The English language has always been my primary and natural language. Whilst I can read, write and speak Malay with some fluency, the gulf in my command between the two was and remains great.
In English, I wield a scalpel, in Malay, I wield a butcher’s knife.
I squandered my chance in my youth to learn Cantonese from my mother and her side of the family. My rudimentary Cantonese language education left me with just enough ability to understand and hurl cheek-reddening insults. That and counting to ten.
My serial attempts to learn French can be summed up in this situation: I may be able to ask where the toilet is but I would not understand directions to its location. Why French? Because no matter how mundane my conversation is, I still sound sensual and sophisticated speaking it.
English is the primary language in my family. It is the dominant one on both sides of my extended family at get-togethers. Everybody on my father’s side of the family communicates in English. We converse in Malay every now and then or intersperse our conversation in English with Malay words, but by and large, we speak English. Everybody on my mother’s side of the family communicates in English as well as Malay and Cantonese.
We can communicate in Malay, but we are accustomed to communicating in English. I remember discovering a letter my father wrote in Malay. I was surprised at how well he wrote. It was as good as a letter as he wrote in English. Before that, I had never come across my father’s personal or business correspondence in Malay. Since I never saw it I naively assumed he wasn’t good at it. I later realized later that many of his contemporaries were like that – an equally strong command of both languages but with a preference for English, regardless of race.
I asked my father once why he preferred I learn English. He did not seem worried that my Malay lagged some distance behind my English. His response was:
“You live in Malaysia. You will pick up Malay. You cannot avoid it. You will inevitably improve. You will learn what you need to know. So I don’t worry. English on the other hand, is the lingua franca of the world. It is the language of commerce, technology, and knowledge. Much of the developments in those areas are reported and become accessible in English.”
“We will have access not just to the latest but also the past great works of literature. More books, articles and information are translated into English every day than into Malay. English gives us access to all these translated foreign materials as well. You are likelier to be able to communicate in foreign countries with English than Malay. Western popular culture is widespread and its primary language is English.”
“For us, as lawyers, Malaysia is part of the Commonwealth. The decisions and precedents from other Commonwealth countries are relevant to us. With English, we have access to the latest legal developments from Australia, Canada, Singapore, and Hong Kong, for example. I don’t think you can neglect English and be a good lawyer.”
“That’s why it is important that you are good at English. The better you are at it, the more information is accessible to you, the greater your opportunity for exposure and the better you can connect with other people. Also, English is essential to your work as a lawyer.”
It is therefore a tragic thing when pupils who studied law at local universities tell me they were dissuaded from communicating in English during their course. They were teased, mocked and shamed for speaking the ‘colonizer’s language’. Not just by their peers, but by their lecturers as well, even though the syllabus is supposed to be taught in English.
The tragedy lies in how as a result of that, neither gained competency with the language – the dissuader does not bother, the dissuaded is bothered not to care. It lies in how these law graduates become even less able and competent for legal practice when they arrive at its door. It lies in how their denigration and ignorance of English do not translate to competency in Malay.
Our race does not guarantee competency in our own supposed natural racial language.
In Malaysia, the issue of the primacy of the Malay language as a part of national identity always comes up every now and again. Are we less Malaysian because we speak English or some other language more than we do Malay? No. In fact, being able to communicate competently in other languages makes Malaysia and all things Malaysian more accessible to foreigners and other cultures.
Further, there are many things that go into being a Malaysian – where we live, what we eat, what we love, our attitudes, etc. – language is just one of them. To hinge our Malaysian identity on just one facet of our being is to diminish the notion of Malaysian as a whole. To demand all communications must be in Malay is to isolate ourselves from the globalized, technologized and socialized world.
So where then does the national language sit amidst this environment? For myself, even though it may not be primary – it is necessary. There is a difference. We may not use it, but we cannot not know it. We may not prefer it, but when called upon, we should be able to engage in it. A complete inability to communicate in Malay seriously diminishes our credentials to be Malaysian.
Being able to communicate in Malay, no matter how clumsily or crudely, is to me a necessary condition for being a Malaysian. After all, the word Malay takes up five letters of the word Malaysian.
We cannot escape that we need some Malay about us to be Malaysian.