Category Archives: Language

Literature moving into obscurity

June 15, 2014

Literature moving into obscurity

by Bhavani Krishna Iyer*

E Literature

I HAVE vivid recollections of receiving brickbats from family members and friends when I made the announcement one eventful day that I was planning to pursue a doctoral degree in English Literature.

Many thought that such a degree would not earn me a living and yet others thought literature was out of vogue. I would say both these groups were neither completely right nor wrong, but the point is I have no regrets having pursued my passion.

It was uphill all the way getting material, and my search to support my thesis often ended in futility. I remember scouring bookshops in India where the assistants would send me to the deepest, darkest and most obscure corners in the shop to look for books related to literature. I often felt small but never any less important.

IT and engineering references were hot sellers and the bookshop owners used to tell me that literature books don’t sell because there was no demand.

There is also this common complaint that studying literature will not be of any use for a working adult unless one is teaching the subject. Not forgetting the acidulous remark we get that literature will not teach anyone how to make a sandwich or build a bridge, hence, why bother?

A course mate said she was almost coaxed into doing something “more marketable” when she was about to embark on the PhD. Such were the harsh realities when all things related to science and technology appeared to have elevated status at work and outside work, due to their perceived importance.

English writersWhen I stood in front of my boss years ago, asking for time off to attend classes, I was not surprised that he asked “how is it going to be of any benefit to you and the company.” I simply said, “I will be a better person to say the least, and of course as an employee, I will have a more enlightened view of my surrounding, the environment and the people around me.

“People with a literature background have better written and other communication skills and it has been widely accepted that understanding complex ideas and theories and doing research come easy,” I explained. He did not say anything further.

The zeal for literature is very much a personal preference, either you like it or you don’t and for those who are consumed in it for reasons other than academic, they will know the many-pronged benefits. I am a staunch believer that the interest can be developed.

Exposure to literature keeps one afloat in a conversation about the life and times of people which would appeal to just about anyone. Additionally, one’s vocabulary increases by reading literature and last but not least, literature serves as momentary escapism from the harsh realities of life. It serves to de-stress people who are overcome by the stress of modern living. People who read literary works will know the power and pleasure of using the language with all its quirks.

Personally, I think, literature adorns one with the ability to appreciate the enriching array of human characters and experiences.”But literature is difficult,” is often the lament from many, but let me tell you it need not be so if you get into the groove of it and start with the right material.

The Ministry of Education has incorporated a component called Language Arts in its English Language syllabus where pupils from Year 1 study rhymes, short stories and others to “activate pupils’ imagination and interest”.

I am told by a friend who is a teacher trainer that the English language teachers are exposed to teaching literature in the classrooms, in a small way from the way I see it but this is a good move and I hope we get this going without high-handed interference.

Having said that we seem to be in transition most times from quick-fixes in as far as learning English is concerned and perhaps a revolutionary policy in teaching and learning English might be just the answer to arrest the decay.

*The writer was a language teacher and now teaches part-time in public universities, apart from having a full-time job. Comments:

Roth Unbound: A Guardian Book Review

January 17, 2014

Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books by Claudia Roth Pierpont – Review

Who inspired Philip Roth’s characters? This new study claims to reveal many secrets.
The Guardian, Friday 17 January 2014 09.00 GMT
Philip RothPhilip Roth

Philip Roth, at age 40, published the essay “‘I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting’ or, Looking at Kafka”, which appropriates its title from the short story “A Hunger Artist”, and fantasises that the genius of Prague didn’t die at age 40, but instead was cured of tuberculosis, and lived on to witness the Nazi regime. His response was to give up literature and flee to America, where he took a job teaching in a shabby Hebrew school in Newark, New Jersey.

Among his students was a young “Philip Roth”, who nicknamed this strange, halitotic hermit “Dr Kishka”, Yiddish for “guts”. The Ghost Writer, published six years after this piece in 1979, is the first of Roth’s novels narrated by his alter ego Nathan Zuckerman. In it, Zuckerman imagines that Anne Frank survived Bergen-Belsen only to have to hide from the celebrity of her diary in a clapboard farmhouse in the Berkshires, where she changed her name to Amy Bellette and served as an amanuensis to a famous Jewish-American novelist. Roth’s Kafka spends his post-literary existence drilling children in the alef bet; Roth’s Frank spends hers imparting to the work of her employer and lover the authenticating imprimaturs of Holocaust trauma and European Kultur.

Kafka, in his lifetime, published two books; Frank, in hers, published none; Roth debuted with Goodbye, Columbus in 1959 and announced his retirement 25 novels later with Nemesis in 2010. According to Claudia Roth Pierpont, he has been enjoying his dotage “discussing books and politics and a thousand other things”, entertaining her with “memories, observations, opinions, thoughts, second thoughts, jokes, stories, even songs”.

Pierpont assures us that though she is not related to Roth, she has produced this study of his fiction with his collaboration. It is no surprise that her book is a useful resource for plot summary, then, but it is shocking that the new secrets it claims to offer are only shopworn trivia that even my parents – not academics, just Jews from Jersey – already know: the stock in trade of Saturday synagogue book clubs, and the Sunday New York Times. In The Ghost Writer, the novelist EI Lonoff, who shelters the ostensible Anne Frank, was based on Bernard Malamud; the novelist Felix Abravanel, who is too egotistical to adopt Zuckerman as a literary son and so dispatches him to Lonoff, was based on Saul Bellow – neither were grateful, but both were flattered, I’m sure.

Pierpont mentions that a Zuckerman first appeared in My Life As a Man, as a character in two stories by Peter Tarnopol, another Rothian double, who happens to share a psychiatrist, Dr Spielvogel, with Alexander Portnoy.

Yet another Roth redux, the public radio intellectual and lit professor David Kepesh, changes into a six-foot-tall, 155-pound breast in The Breast; in The Professor of Desire he ventures to Prague and hallucinates a whore who, for $10, will narrate the sex acts she performed on Kafka, and for another $5 will let Kepesh inspect her octogenarian vagina himself. Pierpont tags these books as reactions to The Metamorphosis, but also to Roth’s sojourns behind the iron curtain, which themselves were merely bids to escape his reputation after the release of Portnoy’s Complaint, that classic of filial suffering and fervent wanking: Roth’s “Portnoy readers – even the ones who loved the book, or maybe especially those – viewed him as ‘a walking prick’. When they came up to him in the street, that’s what they saw, it seemed to him, that’s whom they were congratulating.”

Roth--BookThe problem with this is not how one congratulates a prick – by wanking it, perhaps – but rather the quotation marks: it is not clear, when it comes to “a walking prick”, who exactly is talking. This vagary plagues every page of Roth Unbound, regardless of attributive punctuation, to the point where Pierpont’s criticism references Roth’s “non-fiction books” as if they were gospels, and assimilates their opinions too. These supposedly impeachable sources are The Facts, which purports to be an autobiography discussed in letters between Zuckerman and Roth; and Patrimony, a memoir of Roth’s father’s death, written in the midst of his decline.

Then there are the miscellanies: Shop-Talk, and Reading Myself and Others. The former collects conversations Roth conducted with the likes of Primo Levi and Milan Kundera, in which he proposes interpretations of their works and they, of course, agree. The latter is a Maileresque orgy of vanity featuring interviews of Roth by George Plimpton and Joyce Carol Oates; an essay about writing Portnoy, in which Roth excerpts a speech he delivered to an Anti-Defamation League symposium; an essay on the novelist-critic divide, the bulk of which is given over to a letter Roth wrote but never posted to critic Diana Trilling, dissenting from her review of Portnoy; a self-interview Roth did for Partisan Review that refers to an essay he wrote about himself for Commentary; not to forget his own review of a Broadway play adapted from his earliest stories.

Now that Roth’s retirement has given him the opportunity to pursue his legacy full-time, it is telling that he hasn’t proceeded in the manner of Henry James, who dedicated his final stretch to assembling his corpus into the New York Edition, rephrasing whole sentences, if not just rearranging the commas he had strewn them with half a century previously. It is as if Roth doesn’t think it makes much difference that Our Gang, his humourless Nixon pastiche, and The Great American Novel, his fussy and precious baseball picaresque, are still available as they were written. Or maybe, after more than four decades in analysis, he has resigned himself to their flaws, or even thinks they are perfect and deserve to be shelved alongside his best: The Counterlife, Operation Shylock, Sabbath’s Theater and American Pastoral.

But then Roth’s tendency has never been to withhold, rather to explain, or revise by explanation, and it is ironic that the same technique that unifies his oeuvre has the opposite effect on its criticism: to Pierpont, Letting Go is about the influence of James, Thomas Wolfe, the stultifying 50s, and “not letting go”; When She Was Good is about the influence of Sherwood Anderson, Dreiser, the stultifying 50s, and Roth’s first wife Margaret Martinson, who faked a pregnancy, faked an abortion, took Roth’s money in a divorce and promptly killed herself (though Pierpont insists that her fullest character portrayal is as Maureen Tarnopol in My Life as a Man).

Roth’s second wife Claire Bloom is Eve in I Married a Communist and, wait for it, Claire in Deception; while the female actor in Zuckerman Unbound is a monster made of Bloom, Edna O’Brien, and Jackie O, whom Roth once dated (kissing her was like “kissing a billboard”). Establishing biographical correspondences is a pleasant way to wait out the clock, but it will never pass for serious criticism. Still, with each of Pierpont’s chapters centred on a certain book, pure fun salaciousness just isn’t feasible. The result is that Roth’s life between publications is mostly ignored, and the most obvious lacuna is the fact that in 2012 Roth authorised an official biography, to be written by Blake Bailey, whose prior subjects – John Cheever and Richard Yates – had been too dead to refuse the honour, or meddle.

This suggests that Roth Unbound might be even more than its breathless publicity promises; indeed, it might be Roth’s most virtuoso stunt. Imagine Roth approaching his 80th birthday laden with awards and honorary degrees, globally translated, universally read, his talent having triumphed over every adversity: mental breakdown, heart ailment, rabbinic orthodoxy, feminism. As an artist who has always thrived on transgression, he must have discerned his mortality in the sense that there was no opposition left for him to outlast. Once again, he would have to invent one, a persecution not romantic or erotic this time, but ultimate enough to flirt with the posthumous, and so he granted access to a biographer, and pretended to retire.

Predictably, the oppressive prospect of having a stranger narrate his life invigorated Roth, and had him reasserting the pre-eminence of his work, by ghostwriting a study of it. The slackness of the prose, then, must be attributed not to Roth’s senescence, but to the demands of writing under an assumed identity. Unable to bear not receiving credit for this feat, and for having concluded his career in the voice of a sympathetic female, Roth chose a pseudonym – “Claudia Roth Pierpont” – just foolish enough to betray the truth. Roth, it seems, is back, and once again he is begging to be punished.

Malaysia’s Political Outlook 2014: Key Challenges Facing Najib

December 26, 2013

RSIS No. 236/2013 dated 26 December 2013

Malaysia’s Political Outlook 2014: Key Challenges Facing Najib

by Yang Razali Kassim


Prime Minister Najib Razak’s top-most concern in the new year is not just UMNO’s dominance but also its very survival. Signals from the recent party general assembly point to a three-pronged strategy to achieve this aim.


Rosmah and NajibMALAYSIAN PRIME Minister Najib Razak approaches 2014 with one big worry on his mind: how to win – decisively – the next general election (GE) that has to be called by 2018. The last one seven months ago on May 5 saw his ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition making its worst showing since 1969: despite winning the majority of seats, BN lost the popular vote to the opposition alliance led by Anwar Ibrahim.

As the new year begins, the big signal from Najib is that “1Malaysia” will probably have to be set aside as an electoral strategy. This is significant as it could mean that his vision of a unified, cohesive and inclusive plural society that was much touted in the 2013 GE – is as good as cast to the backburner.

Najib’s conservative swing

At the recent general assembly of UMNO, the anchor party of the multi-racial BN coalition, 1Malaysia was hardly mentioned in Najib’s keynote speech. Yet when resolutions were debated, one delegate sought to kill the whole idea, calling for 1Malaysia to be replaced by “1Melayu” – or 1Malay, referring to the majority community that UMNO represents.

Najib did not respond in defence of 1Malaysia. Instead his entire rhetoric during the assembly was primarily about advancing the Malay and Muslim agenda – signifying a major refocusing on this core constituency as UMNO gears up early for the 14th GE.

Unchallenged as president in party elections prior to the assembly, Najib has one TDMeye on his own political survival. The still influential former Prime Mnister Mahathir Mohamad has been uneasy about the BN’s worst showing at the May 5 polls and may want to ease Najib out, just as he did to Najib’s predecessor Abdullah Badawi. As his popularity dips due to some economic belt-tightening policies expected in the new year, Najib’s swing to appease the UMNO conservatives is not surprising.

Party hardliners are convinced that the multi-ethnic BN’s political survival rests increasingly with UMNO, whose survival in turn rests on the Malay constituency, which is synonymously Muslim. While 1Malaysia was designed to embrace all the races, its failure to attract the non-Malays, especially the ethnic Chinese, at the last

GE has weakened Najib’s hand.

The conservative faction’s argument is this: Forget about winning over the non-Malay vote and focus on expanding the Malay/Muslim ground. UMNO is strong enough to stand on its own; while the BN coalition won 133 seats overall in GE13, UMNO alone, as its anchor, won the most seats with 88 – even more than any of the opposition parties, whose combined tally of 89 seats was just one more than UMNO’s. In other words, it is UMNO that will remain the backbone of the political system. Thus Malay political power will be pivotal to the country – from political stability and security to economic progress and development.

UMNO’s three-pronged strategy towards GE14

This conservative logic formed the bedrock of the “back to basics” strategy that was spelt out by Najib, whose speech was themed “Fortifying the Future”. Going forward, UMNO will pursue three strategic thrusts – or what Najib called the “three messages from the assembly”: The first is a turn towards Islamic Shariah; the second is a stronger Malay and bumiputra agenda, for which, he said, UMNO need not be apologetic; and the third a “transformed UMNO” as a “party of the 21st century”. It is significant that UMNO as the “party of the future” will become not just more Malay, but Islamist at the same time.

Becoming more Islamist for a Malay-nationalist party like UMNO is an equally significant shift. Ideologically-driven Islamist parties actually find ethno-nationalism objectionable. UMNO clearly is positioning itself as the primary political vehicle for the Malay and Muslim constituency, thus raising the prospects of an all-out contest for power with the opposition Islamist PAS, even as UMNO – paradoxically – woos PAS for unity talks.

Umno's embelmUMNO’s drift towards a more Islamist identity was marked by a highly controversial drive to pitch itself as the defender of Sunni Islam in the face of what it paints as the growing threat of Shiism in the country. The federal constitution would be reworded to define the official religion as “Islam Sunnah Wal Jamaah” or Sunni Islam, not simply Islam. That this move is partly politically-motivated is seen in the immediate targeting of the PAS deputy leader as a closet Shia and therefore a threat.

The second thrust of a greater push for the Malay and bumiputra agenda is clearly aimed at solidifying the Peninsular-East Malaysia axis around the Malay core. Najib conceded the crucial role of the “fixed deposit” states of Sabah and Sarawak in BN’s ultimate win in the last GE. As many see it, if not for these two states, there would have been a change of government in Malaysia. With Najib’s renewed emphasis on the Malay and bumiputra agenda, the New Economic Policy that officially ended in 1990 but was unofficially continued, has finally been resurrected in all but name. CEOs of all government-linked companies have been given KPIs to realise this goal on pain of seeing their contracts not renewed.

To complete the three-pronged strategy, UMNO will go all out to win the young voters. In the next GE, some six million new voters will be casting for the first time. The majority are likely to be anti-establishment and anti-UMNO. They could make a difference whether there will finally be a change of government or not in GE14. No wonder Najib made it clear: UMNO must win over the young voters and master the social media with which the young are savvy.


UMNO’s eagerness to recover its eroded political ground has seen it responding in unexpected ways, with implications yet to be fully fathomed. Its readiness to march to its own drumbeat is a warning to friend and foe alike that the rules of the game will be set by UMNO alone.

To its ethnic-based political allies in BN, which are facing their own internal crises, the message is that the BN power-sharing system will be on UMNO’s terms. To the opposition, the message is clear: whoever controls the Malay and Muslim ground will control power – and it is not going to be the opposition, which is not homogenous ethnically and ideologically.

UMNO is desperate to win. Going forward, all communities will be forced to ponder what this means for them and the country.

Yang Razali Kassim is a Senior Fellow at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

Book Review: ‘To the Letter,’ by Simon Garfield

December 1, 2013


Kind Regards

‘To the Letter,’ by Simon Garfield

by Carmela Ciuraru (11-29-13)

Once there were letters: handwritten, typewritten, carefully crafted, dashed off, profound or mundane, tinged with expectancy. Correspondence required waiting. “I need you more and more, and the great world grows wider, and dear ones fewer and fewer, every day that you stay away,” Emily Dickinson wrote to her future sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert, in 1852. Were they alive today, would Dickinson and Gilbert merely G-chat?

on the map simon garfieldSimon Garfield (above) might think so. His latest book, “To the Letter,” is a nostalgic and fretful look at the “lost art” of letter writing. “A world without letters would surely be a world without oxygen,” he declares, noting that his book confronts this possibility. It’s tempting to laugh nervously and say, “Why so ominous?” But then again, OMG, maybe he’s got a point. A certain artfulness has surely been lost as emoticons and Snapchats take over as modes of expression.

For the most part, Garfield — a British journalist whose previous books include studies of fonts and mapmaking — steers clear of contrasting the virtues of pen and paper with the sins of email and text messages. But sometimes he can’t help himself. He writes, for instance, that emails are “a poke,” and letters “a caress.” A strange analogy, to be sure, and anyone who has agonized over a lengthy, emotional email to a friend, lover or family member might disagree.

He also claims that the last letter “will appear in our lifetime,” and that we will not notice the passing of this final missive until it’s too late — “like the last hair to whiten, or the last lovemaking.” Such weird rhetorical turns are, thankfully, few and far between.

‘To the Letter,’ by Simon GarfieldGarfield’s book is stuffed with marvelous anecdotes, fascinating historical tidbits and excerpts from epistolary masters both ancient (Cicero, Seneca) and modern (Woolf, Hemingway). By the late 19th century, the “letter-writing manual” had itself become a thriving literary genre. Lewis Carroll contributed some prescriptive advice in the booklet “Eight or Nine Wise Words About Letter-Writing”: “If your correspondent makes a severe remark, either ignore it or soften your response; if your friend is friendly, make your reply ever friendlier.”

It’s wonderful to learn about the iPads of ancient Rome — thin wooden writing tablets sliced from alder, birch and oak — and to stumble on this delightful closing phrase of a letter dating to the third century A.D.: “Remember my pigeons.” Or to encounter an exasperated Erasmus, chiding his brother for not having written back: “I believe it would be easier to get blood from a stone than coax a letter out of you!”

The letters of Marcus Aurelius reveal not a would-be Roman emperor but a lovesick youth pining for his teacher. “I am dying so for love of you,” Aurelius writes, to which his tutor replies, “You have made me dazed and thunder­struck by your burning love.”

Throughout, Garfield uncovers start­ling examples of lust (“I think of your breasts more than is good for me,” a British soldier writes to his sweetheart), intimacy and suffering. Some of the most poignant letters expose the private anguish of writers and poets. The correspondence between Leonard Woolf and Vita Sackville-­West, in the aftermath of Virginia Woolf’s suicide, is devastating for what cannot be expressed.

Despite Garfield’s alarmist stance, it seems premature to assume that letters will go the way of the woolly mammoth. After all, the death knell has been sounded since at least the invention of the telephone. In any case, his epistolary ardor proves infectious, as he reminds us of the pleasures of composing letters without password protection or “send” buttons, those secured in dusty bureaus rather than “in the cloud.”

One of the letter’s strongest defenses comes from Katherine Mansfield, who in a tender note to a friend conveys beautifully, and succinctly, what the form at its best can achieve. “This is not a letter,” she writes, “but my arms around you for a brief moment.”

Carmela Ciuraru is the author of “Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms.”

Proficiency in English Language and Nationalism

November 25, 2013

Proficiency in English Language and Nationalism

by BA Hamzah and Din Merican

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. …–.George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”, 1946

BA HamzahWe spent endless hours together debating the English language issue and are  extremely concerned that many Malaysians still question the importance of English in this era of science, Google and globalization.

As our nation strives to achieve the status of a developed country envisaged in Vision 2020 (1989 document), we need to be more rational and stop making excuses in the name of pseudo-nationalism, or as the Malays put it menegak benang yang basah (to stand a wet thread). We must accept the reality that we live in globalised world and English is the global language. Don’t believe us, just ask the Chinese, Japanese and South Koreans.

English proficiency in Malaysia has reached a critical level that it can undermine the well-being and international prestige of our country. Failure to deal realistically with this matter is a real tragedy. We could end up spending billions of ringgit more in consulting fees to have foreign consultants negotiate for us, prepare our policy and research papers and speak at international conferences on our behalf.

George Orwell is right

We are reminded of the essence of George Orwell’s masterpiece “Politics and the English Language”, written in 1946. The author of 1984, Animal Farm, Homage to Catalonia and other fine works had chastised many of his contemporaries who abused (by politicising) the modern English language, most evident in their political writings.

In a slightly different context, since 1971, politics has also undermined with the wider use of English in Malaysia after the Barisan Nasional Government downgraded the use of English.

Historically, the decline of English in our country can be traced to the Razak Report in 1956, which recommended Malay as the medium of instruction. Had our political masters adopted the recommendations of an earlier Barnes Report (1951) to use Malay in primary schools and English for secondary and tertiary education, we could have avoided the current embarrassment.

George Orwell once wrote, “in our time, political speech andGeorge Orwell writing are largely the defense of the indefensible”. Does not this sound familiar in our current setting? Orwell further noted in his essay “the great enemy of clear language is insincerity”. Of course, he was not only complaining about the insincerity in the use of grammar but also insincerity in the general sense of the word

We sense an element of fear and insincerity among many, especially Malay politicians, in Malaysia when it comes to English. Rather than acknowledge its usefulness in almost every sector of human endeavor, they use English as a bogey to accuse those with a different view of English as being anti-national, and worse still anti-Malay. In such a hostile environment, it is impossible to conduct a rational debate.

Some politicians worry about losing Malay votes if they were to embrace English. Nothing could be far from the truth because English has never featured as a prominent issue in the last thirteen general elections.

There is a sense of contradiction and double standard too. Among the most vocal critics of English are those who have benefited greatly from an English education, whose offsprings attend private English schools abroad and locally. They seem to do it on purpose: to perpetuate their own political survival and to deny the others, the majority who cannot afford an expensive English education, the rite of passage. This is a classic case of using the pedagogy to suppress the poor, mainly Malays.

As an open economy that is highly dependent on international trade and the services sector, Malaysia can benefit from a work force that has a strong command of English, a critical advantage in a competitive world.

Studies have shown that proficiency in English is critical to international trade, diplomacy, foreign investment and understanding of science and technology. English is the language of the industry, to cite Tun Dr Mahathir. It is key in attracting foreign investment and international tourists.

Malay Language Champions are self-serving

The corporate world relies heavily on English for their networking and advancement. Top and middle management in PETRONAS and Sime Darby, for example, conduct their business deals in English. To progress the nation has adopted science and technology, relied on foreign investment and international trade for its well-being, for example.

If the Malay language champions and other critics are sincerely concerned with the well-being of the nation,they should be less self-serving, more open-minded and supportive of any policy to reintroduce English, crucial for the development of science and technology, promotion of trade and foreign investment.

Real nationalists would do everything to promote the national well-being. Like it or not, the destiny of this nation is tied closely with good governance which provides the objective conditions for greater economic productivity and higher economic growth trajectory; since the Asian financial crisis (1997-1998), economic growth in Malaysia has not recovered fully from its nosedive. Whether a more robust economic recovery could have been achieved with higher English proficiency is debatable, there are studies, which correlate proficiency in English with economic development.

Corporate World needs English Language proficient workers

According to a survey conducted by The Economist Intelligence (2012), 70 per cent of the executives said they need English to expand their corporate vision and more than fifty per cent of the work force need to be proficient in English. According to another report workers with very good command of the English language tend to garner 30-50% higher salaries than “similarly qualified candidates without English knowledge.”

The same study shows a positive relationship between employability and English proficiency, worldwide. Statistics (2011) show that more than forty- thousand Malaysian graduates from public Universities with low proficiency in English find it difficult, year in and year out, to get jobs in the private sector. Their lack of employability puts a drag on the country’s economic trajectory.

The strong correlation between gross national income and proficiency in English is now an accepted mantra. Many maintain that the correlation between English proficiency and gross national income is a virtuous cycle, each mutually reinforcing each other. According to one study, proficiency in English can increase job employability and better salaries. It can also remove some of the accumulated deficits in education affecting students, especially those in the rural areas with limited access to English education.

English proficiency can level the uneven playing fields and close the income gaps between the ethnic groups in this country. Admittedly, language can be emotive as it is cultural specific. However, here we are talking of a productive language and at no time, anybody has even suggested that it should replace or supplant the national language. Today is English as it was Latin in the era of the Roman Republic and early years of the Roman Empire.

Move with the Times

We must move with the times. If Malay has been the lingua franca for science, trade, technology and diplomacy, for instance, the entire world will gravitate to our shores learning our language. Unfortunately, this has yet to happen. While we have raised the standard of teaching and proficiency in Malay, we still lack behind in the number of textbooks on science, technology and public policies written by locals. Until we have our own references, lecturers have to rely on references in English language to conduct advanced research and for knowledge. This requires proficiency in English.

Some take solace in countries that have done very well without English. The comparison with the Netherlands, Germany and the Nordic countries, to mention just some, is misplaced, like comparing oranges with apples. Contrary to some perception, the standard of English proficiency in these countries is very high. They benefit from proper teaching of English where grammar and literature are emphasized. It will be a long way, if we continue on this trajectory, before we can achieve their status. At one time, we had this advantage but we squandered it in the name of pseudo nationalism, which many have we now regretted.

Our failure not to empower English for knowledge will put Malaysia at a disadvantage in almost all fields of mainstream human interaction.

One immediate remedial action is to acknowledge the positive role of English, for example, in nation-building, economic well-being and diplomacy. The Government of the day should reinforce the acknowledgement by reviving English schools in all districts as a matter of urgency. Give the rakyat a choice by leveling the playing field. They deserve equal opportunity to advance themselves intellectually.

Din MericanXUnder the current arrangement, only the children of the elite will have access to English schools, mostly in urban areas. Those who live in the rural areas are likely to suffer most from the policy of downgrading the use of English. It is unfortunate that the poor Malays have become the victims of UMNO-dominated Government policies.

What Happened to Our Education after 56 (50?) Years of Independence?

September 9, 2013

What Happened to Our Education after 56 (50?) Years of Independence?

September 09, 2013
Latest Update: September 09, 2013 10:37 am

“The whole art of teaching is only the art of awakening the natural curiosity of the mind for the purpose of satisfying it afterwards.” Anatole France.

malaysia-at-50-Malaysia-Day_129_100_100I grew up listening to many stories of how wonderful an experience of going to school in the early years following the declaration of Independence in the year 1957. Irrespective of your differences, everyone sort of bonded together during their school years.

Picnics at the park during the weekend with your schoolmates, regardless of religious and racial creed, was the norm back then. In fact, in the words of my now deceased grandmother, “It would mean the end of the world for me if I didn’t go to the park with my friends.” Such was the bond they had back then.

Politicians messing up with our education system !
Politicians messing up with our education system !

But, I aim to not discuss the strong social bonds that exist back then but instead I want to talk about the learning experience of the yesteryears. More precisely, the freedom of thought and the soul of the education experience that they went through.

As I grew up, I have this habit of talking to people and asking them what it was like learning and being educated in the early 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s. I liken this exercise as my time-travel machine, getting insights and stories from various people, since I was born in an era where some believe was the beginning of the decline of Malaysia’s intellectual progress.

In summarising all these experiences, I arrived at the conclusion (at this point I hear someone disagreeing with me on scientific grounds of my methods) that they were all learning and being educated in an environment that not only encourages questioning but also indulges curiosity and freedom of thought.

Not only was I convinced that the conclusions I made were one of the primary drivers of excellence, I believe wholeheartedly that the aforementioned environment sets these individuals up for greater success in the coming years of their lives.

A businessman I met in my secondary years in school said this to me, “Back then, we pride ourselves in asking tough questions in class and the teachers will reward us accordingly, even when we ask the most menial of questions, such as why do we have to learn in school, why can’t we just play all day?”

Swat TeamOn this one, we all can be smart

Until today, I remain regaled by stories from the glory days of yesteryears. I went through a different learning experience altogether compared with the uncles and aunties that I hear stories from. I, like most of my peers today, went through the daily Sekolah Kebangsaan and Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan in our bid to realise our dreams.

I started my schooling years believing in the fact that this was the place where all my questions will be answered, a place where I could begin the long and arduous journey of realising my dreams and achieving my full potential, after all at the back of my first exercise book; there it was the National Education Philosophy that reads:

“Pendidikan di Malaysia adalah satu usaha berterusan ke arah lebih memperkembangkan potensi individu secara menyeluruh dan bersepadu untuk melahirkan insan yang seimbang dan harmonis dari segi intelek, rohani, emosi dan jasmani berdasarkan kepatuhan dan kepercayaan kepada Tuhan. Usaha ini adalah bertujuan untuk melahirkan warganegara Malaysia yang berilmu pengetahuan, berketrampilan, berakhlak mulia, bertanggungjawab dan berkeupayaan mencapai kesejahteraan diri serta memberikan sumbangan terhadap keharmonian dan kemakmuran keluarga, masyarakat dan Negara.”

mahathir baruAsk Him Coz he should know

Surely, an important piece to realise, if not the fundamental guidelines of this philosophy is to promote and nurture the sense of curiosity. In addition, an environment that supports curiosity and allow for questions to be asked goes a long way in creating critical-thinking among students, who undoubtedly will be an important asset to this country.

Boy, was I in for a rude awakening. At the age of 10, I was made to sit outside the classroom as a result of me asking the teacher how does scolding students in public help achieve the National Education Philosophy. Curiosity wasn’t a welcome guest when I went through school, and today it is still not welcomed in classroom.

Why are we doing this to ourselves and, more importantly, to the future generation of my beloved nation?

Deaf EarsThat’s What we Have become!

Fifty years on since the inception of Malaysia, curiosity has gone from a celebrated trait to a trait no one cares about. Let us change this Malaysia. We can start by encouraging and allowing our kids to ask questions and not punish them for doing so.For a better Malaysia. – September 9, 2013.

* Rahman Hussin runs Akademi Belia.

Tribute to Seamus Heaney: Bard of Tradition and Modernity

September 2, 2013

Tribute to Seamus Heaney: Bard of Tradition and Modernity


Seamus Heaney (pic above), who has died aged 74, was widely regarded as the greatest Irish poet since William Butler Yeats, who like Heaney was a recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Born and raised in Northern Ireland, Heaney was renowned for his mastery of Irish and Gaelic sources, as well as Old English, the Anglo-Saxon tongue from which he translated in 1999 a much-praised version of the medieval epic “Beowulf”.

Although wary of being compared to Yeats – who died in 1939, the year Heaney was born – he acknowledged his kinship with a compatriot who also dug deep into ancient Irish traditions while reflecting his country’s modern conflicts.

Seamus Heaney was born on April 13, 1939 into a Catholic farming family in County Derry, Northern Ireland.

His father was a farmer, while his mother’s family had been workers in the local linen industry. The eldest of nine children, Seamus grew up on the family farm of Mossbawm, before becoming a boarder at St Columb’s College in the city of Derry, where he studied both Latin and Gaelic.

He went on to take English language and literature at Queen’s University in Belfast, which became his home until 1972 and where he came under the influence of the British writer and teacher Philip Hobsbaum, who helped confirm his vocation as a poet.

His first published work was “Eleven Poems” in 1965, the year in which he married Marie Devlin, a fellow writer about whom he penned some of his finest poems and with whom he had two sons and a daughter.

Other collections include “Death of a Naturalist” (1966), “Door into the Dark” (1969), “North” (1975), “The Haw Lantern” (1987), “Seeing Things” (1991), “The Spirit Level” (1996) and “District and Circle” (2006). In 1972, at the height of the violence involving British troops and Catholic and Protestant paramilitaries over Northern Ireland’s status, Heaney moved to Dublin, which was to be his home base for the rest of his life.

After a spell devoted only to writing, he resumed teaching activities in 1975, speaking as a guest lecturer in US universities and in Britain.

Between 1989 and 1994 he held the coveted post of Professor of Poetry at England’s prestigious Oxford University. The following year he became the fourth Irish writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, the three others having been Yeats (1923), George Bernard Shaw (1925) and Samuel Beckett (1969).

In March 2009, Heaney was awarded the £40,000 ($62,000, 47,000-euro) David Cohen Prize for Literature for his lifetime of work.

“For the last 40-odd years, Heaney’s poems have crystallised the story of our times, in language which has bravely and memorably continued to extend its imaginative reach,” said Andrew Motion, Britain’s then-poet laureate and the chairman of the judges.

“At the same time, his critical writing, his translations and his lecturing have invigorated the whole wider world of poetry.” In 2003 the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry was opened at Queen’s University, housing a unique record of Heaney’s entire works. – AFP/Relaxnews/The Malaysian Insider, September 2, 2013.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,959 other followers