Archive for October, 2012




Malay and English, a two-step dance

Published in The Sun 29 October 2012

THE emplacement of Bahasa Malaysia as the national language and medium of instruction in national schools has seen its steady growth as the language of official and academic communication. In this the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) has played an outstanding role in standardising the linguistic structures of the language viz its syntax, morphology, phonetics and phonology, as well as coordinating its vocabulary viz semantics, lexicology and terminology. Through its various divisions, boards and councils, the DBP has ensured that Bahasa Melayu has grown from its role as the lingua franca in pre-independence Malaya to being a veritable modern language with formal systems, structures and rules to govern its use. Malaysians now communicate well formally and informally in the national language.

It is inevitable that the growth of a language, especially one with a large community of users who use the language for different purposes, will produce regional dialects and socio-cultural varieties each with its own registers and conventions. It is thus important to understand the role of the DBP in monitoring the standard variety of Bahasa Malaysia and ensuring that its development upholds the most sound linguistic principles and theories as well as the most urgent national needs and aspirations. Malaysians should feel secure in the knowledge that the national language is now firmly entrenched in the nation’s development. The people must continue to support it as it is poised for a second spurt of growth.

In the second half century of Malaysia’s development when the country is committed to becoming a global player in technology and innovation, commerce and industry, there has to be a firm commitment to a national education system where English, the global language, is positioned as the natural complement to Bahasa Malaysia, the national language. The discourse on education has seen countless cries for the reinstatement of English as a strong second language for Malaysians to acquire knowledge and skills. There’s no doubt that English will equip the nation’s young with better prospects for employment, both locally and internationally. So why are we playing the waiting game?

What the country urgently needs to move forward is a transforming bilingual education system supported by a sound Bilingual Education Philosophy/ Policy that governs teaching and learning in the public schools. To circumvent the continuous bargaining between the country’s three major ethnic groups in their bid to assume linguistic and cultural superiority, the English language must resurface as a peace and pacemaker. Whether they study in the sekolah kebangsaan or sekolah jenis kebangsaan, Malaysian students must be equalised in getting the same access to English.

The most effective way of integrating the various streams entrenched in the national education system is to have a clear philosophy/policy statement on bilingualism where English can be used to unite the schools, teachers and students who are growing further apart as they operate within their own linguistic and cultural silos. If Bahasa Malaysia is positioned as the language which fosters national integration, English can be positioned as the language which promotes national and international networking for pragmatic purposes.

To be seriously implemented on the ground, bilingualism must manifest itself in a clear philosophy/policy statement such as:

“The national education system upholds and promotes bilingualism (Malay and English) in the curriculum of national schools and higher institutions of learning in order to produce students who will acquire knowledge and skills through their mastery of both languages. Malaysians who go through the national education system will enter the employment market with a high level of proficiency in both languages, where Malay will optimise their work and career opportunities at the local level, and English at the global level.”

The teaching and learning of the English language in schools must be structured to produce a higher level of proficiency through the following:

» Transformations in teaching and learning methodologies with the use of computer-aided learning, language labs and tapes to provide opportunities for immersion into the language to circumvent the problem of poor teacher quality.

» Exposure to English in the curriculum must be increased by making English the language of instruction for subjects such as Moral Education and Civics.

» English reading and references should be incorporated for the subjects taught in Malay, Chinese and Tamil to enable teachers and students to operate in both languages.

» Literature/Reading should be formally incorporated into the greater English language curriculum.

In coming up with the Education Blueprint, the government has taken a giant step forward in formulating an expansive set of proposals to transform the national education system. All these must be scrutinised with the greatest care to ensure the resources are properly used to produce the greatest results. If the democratisation of education and the equalising of educational opportunities, facilities and infrastructure for Malaysians is the outstanding battle cry, this must be formalised in a well-stated educational philosophy and policy. It is time for bilingualism to take on this role.





Published in The Sun 14 October 2012

VERY few of us can profess to be scrupulously clean in all senses of the word – physical, ethical or moral. In one way or another, we’ve had to compromise our integrity however we choose to define the concept. Yes, few among us are saints who can claim to be whiter than white.

For most, there might have been instances in our lives when we could not walk the straight and narrow; there would have been occasions when we told a white lie or slanted an argument to preserve peace and harmony in the home or workplace. They say every man or woman has a price, that is humans are corruptible, if not in their bodies at least in their minds and hearts.

People perceive something as the truth and will swear they have spoken the truth and nothing but the truth, but even in a court of law we know that this is open to interpretation. We may lay out the bare facts and evidence but their validity is interpretable by judges, lawyers and laymen alike. Beyond reasonable doubt may be determined by legal minds but the truth beyond all doubts is the prerogative of the Almighty alone.

As succinctly expounded in one theory of communication and cognition – Relevance (Sperber & Wilson 1986) – the human mind has the greatest capacity for interpreting the information it receives from the immediate context against the huge knowledge repertoire embedded in its recesses. The more information and knowledge it has, the more the potential for interpretation as it tries to make sense or cognise, often selecting a particular line of logic or reasoning. Even pure sensory input is interpreted, hence “corrupted” by the mind.

An explanation in cognitive terms is that whether the mind processes information in real or delayed time, it is selective and foregrounds the interpretation that is most relevant to it, which will provide it with the most relevant meanings and implications.

On the communicators’ side, they can wilfully select what they think are relevant and articulate it convincingly as the “truth”. Among the professionals, lawyers take this mental versatility seriously, making it their business to interpret the law in pursuit of their client’s interests. Some, as we know, have literally gotten away with murder. Ordinary people are more susceptible to their personal perceptions and will argue for them, however skewed the arguments may seem to others.

Simply put, faced with the vicissitude of life’s demands and the multitude of variables in society, the potential for self-interpretation is tremendous and more often than not overwhelms the search for fairer and more objective “truths”, if not absolute truth. These days everyone seems to have an opinion about what they consider as the truth, and the opinionated among them sometimes succeed in brandishing it as God’s truth.

For instance, interpretations of what constitute societal corruption are as many as there are crimes against society. Many consider accepting bribes as a despicable crime of corruption that has far-reaching implications for society. They demand that the offenders be tried for their crimes and meted out due punishment.

The outcry is for the “big fish” in the public and private sectors to be caught and made examples of, so that their smaller fishy subordinates in the organisation will not commit similar acts. The oft-quoted case is where low-ranking police constables audaciously admit to taking bribes because they say their superiors right up the ranks are accepting bigger “ang pows” from the underworld.

Fair and logical reasoning provides another interpretation of bribery – that there cannot be takers if there are no givers in the first place, so people who offer bribes must be as liable to prosecution as those who accept them, no matter which party initiates the transaction.

The answers to the question of who is to blame and who is responsible in the war against corruption must be prioritised lest it be turned into another vicious circle of finger-pointing. The big fish who takes huge bites of the bribery bait must be as relentlessly pursued as the little ones enjoying the smaller bites. The abuse of power by government officials and those they do business with at the expense of public interest must be seen as societal corruption of the highest order.

Honesty, uprightness, ethics and morality are among the virtues explicated in all religions and they must be prioritised over and above material development. It is the responsibility of every Malaysian to imbue these values in their lives at home, in the organisation and among the community.

Don’t just point fingers at the authorities when things go awry or when corruption becomes rampant in the nation. Ask yourself who really are to blame; who are the real offenders? The anti-corruption war will succeed only if you are prepared to walk the straight and narrow and fight corruption. This is an interpretation of one societal “truth” that must be taken seriously.




Published in The Sun 1 October 2012

RECENT interactions – faceless and face to face, real and surreal – have confirmed my thoughts about the human predicament. At its roots, our spiritual undertakings are common and universal as urged in our religions. In our lives we seek love and appreciation, desire peace and contentment, and want to share goodness with others. We are grateful for the blessings and pray for a better life. This is the human predicament at its most virtual.

Yet, because of the inherent inequalities in the human lot – yes, the Almighty did not make the world equal and equitable – all is not well. We see unhappiness and discontentment, envy and rivalry, frustrations and despair, ingratitude and hatred in the unequal home, workplace and society at large. All is not fair or just in the real world.

Looking at the traits (verbal and behavioural) of my fellow Malaysians, I draw the conclusion that they are no better or no worse than people in other parts of the world. Societies everywhere are in a state of flux and people are clamouring for change in a bid for a better life and a more equitable society. They strive and struggle to be more equal and to partake of the opportunities that society seems to have aplenty. To many people, it seems as though there’s nothing to be grateful for or to appreciate as they increasingly feel poorer while their rich countrymen get richer. Sadly, this is also the vicious cycle of human inequality.

However, in the bid to transform there is a major difference, viz the history and context of each nation’s struggles are different. For instance, our young Malaysian nation has gone through a peaceful and peaceable progression to grow from strength to strength in the first half century of its life. Yes, there have been hiccups and storms in teacups but we have overcome them rationally and reasonably, always with the people’s interest at heart. Successive developments have taken into consideration the nature of the society, its people and their communities and their ever-changing paradigms. If there is one thing that Malaysia cannot be accused of, it is that its regimes have been autocratic or tyrannical, ignoring the needs of its citizens.

Looking around at our impressive infrastructural developments, I cannot help but appreciate the bounties that Malaysia has been blessed with, inspired by the Almighty but built with the dedication and hard work of the people.

Looking into the thriving business and commercial life of the nation, I’m appreciative of the systems and structures that have been painstakingly put into place by the country’s workers at every level.

Looking at the service and hospitality industry, I acknowledge with appreciation that they have grown by leaps and bounds in the last 50 years. Experts in these areas will no doubt detect and point out the failings and shortcomings. This is for them to find solutions to for the people.

However, looking at the much-maligned national education system, a lot more wisdom has to go into its basic philosophies and policies before Malaysians will be appeased. The formulators of the Education Blueprint have to be clear about the national education philosophy before worrying about its details. In this, I urge the government to walk the talk and come up with a clear policy/philosophy statement on bilingualism to the effect that:

“The national education system upholds and promotes bilingualism (Malay and English) in the curriculum of national schools and higher institutions of learning in order to produce students who will acquire knowledge and skills through their mastery of both languages. Malaysians who go through the national education system will enter the employment market with a high level of proficiency in both languages, where Malay will optimise their work and career opportunities at the local level, and English at the global level.”

Which now brings me to the matter of why Malaysians appear to be such a disgruntled and unappreciative lot. Going by some of the comments, especially in the alternative media and the internet, it seems as though the country has gone to the dogs and its masters – that is, the government has done no right. I would like to ascribe more worth to Malaysians by suggesting that they are indeed appreciative of the nation’s achievements. Denying this would be tantamount to being in self-denial as an individual or a member of a group.

However, people are now taking this as a given, a right to deserve as citizens who have toiled for the country. It is logical to think the government has a duty to give back to the people for what they have toiled and sweated to build. For the leaders to ask for gratitude from the people for the promises delivered therefore seems politically incorrect – and semantically inaccurate.

To me, between the two words “gratitude” and “appreciation” the former is loaded with a higher, subliminal meaning traceable to the Almighty. At the national level, we are grateful to God for bestowing Malaysia with peace and stability to enable the nation to achieve its many successes. At the personal level, we are grateful to God for giving us a good family and a decent life. We are also grateful to our parents for all they have done. To me, gratitude can never be a repayment but more of a heartfelt appreciation when the blessings far outweigh the shortcomings.

On the other hand, “appreciation” is a more pragmatic, worldly attitude measurable in the number of “thank yous” we say. It is measured in a quid pro quo way. We appreciate people and their deeds when the benefits accrue to us. We acknowledge the government’s efforts to change and transform the nation but we cannot appreciate them until we see the positive impacts on our lives.

My point is, we have to take cognizance of another inequality in the human predicament. Not every human is imbued with the higher order vibrations that inspire us to be grateful for God’s blessings. For those whose lives are fraught with poverty, deprivation, frustrations and simply the lack of opportunities for education and a decent livelihood; gratitude and appreciation are hard to come by.

For them, aid and benefits are what they deserve and what the government owes them. Don’t ask them to be grateful – please! Instead, encourage them to understand that cultivating appreciation can be powerful in transforming their lives. Showing them how to use this positively is more effective than asking them to be grateful.

October 2012