Malaysia: Import their language, export our culture

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sun Jan 27 16:53:20 UTC 2008

Import their language, export our culture

Wide Angle

Our columnist presents a modest proposal to allow us to rule the
world. THERE'S an island with just under six million inhabitants
that's had a pretty difficult history. U2, one of Ireland's greatest
exports.  At one time wholly a colony of England, ruled with an iron
fist and thoroughly exploited, it has seen hunger, poverty, civil war,
and dreadful communal violence. Untold millions of its people have
For much of the last 800 years, as far as I can tell, it has been a
miserable bloody place. Yet it has also produced four winners of the
Nobel Prize for Literature, and a musical group that has sold 170
million albums worldwide. The group is U2, and the Nobel Laureates are
George Bernard Shaw, William Butler Yeats, Samuel Beckett, and Seamus
Heaney; the island is Ireland, of course.

Its problems have always been immense: when Oliver Cromwell led the
English conquest of Ireland in the 17th century, more than 600,000
inhabitants died in 12 years of war. During the Great Potato Famine of
the mid-19th century, in which disastrous food shortages caused by
diseased crops were compounded by the inefficiency and callousness of
the colonial government, one million people starved to death in a five
year period, and another two million were forced to migrate to
America. Don't go complaining to an Irishman about Malaysia's
religious and ethnic tensions. He'll tell you all about Northern
Ireland's history of communal violence and terrorism, about the
struggles between Nationalists and Loyalists, Catholics and

Many people from the Republic of Ireland, in the south, will tell you
about the bad old days before their economy took off in the 1990s.
It's now one of the richest places in the world in terms of per capita
income, but it used to be the sort of desperately poor country that
you left as soon as you were old enough to crawl on board a boat or
plane. And yet this awful area produced one of English literature's
greatest satirists, Jonathan Swift; its wittiest playwright, Oscar
Wilde; and the most critically acclaimed writer of the 20th century,
James Joyce.

In popular culture, its achievements have been similarly
disproportionate. Last year, the combined wealth of its top six
entertainers (U2, Michael Flatley, Enya, Van Morrison, Bob Geldof, and
Chris de Burgh) was estimated at RM6.8bil. How is it that this
benighted land has managed to spawn so many cultural titans? And with
four times the people and one-tenth the problems, why can't Malaysia
do the same? It's not as though the Irish government or populace have
been particularly supportive of the arts, historically speaking. Most
of the people I've mentioned had to go abroad to achieve their
success, to bigger markets or more cosmopolitan environments.

But what equipped these particular citizens of the Third World for
success in the First, was, I would argue, their proficiency in the
English language. When Independence was won and the Irish Free State
created in 1922, Irish was restored as an official language,
satisfying nationalist sentiments, but crucially, English wasn't
dropped the way it was in our country. Irish is a compulsory subject
for schoolchildren, and some 40% of the population today say they can
speak it, but English is still predominant. This has allowed
post-independence Ireland to retain and develop their mastery of the
language of their former colonial overlords, to claim English for
themselves as a complex, musical and very creative expression of their
national character.

In fact, one could argue that the best literature in English in the
second half of the 20th century came from the pens of the Irish and
the Indians. (In its Official Languages Act of 1963, India also opted
to retain English as an additional official administrative language,
ensuring that its educated elite – who come from very diverse
communities, and who might resent having to speak Hindi – would be
equipped to deal with each other and with the West.) English is a
Malaysian language, and always has been. If you are reading this
newspaper, you are living proof of that. But I would go further and
say that English is the most useful Malaysian language, for several

Symbolically, it's apolitical: it isn't the mother tongue of any
particular ethnic group. It may have been necessary at the time of
Independence to call for unity under the umbrella of an indigenous
language, to reject the visible (or rather, audible) signs of
colonialism. But now that we aren't quite so angry with the British
any more, after 50 years of freedom, there's much less emotional
baggage attached to speaking English. It's a more inclusive language
in that respect. It gets us away from the disturbing dictates of the
1971 National Cultural Policy, which defines Malaysian culture as
Malay culture plus those elements of other cultures which are suitable
– whatever that means. It allows us to use a neutral linguistic
platform to slowly come to terms with what really constitutes our
gloriously pluralistic national identity.

And from a pragmatic standpoint, if we make sure everybody learns
English, if we truly embrace it and make it our own, we have a shot at
"doing an Ireland" – at making a sizeable cultural contribution to the
world, and deriving in return economic benefits and prestige. This is
not a value judgement; I don't believe that English is in any way
"better" than Malay. It merely reaches a wider global audience, and
allows all Malaysians to feel a sense of ownership. We are an innately
creative nation, and we should be exporting our cultural products.
Tash Aw has made an excellent start, but it shouldn't stop there.

We can't be sure that we'll be able to create geniuses, or pop stars –
who knows, perhaps the Irish get it from their Guinness and boiled
cabbage. But we should at least try to give the youth of Malaysia the
tools to access the global marketplace.
Make English an official language of Malaysia, and world domination
will be just two decades away.

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