[lg policy] bibitem: Media Debate and Private Discourse on Language Policy in Malaysian Law

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Thu Jul 8 14:41:04 UTC 2010

Powell on Media Debate and Private Discourse on Language Policy in
Malaysian LawBy legalinformatics

*Professor Richard Powell* of the Nihon University College of
a paper entitled
*Media Debate and Private Discourse on Language Policy in Malaysian Law*, at
ICA 2010: The International Communication Association Annual
held 22-26 June 2010 in Singapore. Here is the abstract:

Public and private debate on language policy within Malaysian education has
been vigorous ever since postcolonial administrators started attempting to
strike a balance among the former official medium (English), the national
language (Malay), and several languages used by larger ethnic communities
(Mandarin, Tamil, Iban and others). Malaysian discourses have drawn
attention from other countries addressing tensions between nationism and
nationalism, and modification of policies put into place as recently as 2002
ensure that discussion remains robust and complex. In contrast, language
policy in Malaysian law has attracted less attention, yet it should also be
of wide interest, particularly in multilingual postcolonial societies
seeking to make the legal system more transparent and accessible without
undermining judicial impartiality or professional integrity.

Since the 1980s, Malay has officially been the medium of the Malaysian
courts. However, English has retained a crucial role through legislative
acknowledgement of its continued importance to ‘the interests of justice’.
The present-day result is a bilingual legal system. While other Malaysian
languages (such as Chinese and Tamil), like foreign languages, may be used
only through translation, both Malay and English may be used in oral and
written discourse. In general, Malay predominates in lower court and
criminal cases and is required (except in extenuating circumstances) for all
documents submitted to the court. English is more common in higher court and
civil cases and in private and commercial law, where advocates frequently
rely on English versions of documents and case-law authorities that are
available only in that language. Professional training involves both
languages and it is virtually impossible for anyone to qualify as a lawyer
today without reasonable bilingual competence.

Media debate concerning the language of the law was most vigorous in the
1980s when the shift from English toward Malay was first implemented, but it
continues to crop up in the print and electronic media. Typically this takes
the form of a flurry of discussion about perceived inadequate Malay/English
skills among older/younger lawyers, and in many ways this parallels
discourse about the respective value of the two languages in Malaysian
education. Sometimes there is deeper and more abstract discussion about the
role and future of the current bilingualism in the legal domain. Is it a
transitional phase until the national language attains ascendancy throughout
the domain? Or is it a long-term pragmatic compromise enabling simpler cases
to be heard in the language known best by the majority of the population
while more complex cases are argued in the medium in which most of the
common law has evolved over the centuries?

This paper offers a diachronic analysis of media, and to a lesser extent,
academic, debate on law and language in Malaysia from the 1980s to the
present day as discursive context to a set of interviews undertaken with 30
legal practitioners and educators that included questions about their choice
of medium for specific professional tasks and their attitudes towards the
rules on language imposed by the courts. As in the ongoing debate on the
medium of instruction in education, the findings indicate a complex and
nuanced range of opinions that defies simplistic associations between
language preference and ethnic or socioeconomic background. While no new
methodology is proposed that might authoritatively demonstrate causal links
between social attitude and professional practice, it is strongly argued
that neither a macrosociolinguistic nor a microsociolinguistic explanation
alone is adequate for the multifunctional motivations that lie behind
specific language choices: some attempt must be made to relate the one level
of explanation to the other.

For the full text of the paper, please contact the author.

Thanks to Professor Powell for providing the abstract.


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