Language, Civilisation, Politics, and Malay Chauvinists

November 1, 2018

Language, Civilisation, Politics, and Malay Chauvinists 

by Dr. Sharifah Munirah Alatas

Since 9/11, global scrutiny turned to contentious concepts such as terrorism, mono-polar, bipolar, superpower, economic and cultural imperialism, as well as linguistic colonialism.

It is the latter which is the subject of this commentary because it has stirred harsh, aggressive and sometimes, amusing reactions in the media (local, regional and global), as well as in Malaysia’s recent parliamentary sitting.

A few days ago, Parliament was entertained by the rantings of a particular opposition MP who claimed that English is not an intellectual language. Among the many incoherent sentences that were uttered, he cited examples of ancient civilisations and conquerors, attempting to rationalise that, “English is not an intellectual language that develops the mind and brain”. He also confidently pontificated that “modern economies like Japan, Taiwan and non-English speaking Europeans do not use English in their journey to become developed nations”.

I hope this issue commands the attention of most Malaysians because for a multi-cultural, multi-religious, economically-developing and relatively-peaceful nation, we need to separate the “wheat from the shaft”.

Image result for said orientalism

Linguistic colonialism or imperialism as a concept is a derivative of Edward Said’s conceptualisation of cultural imperialism (in his two famous books Culture and Imperialism, and Orientalism). I doubt, though, that the recent local uproar about the use of English as a medium of instruction of a few subjects in school is based on any knowledge of Edward Said’s work.

Nevertheless, anti-English language crusaders keep creeping out of the woodwork because it seems fashionable. It is glaring that all of these narratives to date have been devoid of historical context. And this makes for extremely wimpy analyses.

Image result for Hasan Arifin, BN’s MP for Rompin

UMNO Intellectuals

Hasan Arifin, BN’s MP for Rompin, is not alone. There are many in Malaysia, among the public, government and elite who feel that English is being “deified”. They also believe that English speakers never created great civilisations. Leaving aside that this notion is erroneous, it also begs the question, “what is a great civilisation?”

In my  understanding, a great civilisation is based on a network of cities (territories) comprising cultures that are defined by the economic, political, military, diplomatic, social and cultural interactions among them.

So, the Roman, Spanish, Arab, French, British and Chinese (with their various dynasties) were great civilisations. How did language then become the signature dish, so to speak, of that civilisation?

Through these empires, languages spread and shifted in dominance. In the past, empires spread their influence through their armies, and after the conquests, so began the social and linguistic assimilation. Between the 3 BC and 3 AD, the Roman Empire was bilingual — Latin and Greek. This was because the Romans knew that Greek was a language of prestige, philosophy and higher education — an “intellectual” language.

Spain succeeded in making over 20 sovereign states today, that speak Spanish, excluding millions of Spanish speakers in immigrant communities in other non-Spanish speaking nations such as the United States, Canada and the Philippines.

Castillian Spanish became the most important language of government and trade. It was the lingua franca of the Spanish empire, a derivative of Latin. Latin was still the “intellectual” language of the Spanish and of the Church.

The Chola Dynasty was one of the longest, most civilised empires in the history of southern India. Tamil and Sanskrit were the official languages.Tamil and Sanskrit are two distinct languages, the former being Dravidian and the latter being an Indo-Aryan language. As we can see, all three great civilisations were bi-lingual.

In 21st century Malaysia, however, we are faced with a backlash of a-historical pundits who reject the ebb and flow of civilisational change, yet advocate for national progress and development.

Let me educate them on the current position of English in the world today. First, it is an intellectual language. The British Empire, between the reigns of Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II (1588-1952), had about 250 million English language speakers. English achieved unique conditions of development. The large continents of North America, Africa and Asia were colonised with industrialisation and trade in mind.

Global conditions at the time facilitated the transition towards the flourishing of English in previously French and Spanish colonial territories of North America and Africa. Due to abundant natural resources and human capital in these regions, the wheels of commerce and trade helped to “deify” (not my word) the English language. English was “at the right place, at the right time”.

Today, all civilisations are enriched by the ideas, thoughts and knowledge disseminated world wide in English. Of course there are other languages that perform this function, but English is predominant.

Second, people like Hasan Arifin and his supporters cannot distinguish between modernisation, Westernisation and imperialism.

Modernisation is the development and application of current and innovative science in the development process of all sectors of society. Westernisation is a process subsumed under modernisation when specifically-Western notions of what it means to be modern are accepted as universal values of modernisation.

Many aspects of Westernisation should not be accepted as modernisation. Imperialism, on the other hsnsd, is the process of domination of policies and ideas with a specific agenda in mind. In history, imperial powers have imposed power and influence through diplomacy or military force.

I think the current discourses in France and India of a “linguistic imperialism” are far-fetched.  Like Westernisation, there is good and bad imperialism. It is also era-specific.

In the 21st century, military and economic powers like the US, China, Great Britain, Japan, Germany and Russia do not mirror the same imperialistic goals of the World War Two era.

Anintellectual, would realise that the need to master the English language is hardly the imposition of an imperialistic agenda.

The inadequacy of the historical-context approach is dangerous for nation building. A system oiled by pseudo-intellectuals who run the policy-making machinery will be suicidal for our “new” Malaysia.

My advice is to be firmly grounded in historical processes, be up-to-date with current economic and socio-political trends and subdue ethnocentric tendencies which are embarrassing and underdeveloped.

Critics of the English language quote China and Japan as being ignorant of the English language, yet they challenge the US and other great powers economically and militarily. It takes more, however, to become a global hegemon.

Anti-English crusaders in Malaysia believe religiously that China and Japan, despite their incapacity to speak and write in English, have reached a level of global economic hierarchy that threatens US and other major power positions. However, even this notion is skewed.

China, for example is known as “the factory of the world” and “the bridge-builder of the world”. But China’s global hegemonic status is in doubt because it lacks the capacity for economic reform, to minimise economic inefficiencies and it has proven inadequate at reforming the financial sector in order to provide investors with consistently profitable returns (the failure of Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port construction is a case in point). Therefore, the issue of language does not figure in the equation.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.


14 thoughts on “Language, Civilisation, Politics, and Malay Chauvinists

  1. This is not a new issue. It was debated in the 1960s and that led to the use of Malay official language and as a medium of instruction in our schools and universities on the mistaken belief perpetrated by the late Syed Nasir and his supporters including my contemporaries at The University of Malaya that Malay could replace English. After 61 years of UMNO, we bear witness to the folly of this policy. UMNO politicians also thought that by introducing Malay, the Malays could beat the non-Malays academically. They were wrong again. And today we are allowing irresponsible Malay nationalists to dictate our language policy again for politics. Have we not learned our lesson? –Din Merican

  2. They are a bunch of village idiots. The poor including the kamping folks would benefit greatly if they pick up English and use it in their daily lives. These like to keep them ignorant eternally, if possible. They are that selfish and irresponsible.

    • It was an editing error.
      Please refer to the FMT Editor.–Din Merican.

    • Yup, i’m sure it was a SNAFU by the FMT editors.
      I had a conversation with the chief editor of one our bigger news portals the other day, and he was complaining about the incomprehensible ‘Inggerish’ of some of his sub-editors. Some of them graduated from western ‘prestigious’ varsities too. What to do..

      Anyway, a great and informative piece by Dr Sharifah.

  3. ‘ There are many in Malaysia, among the public, government and elite who feel that English is being “deified” ‘.

    As with many ‘ issues ‘ capitalised and exploited by the Malay/Muslim ‘ leaders or heroes ‘ and their supporters, it’s not the language…’s all political at all costs for power.

    They want you to know they have power over you to do as they please……thus the totally unacceptable and most insulting ‘ Ketuanan Melayu ‘ to treat ordinary people like hamba abdi or slaves.

    Human decency is all about letting ordinary people live their ordinary lives. These Malay/Muslim ‘ leaders ‘ do not show any decency at all.

  4. I belong to the generation when this language switch was a hotly n widely discussed issue.I remember clearly the often quoted argument that the English language is like a mature well grown tree n the National language is a sapling growing in its shade. One has to cut off the big tree for the young tree to grow up.This facile n baseless argument had wide acceptance because the common man can easily identify with the picturesque comparison.The politicians as expected seized to fan the flames of popular public opinion.If one felt n thought that such an issue requires deep study n thought in depth n breath n that it is just plain bizarre n irrelevant to equate the growth of a language with that of a tree,he would be just a voice crying in the wilderness.
    What can we all learn from this shallow decision making process? Be very very careful of the power of mass hysteria when making foundational n grave decisions for the country which will have long lasting effects! An educated mind knows that it is always on the verge of being wrong!!

  5. I saw an art piece today in San Francisco with the title “American Cultural Terrorism”. This quote stucked in my head “kill the Indian in the child and save the child”.
    Indian refers to the American Indians, of course. Then there was another quote, “Japs Keep Moving, this is a White Man’s land”. The same art show had a piece from a Malaysian Chinese to show case her diaspora experience. Intellectual or not, language is a culture.
    Separating wheat from chaff is a borrowed phrase from the good book.

    To some of us Christians, it is our entire eschatological worldview. (It is much less so for me, as a Christian)
    Perhaps, it is good it is spelled “shaft” in Malaysia.

    I think Malay has its’ place in the world. It represented something unique. English is not the only language.

    I just hope a few of those Malays who emphasize the importance of the Malay language know that they are killing others, together with themselves with this political movement.

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