[lg policy] Who’s really killing the Malay language?

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Sun Sep 30 14:45:20 EDT 2018

 Who’s really killing the Malay language?
Tajuddin Rasdi <https://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/author/tajuddin/>
September 29, 2018 7:00 AM

Once again, the Malay language is in the spotlight. Once again, DAP has
been labelled as the culprit in killing its honour and prestige. Once
again, I have to sit in front of my computer, typing out an article to
explain what seems to be obvious and pointing to the real killer in this
mystery murder of the Malay language. The answer? The majority of our
public universities.

First, let’s put things into proper perspective. When we gained
independence, it was decided, I think, that Malay would be the official
language of administration. It was also supposed to be the language of
knowledge. If memory serves, the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka was set up to
develop Malay as the latter. This was further strengthened by the
establishment of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), to spearhead
research and development to enrich the language. This was to continue the
work of Institut Teknologi Mara (ITM) to help Malays become technicians and
professionals under the New Economic Policy.

I don’t think that ITM was instructed at the time to use the Malay
language, but obviously with that many Malay students, both languages were
probably used. At UKM, lecturers were instructed to deliver their lectures
in Malay. When I became a lecturer at a public university in Johor, I too
was told to give all my notes and lectures in Malay. Thus, in the 1980s,
things were looking up for the language. What happened?

In the 1990s, three phrases entered the picture: internationalism, world
class, and university rankings. These three turned the tables on Malay as
the official language, and it essentially became a form of Bahasa Kampung
in university circles. Suddenly, instructions came from the top leadership
of universities for all lecturers to deliver their material in English.
Journal papers in Scopus journals that were written in English were given
almost twice the marks for promotion. Those who wrote for local academic
journals in Malay could kiss their promotions good-bye.

Let me be frank, though: the level of English at public universities was
only so-so, and I had 27 years of experience in reading student
assignments, vetting exam questions, and evaluating conference and journal
papers as well as dissertations and theses of PhD and masters students. But
writing Malay books for the Dewan Bahasa no longer held any appeal for
academics. Everything was about English Scopus journal articles. I once
invited colleagues to write book chapters in Malay so that I could open the
minds of the Malays. No go. No quality. Tak ada class. These were the

The great surprise with respect to the issue of “memartabatkan Bahasa
Melayu” came when I was invited to evaluate a student’s master’s thesis at
UiTM. After reading the thesis, which was written in not-so-good English, I
passed the report because I could understand the research content.

On the day of the viva, I asked the chairman and the supervisor why the
student had not written in her native Malay tongue. At UiTM, some more.
Both the academics said it was UiTM policy for all postgraduate theses to
be in English. At the university I worked for then, students had a choice.
If you were a Malaysian, you had better have a good reason to write in
English, or else… But at UiTM, writing in English was required. No two ways
about it.

I also found out that the instruction at UiTM was to deliver all lectures
at the diploma and degree levels in English, regardless of whether Malay
students found it difficult or not. The rationale? To “force English

I called this the “Mahathirian English logic”. It was Dr Mahathir Mohamad
who, at the turn of the 21st century, made the decision to change the
medium of teaching for maths and science to English. This project
eventually failed for many reasons. Desire and logic alone was not enough
to inspire teachers who had been brought up in Malay, or the students who
were struggling to understand their teachers’ broken English.

There is now a movement to return the medium of instruction for maths and
science to English. One of the proponents is the newly elected National
Education Advisory Council (MPPK). So who do you think is killing off the
Malay language? Isn’t it obvious yet?

The architecture department at the public university where I once worked
had its department meeting minuted in English after we answered the call of
“internationalism” and hired foreign lecturers. What happened to Malay as
the official language of administration? It went down the drain because of
“communicability” issues. It’s obvious that the architecture department was
not out to screw with the Malay language; how else were we to operate on
the so-called “international” stage?

Now, let’s analyse what happened in Johor, as well as the famous Lim Guan
Eng press statement issue. In both cases, the politicians honoured Malay by
having the press statement and letter to Johor residents issued in the
language. Their subsequent statements and letter were issued in English and
Chinese. In Lim’s case, he was targeting the Chinese news media, and in the
case of the Johor politician, he was targeting mainly Chinese residents of
non-English or Malay education backgrounds.

In my opinion, both of them honoured Malay as the official language and
only used the other two languages for the purposes of “communicability”. I
was extremely sad to see two such hardworking politicians labelled as
“killers of Bahasa Melayu”.

To me, public universities are the real killers because of their ludicrous
promotion criteria, desire for rankings, ignorance of internationalisation
and even greater ignorance of the term “world class”. According to Prof
Sham Sani of UKM, being international and world class has nothing to do
with language. If a university produces academic content of value to share
with the world, then that university is international and world class.
Speak all the English you want; no one will listen if you do not have
important findings to report.

In closing, consider the following acronyms, PAM and Umno. PAM stands for
Pertubuhan Arkitek Malaysia while Umno stands for the United Malay National
Organisation. PAM organises almost all of its events and publications in
English. I hardly remember a single event in Malay. However, its
professional magazine was once called Majalah Arkitek. The articles were
all in English, with very few in Malay.

Now Umno, our favourite political party whose members keep calling
themselves the warriors of the Malay language, also has many events and
publications in Malay. So there you have it, in Malaysia. PAM is Pertubuhan
Arkitek Malaysia which operates almost exclusively in English, and Umno is
a Malay-based political party with an English name which conducts its
activities in Malay.

There is a perfect Malay word to describe our policy on Malay as the
official language and language of knowledge: “cacamarba”, which means
confused and chaotic.

*Tajuddin Rasdi is a professor of Islamic architecture at UCSI University.*


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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