June 15, 2015
Balan Moses on Learning English
by Balan Moses
Learning English at the University of Cambodia at the beginning and a success story: It takes Political Will and Personal Perseverance and Grit
The issue of whether English should be the medium of instruction in schools has been talked to death in recent years with only funeral rites yet to be observed over the demise of the grand old lady of language.
Ever so often, concerned citizens will give vent to angst over the Malaysian malaise where English is concerned and the powers-that-be will respond in a patronising father-knows-best tone that the matter was being studied.
To be sure, recent Malaysian history is replete with such studies — truly embarked upon or just a figment of someone’s imagination — that have entered the mists of time due to changes in the political administration of the education ministry.
Let’s be frank about this: no amount of pressure from any quarter will have any bearing on the debate over English if the Education Ministry (read Minister) is not party to it.
The fact is English has been battered beyond recognition over the years by well-meaning nationalists wanting to champion Bahasa Malaysia in its rightful role as the lingua franca of the people.
Even as I stand up for English, I shudder when some young non-Malays today fail to put together a proper sentence in Bahasa Malaysia despite the latter being the medium of instruction in all government schools since the 1970s and one of the elements that binds us together as Malaysians.
Every Malaysian since I took my Malaysian Certificate of Education (MCE) in 1972 has been required to pass Bahasa Malaysia at MCE and Sijil Pelajaran Malaysian (SPM) levels or go nowhere in local life.
The sad fact of the matter is that many young non-Malays are neither good at Bahasa Malaysia or English, no thanks to a built-in antagonism for the former in some and the lack of heart among the authorities in teaching the language for the latter.
For the majority of Malays who came into the mainstream of Malaysian life in the 1980s, English has been a foreign language to be studied merely to pass examinations and not for use in daily life.
Orang Putih, as in the language, has by and large become something that Malays who studied abroad speak to each other in small and select groups with common political, social or religious interests.
I was intrigued recently when I heard a small group of retired Malay politicians in their late 70s and 80s hold an hour-long conversation in an eatery entirely in English on issues concerning their common interests.
I have seen this in various other settings where Malays schooled locally and who, perhaps, read their degrees abroad were even more comfortable in English than their mother tongue.
The long and the short of it is that English has suffered equally among Malays and non-Malays. To put things in perspective, I am not the first journalist to comment on the dirge being sung over English and, most certainly, will not be the last.
Time was when Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh and Penang were bastions of the English language and, in my humble opinion, a notch higher in its finery than our southern neighbour .
I know I may come in for upbraiding by our southerly cousins for saying this. This could have been the result of the sheer number of English speakers in the peninsular, taking into cognizance the excellence than comes out of competition.
I am not ignoring the likes of lawyer and politician David Marshall, poet Edwin Thumboo and writer Catherine Lim and the legion of other Singaporeans who stand equal to the best in the use of the Queen’s English.
An illustration is in order to show where we once were in the use of English .I remember visiting Seattle on a junket in 1984 and speaking to an august gathering of intellectuals about the Malaysian way of life on behalf of our group of reporters.
Our audience was beaming when I ended and the first question asked of me was whether Í spoke English on a daily basis and where I had picked it up. They were confused when I said that my entire primary and secondary education was in English. How was that possible, they asked, when I was brought up in Asia.
My reply that Malaysia had been a colony of Great Britain and that we had inherited their system of education in English, at least until the early 1970s, left them befuddled.
But I digress as the thrust of this comment piece is to ascertain if there is a future for English in Malaysia after a disastrous 40 years or so of it languishing in the doldrums.
The provocation for this baring of my soul comes from a statement by HRH The Sultan of Johor who said Malaysia should follow Singapore in making English the medium of instruction in schools to maintain the nation’s competitive edge in all spheres of activity.
The Ruler should know, given the geographical reality arising out of the republic’s proximity to Johor and the attendant relationships forged over time with the Singaporean man-on-the-street who today speaks arguably better English than the average Malaysian.
Only time can tell if mastery of English will engender greater unity among Malaysians as the ruler suggests. Any language, including Bahasa Malaysia, can help unify the people.
At the end of the day, the government, the people and our young must decide in concert if they want English to regain its once pre-eminent position in our education system to enable our nation to find its rightful place under the sun.
Even if one of the three reject this proposition, it will be bound for failure and forever remain just a romantic notion in the minds of those above 50 who lived through the glory days of English.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.