Yes, Minister! English is here to stay


In comparison to what it sought to accomplish, the statement by PM Anwar has created more concerns about legality and principle of morality than the issue of the national language per se. — Bernama photo

DISMAY and disappointment were the reaction of many well-meaning Sarawakians, when Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, in a public statement, directed all government department offices not to entertain letters or any correspondence written in languages other than Bahasa Malaysia (BM).

For a moment, the sense of pride and raison d’être that propel Sarawak beyond the bounds of ethnic and geographical control seem to have been slightly doused by a seemingly ethnocentric statement.

For Sarawakians, for whom English and BM are official languages that can be used in both official and informal contacts and communication, the directive is overtly condescending and unyielding.

Most Sarawakians wondered then whether Sarawak had been consulted on PM’s most recent position on the usage of BM, since Premier Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Abang Johari Tun Openg had frequently emphasised the status of English as an official language of Sarawak and its significance as a driver of change and progress for the digital economy.

Right of language under MA63

The status of English and BM as official languages in Sarawak should be comprehended in light of the Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63). The Sarawak government has, in reality, protected Sarawak’s rights under the MA63, as demonstrated by the agreement’s revision that allows the use of English in addition to BM.

Therefore, proponents of BM and self-described nationalists should not try to go overboard and turn it into an issue to fuel an agenda that smacks of ethnic hegemony.

Notwithstanding, PM’s statement did not gain much traction in Sarawak. It vanished just as fast as it appeared. It gathered more flak than the praise that it was meant to generate in Sarawak.

PM’s statement calling on government departments to reject any official letters not written in the official language, BM, obviously went down well with the predominantly Malay audience at the opening of the National Language Decade Carnival and National Reading Decade in Cyberjaya last week. Either consciously or unconsciously, it has made Sarawak more aware of its rights and capabilities and has forced it to take a more robust stance.

If political correctness was intended, it has lost its day in Sarawak. The dual-language status of BM and English stays and will continue to hold sway across the public and private sector in Sarawak.

Steadfast in stance

Yes Minister, Sarawak is steadfast in its stance that it would keep BM and English as official languages. The official statement from Sarawak’s State Secretary Datuk Amar Mohammad Abu Bakar Marzuki confirms this.

‘Sarawak will not follow the reminder’ was a terse yet powerful declaration that restored Sarawak’s leadership position.

Mohammad Abu Bakar’s statement, ‘Sarawak will not follow the reminder’, stands as a terse yet powerful declaration that restores Sarawak’s leadership position. — Photo by Chimon Upon

In comparison to what it sought to accomplish, the statement by PM Anwar has created more concerns about legality and principle of morality than the issue of the national language per se.

On the point of law, the federal government is obligated to accept official letters in English from Sarawak.

Contesting the legitimacy will not benefit PM Anwar or his Madani administration, and going head-to-head with Sarawak would not be a prudent political decision. However, nothing can stop the ‘Little Napoleons’ from carrying out their prankish behaviour.

Yes, Minister, truth to be told – the Sarawak government has clarified the issue several times. Last year, Premier Abang Johari reiterated at a mass gathering of civil servants that the state’s civil service would continue using English officially alongside BM.

Yes, Minister. Ministers and members of the ruling parties are unified in the cause, although some may occasionally lack the initiative to respond to unfavourable critiques unless guided or encouraged by the Sarawak Premier.

Abang Johari has frequently emphasised the status of English as an official language of Sarawak and its significance as a driver of change and progress for the digital economy.

Language duality

Language duality is really a major component of Sarawak’s distinctive development DNA, making it well-suited to serve the diverse ethnic and religious communities across the state. The duality of language usage, which bespeaks the open-mindedness of Sarawak’s leaders, is a key factor in setting the foundation and trajectory for development in an economy that is becoming more and more driven by digital technology and cross-boundary economic ventures.

Language issue aside, which may otherwise lead to pointless debate and impede progress, Sarawak’s leadership is focused on accelerating the state’s economic growth with plans for a higher GDP and better distributive growth.

Policy thrusts on digital technology with widespread applications across growth sectors, the introduction of a modernised transport system to facilitate increased mobility, the development of a rural agropolitan economy, and the introduction of hydrogen and the green economy are among the key factors that define the narrative of Sarawak’s new wave of development.

Yes, Minister!

It places Sarawak on a firm footing as it works to become a developed economy by 2030. The transformation agenda is dominated by these elements. They establish the course and serve as facilitators and enablers for the new Sarawak.

Borderless opportunities

The emerging trajectory and the new narrative extend to a wider range of borderless opportunities, devoid of prejudice based on religion, ethnicity, or political ideology.

They stand in the way of the process. In all this, the English language takes centrestage and serves as the most efficient means of communication in both local and international business. Every country speaks, understands, and uses the same language.

In retrospect, if Sarawak had softened its position and let the recent PM Anwar’s directive take hold, it would be taking a step back, a move that would have allowed new forces to interfere with the state’s post-Covid-19 development plan and agenda, and perhaps derailed MA63.

Development of human capital

Yes, Minister. Adopting English as an official language and using it effectively is only one side of the proverbial coin. The development of human capital with strong English and BM skills from primary to tertiary level would be the other side. Plotting the learning curve requires time, money, institutional support, and a comprehensive, goal-driven plan that aligns with Sarawak’s strategy for sustainable socio-economic development.

Sarawak has all that in a blueprint and the wheel for its implementation has been set in motion. The setting up of Yayasan Sarawak-owned  pre-university colleges where English is the medium of instruction and which provide pathway opportunity for excellent students to enter top British universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, King’s College, LSE, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Manchester, is among the preparatory programmes for the younger generation.

Worthy of mention in Sarawak’s preparation of young human capital in digital technology is the Centre for Technology Excellence (Centexs). The Digital Academy is expected to be a key player in providing the sector with a talent pool of young people with digital skills.

The Academy is an industry-relevant education programme that targets university graduates, school dropouts, and industry workers with an emphasis on reskilling and upskilling training.

Again, with English being the lingua franca in digital technology, there is no escaping for the students from learning and using English in the academy and in their eventual workplace.

All of the above and many more are set to provide valuable insight into the growing opportunities Sarawak will face in order to maintain its current trajectory and reach its target of being a developed economy by 2030.

In all this, the English language is our dependable guide and tool of effective communication.  English remains as relevant today as it is for tomorrow as we grow into an expanding global community.

* Toman Mamora is ‘Tokoh Media Sarawak 2022’, recipient of Shell Journalism Gold Award (1996) and AZAM Best Writer Gold Award (1998). He remains true to his decades-long passion for critical writing as he seeks to gain insight into some untold stories of societal value.