Paper on-line for comment and discussion

Saran saran at
Mon Jan 31 19:52:22 UTC 2005

Dear Anthea,

Thank you very much for the comments which are extremely useful as they
force one to rethink one’s thoughts.  I provide below some responses to the

Anthea’s comments

This is a lucid and calm paper that provides a useful outline of the place
of English and Malay in higher education in Malaysia. I like the way it is
located in the political and economic realities.

Two thoughts:

1) The drive for translation was doomed by the absence of perceived need.
In Japan it was (and is) necessary to translate from English to Japanese
because there are highly educated people who need to read scientific texts
at the cutting edge but who do not have the skills in English to read them
in the original. In Malaysia, highly educated people who need scientific
texts of this sort can read them in English.  There are many countries with
strong local languages in which
scientific texts at high levels are not routinely translated because the
potential readership can read them in English (e.g. Norway, Finland). The
focus for creation of scientific texts in Malay needs to be on the
development and translation of basic texts reaching schoolchildren and the
wider public (a Malay version of 'New Scientist', for example).

Saran’s response

In Malaysia, there were two reasons why there was a need for publications
in Bahasa Melayu and translation from English to Bahasa Melayu of texts in
science and technology for tertiary education.

Firstly, we need to realize that the Malays felt very strongly that the
language needed to be developed to be a language of knowledge and
education.  In the Malaysian situation, it is rather complicated – firstly,
English is the language of the colonial powers and secondly, Malaysia being
multi-ethnic, many non-Malays had partisan feelings towards
English.  Therefore, it was necessary for the Malays to work towards
developing Bahasa Melayu as the language of education and knowledge at the
highest levels.  Millions has been spent on setting up “Dewan Bahasa dan
Pustaka”, the agency whose role was to develop and disseminate Bahasa
Melayu as well as the “Institute Terjemahan Kebangsaan, the National
Institute of Translation.

Corpus planning for the modernization of the Malay language for the field
of science and technology took place over many years (Malay was largely an
agrarian and literary language).  Tremendous financial and human resources
and efforts were spent on this. Therefore, for the language to be taken
seriously and to develop the status that it needed in this context of
continuing “competition” with English, the government and Malay
intellectuals felt that research and findings in the field had to be
published in Malay as well as translation of key texts in specific
disciplines to be translated from English to Bahasa.

There are quite a number of publications for the public in Bahasa which are
science related but I don’t think that these are sufficient to build up a
case for the language as a language of education that is going to be used
as language of research and publication in the important field of science
and technology.

In fact, there is an relevant paper written by Sharir (2001), a maths
professor from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia who has been in the forefront
of the struggles in establishing Bahasa as the language of knowledge and
education.  The paper is titled,  “Publication of Books in Malay in the
field of Higher Education:  Problems and Strategies to Overcome Them“
(translated) and it explains the reasons why the publication and
translation in Malaysia has progressed at such a slow pace in the public

Secondly, I wish it were the case that the younger generation who are
presently in institutions of higher learning and who would in turn
contribute to the necessary human resource needed by the nation, had no
problems reading scientific texts in English.  It is different for the
older scientists who have been through an English medium of education or a
bilingual medium of education.  The linguistic challenges facing public
institutions of higher education is discussed in an article by Gill (2004)
titled Medium of Instruction in Malaysian Higher Education.  In Medium of
Instruction Policies:  Which Agenda?  Whose Agenda?  Edited by Tollefson
and Tsui:  Lawrence Erlbaum.  135-152.

I shall extract from it here to quote Asmah, professor emeritus in the
field of language policy and planning, who says,

“There has been a feeling among Malaysians, including the top leaders, that
there has been a drop in the attainment level of proficiency in English
among Malaysians.  This impression has proven to be a fact supported by
performance in schools, colleges and universities.  It has now become an
uphill task for students in the universities to refer to texts written in
English, let alone discourse on their academic subjects in the
language.  In the public sector, there has been a general decry of the fact
that the government officials of today are no longer efficient in handling
tasks in English compared to their predecessors.  (Asmah, 1987:  16)

In fact, what is happening is that students begin to depend heavily on
lecture notes and modules written in Bahasa and struggle to read texts in
English.  Therefore there was a necessity to publish and translate
materials into Bahasa for knowledge to be accessed by those in the field.

Anthea’s comment

2) The paper would be strengthened by some statistics on the economic
and ethnic characteristics of students at the state and private
universities. In some countries (including neighbouring Singapore) the
state universities attract the cream of students and the private
universities are available for those who do not get in. The reasons for
the prestige of private universities in Malaysia are interestingly and
problematically tangled up with the admissions procedures in the state
universities. Though things have been peaceful since 1969, the
management of ethnicity remains at the heart of Malaysia policy, as it
has to be.

Saran’s response

Thank you – I will get the statistics as they will enhance the paper. The
statistics on ethnicity should be available but the economic
characteristics might be problematic as students are not required to state
their economic background when they apply for places in universities.

As you very rightly expressed it, “ethnicity remains at the heart of
Malaysian policy” and this is always a factor that the government has been
aware of and had to work in various configurations to meet with the
socio-political and economic needs of the country.

In the initial years when private universities were first set up, the
situation was similar to that of Singapore – the cream still went to public
universities and only those who did not make it there went to private
universities.  But now, private universities in Malaysia have been
attracting not only average students but also the cream particularly
amongst the non-Malay population – universities like Universiti Multimedia
and Nottingham and Monash have excellent facilities and pose tremendous
competition to the public universities, particularly with the middleclass
parents who are willing to sacrifice large sums of money on their
children’s education compared to sending them to public universities which
would cost a fraction of the amount.  Presently, the situation differs from
what is still happening in Singapore.

Thank you for your time and attention.


Prof. Dr. Saran Kaur Gill
Professor in Sociolinguistics and International Communication
School of Language Studies and Linguistics
Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities
Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia
43600 Bangi

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