and trading albeit writing and speaking in English does not necessarily make one rich in culture nor does writing or speaking in Mandarin denounce one as uncivilised.

Language is also closely linked to the power of a country. If Britain and the US had not risen to become strong and influential countries, the “English Empire” we are experiencing now would not even have been constituted. Similarly, as China rises, it is inevitable for Mandarin to become an increasingly popular language.

Two weeks ago, a news portal published an article titled “Yeo Bee Yin rids elite image by writing Mandarin” (translated from Mandarin – This has come across as somewhat perplexing.)

Yeo has a masters degree from Cambridge and is a state legislator. What piqued my curiosity is can a person who stands out intellectually and is actively involved in public service be considered a non-elite? Or can a person rid himself or herself of the image of being an elite when he or she writes in Mandarin? What if they write in Malay, Tamil or even Iban? Are they also devoid of their elite status?

If a professional (lawyer, doctor and the like) can write in Mandarin or if his or her mother tongue (first language) is Chinese (or Tamil/Malay as the case maybe) and their parents, spouses and children are all fluent in Chinese in a situation where only English is needed for his work. Will that professional’s level of professionalism – or elite status – be reduced as a result? Or will it be gotten rid of altogether?

English in Malaysia can be considered a semi-official language – with historical reasons. To join mainstream society during the colonial era, using English was a must. Back then, to become civil servants or engage in business, the ability to speak English was a huge leg-up in dealing with the government officials of the day.

Even after Malaya’s independence, laws and language education were still closely tied to the British. England became the choice for many middle-class families to send their children for further studies. English became a bridge between Malaysia and the western world.

I know many people who are fluent in English but do not have much recognition for their position in society. Whereas some of my friends who speak Malay and Chinese, regardless of social status and income, are looked upon as “more superior.”  There are a few among them who can be considered elites as well.

Many in Malaysia are bilingual or trilingual and speaking and writing English can definitely help them acquire greater knowledge and understanding of science and technology, and in this respect, we should continue to strengthen the use of English.

Those who write and speak in Mandarin also have a progressive role to play in a plural society like ours. Writing in Mandarin will not downgrade a person’s status. The Chinese language has always been familiar to us. Even without the rise of China, our interest in learning the language will not diminish.

Admittedly, speaking a few words in English, reading a couple of English books or writing a few English paragraphs will make anyone an English gentleman or an American expert unless one has a deep understanding of Anglo-American culture.

Just try comparing the local English newspapers with international publications such as the Wall Street Journal, The Economist, the New York Times and many more, you will come to understand that both these media may use in the same language but they differ greatly in perspective and taste. The standard of the local English media is not at an outstanding level … yet.  Reading local newspapers will not necessarily give one a global or multi-cultural perspective. This applies to the local Chinese media as well.

No one language should deemed “more superior” than another language. All languages have their uses. However, as for English, it is undoubtedly the lingua franca of technology, science, medicine, social science, humanity and more. This is not to say the use of English should be at the expense of one’s mother tongue which, of course, should be preserved.

The bottom line is to use English as a tool for progress and advancement since its practicality and usefulness in this area has been acknowledged and proven on a global scale. Many emerging nations with their own national language have decided to use English for no other reason than this. And they have not become any less nationalistic or patriotic because of it.

This is plain common sense and being realistic. (From Oriental Daily)