A language in its own right

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Students attending a lecture at IPG Batu Lintang Campus in Kuching. — Photo via Facebook/Institut Pendidikan Guru Malaysia Kampus Batu Lintang-Rasmi

ON one hand, you say that you encourage the teaching of the Iban language at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels; on the other, you do not train enough teachers to teach that language.

Why? What constraints, I wonder?

I discerned this conundrum when I read the statement made by Tamin assemblyman Christopher Gira Sambang in The Borneo Post of March 15, 2024. In that report, the legislator was quoted as having questioned the ‘decision of the MoE (Education Ministry) and the Malaysian Teachers Education Institutes (IPGs) for not offering the Iban Language Bachelor’s Degree Programme (PISMP) for 2022 and 2023’.

I heard about this gossip while I was in Sibu in April 2023, and not having the chance to confirm its veracity with any senior official of the relevant Education authorities, I wrote about something else.

It is significant that the legislator’s statement is yet to be denied by the MoE, or the IPGs.

Why the silence?

Assuming that the decision stands, is there any wonder that the problem of shortage of trained teachers in the Iban language in schools in Sarawak is compounded unnecessarily?

I would not like anybody to revisit the old colonial attitude, which relied on the ability of any Iban speaker to teach their mother tongue. Not every Iban speaker is a competent teacher.

Nowadays there are any number of Iban speakers who are not Iban; they can teach the language if they have been trained to do so.

The decision of the Education authorities must have disappointed many aspiring teachers for not being given the chance to train at a teachers’ institute. The potential trainees could be anybody from anywhere in the world – Honolulu, Timbuktu… I don’t care!

Had they been accepted by the teachers’ institutes for the 2022-2023 period, they would have graduated with a degree in two or three years’ time. Shortage of teachers solved!

The Education authorities in this country must assure the public, particularly the advocates of the Iban Language, that there are good reasons why there was no intake of the bachelor’s programme for two years in succession.

It is important to explain all this to the ordinary people, so as to avoid unnecessary speculations about the government policy on Iban language teaching.

Is it a question of money only?

Or is the whole to-and-fro movement politically motivated?

Education must not be made a political tool by anybody, let alone by the institutes funded by the taxpayers’ money.

Most of the advocates of the teaching of the language are former teachers, government servants and armchair politicians like me.

We are keeping tabs on the developments of the teaching and the learning of the language, and have been appreciative of and grateful to the authorities in terms of executing the federal government’s policy in the past.

For several days last fortnight, I was deprived of the joy of reading news in print.

However, a kind friend told me that Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas) would begin teaching the Iban language soon.

If true, that would be good news indeed. And I salute whoever it was who had conceived the idea. Perak had led the way; now it is Sarawak – back to home base.

I, for one, do not believe that the federal government has a change of heart in terms of inclusion of the Iban language in the curriculum of government-funded schools in Sarawak.

Or am I way behind time in this matter?

Anyway, I have been one of the advocates of the learning of the Iban language and its teaching in schools for many years. In 1965, I was one of the founders of ‘The Society for the Promotion of the Iban Language and Literature (SPILL)’. It was registered with the Registrar of Societies (RoS).

We were influenced by the great interest shown in the Iban language by scholars of linguistics.

Malay scholar Prof Asmah Omar studied the Iban language in the 1960s, wrote a PhD thesis on it, and submitted that thesis to the University of London in 1969. She earned the well-deserved doctorate.

Later her thesis was produced in the form of a book called ‘The Iban Language: A Grammatical Description’.

In 2013, she produced the second edition of that book. It was published by the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka Malaysia (DBP) in Kuala Lumpur.

Prof Asmah gave me an autographed copy of the book in October 2016.

‘Iban not a Malay dialect’ 

I had been arguing with certain scholars who insisted that the Iban language was a dialect of Malay.

I was on cloud nine when Prof Asmah came to my rescue – she categorically states in her book that: “The Iban language has undergone vicissitudes in its life as a living speech system… Iban, or Sea Dayak, is a language of the Indonesian (Austronesia) family. It is distinct from Malay but closely related to it (Reference: Preface 1X, p.4 of ‘Introduction’).”

It is my hope that the federal Education Ministry would have a relook at the importance of the Iban language in terms of training the teachers in our institutes in Sarawak or elsewhere.

When is the next intake of trainees into our local IPGs, please? I have lined up a couple of candidates.

Many people, including influential politicians among the Iban community, supported the cause.

The Tun Jugah Foundation did a splendid job by publishing books, including dictionaries in that language.

The move by our leaders to get Unimas to offer a graduate course in Iban is most commendable.

UCSI University had made the start earlier. I met Dr Cecilia Tugang, a product of the UCSI together with Prof Asmah.

I must salute our leaders who are in government for their continuous support for the federal government to continue offering places in the teachers’ Institutes.