English in decline, thanks to those who can’t compete
May 1, 2022 8:00 AM
It seems that the debate over Malay-versus-English for Malaysia has legs, and will continue for quite a while yet, or at least until all the English speakers have died, left the country, or decided to shut up, discretion being the better part of valour.
But I’m not dead yet, haven’t left the country (hoping one of which will be as late as possible, and the other one never), and they haven’t outlawed free debates and rants about the matter…in English anyway…yet.
Recently an Indonesian minister struck a blow at Malaysia’s ambition (and ego) to make Malay an official language of Asean. The minister claimed that if anything, it’s Bahasa Indonesia that deserves that recognition.
So far there hasn’t been any official response from our Malaysian leaders yet. Presumably they are still smarting from that pushback. But, as brilliantly observed by a local hack (me!) a while back…
There’ve been enough arguments made about the importance of English, as are the importance of STEM education, the digital world, entrepreneurship, clean government, civility, critical thinking, strong moral principles etc.
It’s just that I was educated in English from secondary school onwards, use it daily at work and other occasions, and would be incredibly hobbled without it because 99.9% of what I read or watch, whether books, movies, documentaries, journals or social posts, aren’t available in Malay.
The language helped me tremendously in my corporate career, as it allowed me to work with large global corporations and to travel and live abroad. The same applies to many other Malaysians, too.
I’ve suggested that Malaysia has two official languages, Malay and English. We can do what the Pakistanis did – have one national language, which in our case is Malay, and two official languages – Malay and English. Heck, Switzerland even has four official languages. It’s not impossible!
One of my previous employers set up an offshore centre in KL, creating thousands of jobs, partly because English was widely spoken here, as well as other Asian languages too.
Education as a great leveller
Our command of English as well as other languages has been instrumental in our country’s progress. Its decline is causing the decline of our attractiveness to foreign investors and the attractiveness of the country as a whole.
Our education system today denies many young people the chance to take on the world, a huge part of which requires a strong grasp of English. This robs them off meaningful careers except perhaps in the public sector, at menial jobs…or politics.
This perpetuates the divide between the well-off who can afford to educate their children in English (including many of the politicans who are bashing English) and the poor who can’t. The poor will be left even further behind.
Education as the great leveller is no longer an option for these unlucky people.
Why would our leaders let this happen? Wouldn’t good education be a key to our collective prosperity? Haven’t we seen how so much of our earlier success that made us an Asian Tiger was partly due to a well-educated English-speaking workforce?
Official: feudalism is back
But our society has changed! The feudal nature of our Malay society has resurfaced (its official!), and is noted by our political leaders (that’s official too!). Having a large but docile, unquestioning, timid Malay electorate is apparently good for your political ambitions.
To perpetuate this feudal culture, society must be dumbed down. Educate people enough, but not too much; make them functional enough to earn a living, but not too independent and challenging, and keep them busy with endless ritual piety.
And make it uncomfortable for those who could be formidable competitors for power and position. Force them to leave, preferably the country itself. Since these competitors generally have options, many did leave to take their talent elsewhere.
A key part of this effort is to focus inwardly and bury our heads in the sand. When things don’t go your way – change the rules. If you are not confident you’ll be able to compete and win in English, don’t work harder at it to improve, but demote English instead!
‘Bodoh sombong’ and ‘jaguh kampung’
Two forces are at play here: the mindset of “bodoh sombong” or arrogant, ignorant pride (see I told you how beautiful Malay is!) interacting with the “jaguh kampung” (another example!) or local hero mindset. The result, to describe it in beautiful Malaysian English, is havoc, man!
The louder and more heroic a leader is domestically, the more cowed and timid he or she is internationally. The bodek (another one!) culture locally gives them a false sense of superiority, which can barely hide the huge fear and insecurity beneath.
We live in a highly globalised world, among competing countries not hobbled by the jaguh kampung, bodoh sombong or bodek mindsets. We’ve seen how little respect Malaysia enjoys today, from the curt slap by the Indonesian minister to the poor welcome our leaders receive from other countries.
It’s painful to those of us who’ve benefited from good education to see the current versions of us – the poor youths of today – sinking ever deeper into mediocrity, numbing themselves with rituals and increasingly killing themselves in an insane manner on the road and elsewhere.
It’s a tragedy, and that’s the reason why some of us are seeing the deterioration in our grasp of English as being symbolic of the fall Malaysia is suffering, even while we invoke the future that could’ve been.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.