Archive for March, 2013





Published in The Sun 18 March 2013

CURRENT engagements with English language students and teachers in an international university reaffirm my view that regular use of the language – any language – is necessary to reinforce one’s proficiency.

Continuous reinforcement through reading and listening, speaking and writing is the key to raising one’s level of proficiency. Even at the highest levels of competency, consistent use of the language increases one’s communicative resources viz vocabulary, expression and discourse skills.

When asked how writing and speaking tasks are best managed, the mundane answer I often give is “preparation and practice”.

Nothing comes easy as I’ve learnt over the years as a student and teacher of English in the classroom, and now as a writer and speaker at more formal levels of discourse. Yes – no task is too mundane not to require the greatest attention to detail and in this, self-training and regular practice will up the ante in one’s language and communication skills.

For students in the classroom, drills are still the best method to hone the listening and speaking skills; regular practice in writing out phrasal collocations, sentences and paragraphs is the best way to consolidate their language use. In this there is no compromise.

That there is an inextricable link between language and communication is a tautology. The link, however, is so crucial to societal development that the truth of it has to be reiterated and reinforced in every aspect of our lives.

Language is at the nerve centre of human communication. Without basic competence in language, we are toothless tigers. With proficient and efficient language use we are empowered cats able to take giant leaps forward.

The role of language in effecting communication has long been touted by linguists and language educators. In every sphere of society, communication is essentially about how language functions to bring about certain effects or results in human endeavour, be it the academic pursuits of students or their leisure activities; social interaction or commercial transaction; legal argumentation or political rhetoric; religious sermon or media propaganda.

Effective linguistic communication in each of these fields ensures that some measure of success is achieved. Sometimes the success is tremendous.

Ideas and opinions couched in the most appropriate language viz choice of vocabulary and turns of phrases, logical structures, stress and emphasis, can move mountains.

Language use, like any other socio-cultural phenomena, is very much determined by conventions and rules of behaviour. Fairclough in Language and Power (1989) says that discourse is not only determined by social structure but has effects upon social structure and contributes to the achievement of social continuity or social change.

Just as economic advantage determines social class and power, linguistic agility in different discourses opens doors to the same power relationships. In fact, discourse is widely recognised as a place where “relations of power are actually exercised and enacted”.

Whether it’s in the face-to-face teacher/pupil talk or doctor/patient interaction, or the talking-down in political rhetoric or the one-way media discourse, control and power is exercised through their established patterns.

In the same way that there is overt power relations between communicators in face-to-face interactions, media discourse and political rhetoric designed for mass audiences who are largely anonymous, can be singled out as the language and communication arena where the exercise of power is tremendous.

One has only to listen to the speeches of certain politicians at home and abroad to realise the power of words. Leaders skilled in the art of rhetoric can hold sway over their audiences, influence their thinking and move them to do their bidding.

Those with the gift of the gab are likely to mesmerise their listeners, the most gullible being the semi-educated and under-exposed whose powers of discernment are untested.

At home, one has to observe the way some politicians condescendingly talk down to the people to realise that democracy and egalitarianism are still very much the slogans they tout rather than the principles they uphold.

The Malaysian people, on the other hand, need to be better trained in their listening skills. They must be able to pick out the substance from the mumbo-jumbo spewed by their leaders; they must see the wood through the trees and not be lost in the jungle of political rhetoric.

In this era of rapid communication where information can be accessed and assessed immediately, it is all the more urgent that people’s use of language is suited to the context.

While casual, informal communication or literary pursuits gives one the latitude to use language in creative ways, in formal situations one is convention-bound to exercise brevity.

Which means that before speaking or writing, one must be fully aware of the audience/readers and the level of their linguistic knowledge and skills so that the discourse is pitched at the right level. The audience/readers, on the other hand, should expect nothing less.




IT’S not easy for politicians to accept the fact that their time is up, that they are no longer relevant. A year in politics is sometimes too long, especially when your opponents are out to get you. So when you have to leave, do so with integrity, honour and dignity.

Tan Sri Dr Mohamed Said Mohamed was the first menteri besar of Negri Sembilan, serving the state for two terms from 1959 to 1969. He was not a career politician, but a doctor who was persuaded by Tun Abdul Razak Hussein to serve the country as a political front liner in the decade immediately after independence.

As a government doctor in Pahang, he had examined the 11-year-old Razak to declare him fit for entry into the Malay College Kuala Kangsar

The young pupil came back often to borrow books from the doctor, declaring that his ambition was to be an orator. They were to meet again in England in the late 1940s, where their camaraderie grew as Malayan compatriots in a foreign land.

Having grown up with disease and poverty in remote Kampung Linggi, and having worked with more of the same among rural Malays in Pahang, Selangor and Negri Sembilan, Dr Said saw politics as an extension of his service to the country.

As Tun Ahmad Sarji Hamid says in his book Given in Trust, for Dr Said, “it was conviction rather than power or prominence, which always prompted him to take particular decisions, including political ones”.

Indeed, it must have been conviction that led him to turn down the then prime minister’s offer of a cabinet post as minister of health.

In a personal note dated March 31, 1969, Tunku Abdul Rahman had written: “I have received the recommendation from our Election Committee to the effect that I should appoint you as a cabinet minister rather than allow you to stay in Negri Sembilan as menteri besar. There seems to be a lot of opposition to you there, that you have not done much for the party and that there should be a change in the leadership in the Negri Sembilan Umno as Negri is the only state in Malaysia where Umno possessed no building of its own as its headquarters.

“If you agree to stand for Parliament, I shall be only too happy to appoint you as a minister.”

In his reply dated April 1, 1969, Dr Said wrote: “After you were kind enough to meet the delegation of Negri Sembilan Umno, MCA and MIC members numbering more than 30 at 6pm yesterday, I have only to confirm in writing my decision not to stand for Parliament and, if successful, be made a minister.

“I am unable to express in words how sorry I am to decline your generous offer, but there is no other course open to me in view of the strong pressure from my constituents and the present MCA and MIC leadership to make me contest the Linggi state seat again.

“Besides, I must frankly admit that I have a distaste for a ministerial post and feel that I have no aptitude for it.”

As a daughter, it is not my place to sing my father’s praises. In fact, having researched his medical, political and administrative careers to write a biography, I have put the project aside not knowing how best to approach it.

Interviewing the people who knew and worked with him, I am happy to learn their impression of Dr Said is good. They remember him as a man of principles in his administrative and consultative roles, and as a politician who stood his ground against all forms of corruption and power abuse, including those of the royal house.

In the same book Ahmad Sarji says of Dr Said: “It brought me into an instructive association with a man of intellect and of the highest integrity.”

Perhaps, what I should do is to publish excerpts from his meti-culously kept diaries, letters and articles where he documented every event and incident of importance, where his impressions of the protagonists and antagonists are recorded for posterity.

What I must proudly admit is that my father was quite the Anglophile with words and manners, developed from a strong English education in Malay College Kuala Kangsar taught by the excellent English teachers of that era. But at heart, Dr Said was a true Malay gentleman who had the greatest respect for his friends and colleagues, subordinates and superiors, however and wherever they were placed in the social hierarchy.

Having had several run-ins with the Negri Sembilan royal house, he wrote the most respectful letter to the then Yang di-Pertuan Besar Negri Sembilan dated May 7, 1969: “Before vacating my post as menteri besar of Negri Sembilan, I am taking the liberty of addressing this farewell letter personally to your royal highness, and of asking your forgiveness in case I have displeased or offended your royal highness during the last two years…

“For the rest I vacate my post with a clear conscience…”

.Tan Sri Dr Mohamed Said Mohamed was the first elected menteri besar of Negri Sembilan

Read more: POLITICAL INTEGRITY: A truly towering Malaysian – Letters to the Editor – New Straits Times

March 2013