My command of English has always been far superior to my mastery of Malay. Perhaps to my detriment.
Despite my tuition, I scored a P7 for my Bahasa Malaysia (Malay language; ‘BM’ or Malay) for my SPM (Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia; the domestic O-level equivalent) exams, which I took in Form Five secondary school when I was 16 years old.
P means pass. 7 was the upper end of the P grade. Below that was P8. After that was F9. I think you know what the F is for… That’s right.
I didn’t worry about it then because, after that, it was English all the way. I did my A-Levels at Taylor’s College followed by my undergraduate in law at Bristol University, England.
It was only when I made inquiries about the pupilage qualifications that I realized I needed credit for my BM SPM to practice law in Malaysia. So much for escaping BM.
That or sit for the BM Qualifying Test or something of that sort. During my time that meant translating a legal text from English to BM on the spot in front of the examination panel, made up of, at least, a High Court judge. I hear it is more exacting now.
It was not that I could not read or speak BM at all. I could. I used it often in a foreign country when I had to speak with fellow Malaysians and family privately in public. Or cuss at some deserving foreigner without them knowing.
But I had no fluency either from my lips or on paper. I spoke in inflexible formal full sentences which I tripped over if I spoke too quickly. I wrote like vintage robots doing a stilted march.
Since I found the BM Qualifying Test too daunting too soon, I decided to retake the BM SPM paper. The reasoning went: If I scored a credit, I did not have to do the test. Plus, I could also get started on acquainting myself with BM, which I felt quite rusty with after occasional use.
I realized later that the moment of decision was the precise point of hurling myself out of the frying pan into the fire.
As soon as I returned home after graduation, I asked around for recommendations for a personal one-on-one BM tutor. I forgot who recommended to me the one I eventually settled with.
My BM tutor came highly touted as a turnaround guy for hopeless cases. He was a teacher, a textbook writer, and an examination marker for BM SPM. By my count, he possessed the trifecta of BM qualifications to teach someone like me and was duly retained.
During my time, there were four grades of Cs. C3, C4, C5 and C6. Beyond that, it was A2 and A1. My BM tutor was reputed to be able to turn P’s into C’s and C’s into A’s, and occasionally, P’s into A’s.
At that point, I just wanted a C6. Cukup makan. Janji pass.
My BM tutor was a dark brownish, shaggy-haired, bulbous-nosed Malay man with thick black square-rimmed glasses. He had a gentle smile permanently etched on his face. It was either with teeth showing or without. He spoke softly and had a quiet demeanour about him.
I started my BM tuition more or less around the same time I began my Certificate of Legal Practice (CLP) course at the University of Malaya.
The remit for my BM tuition was clear. It was nice to marvel and regale in the beauty of BM’s splendour and potential but my goal was to score at least a C6 for my BM SPM paper and pass my oral BM exam. That’s it.
I saw my BM tutor once a week for 2 hours. We went through the past years’ exam papers. He gave me homework. We reviewed those the week after. After we exhausted the exam papers he set questions for me. That went on for months. On top of my CLP studies.
It was an intense time.
It was at our last tuition session that my BM tutor gave me a surprising piece of advice: write The Basmala in Arabic at the top of my exam pages. When I asked him why, he said it was so the marker knew that I was Malay and would not fail me. But it would not guarantee me a credit either. I thought what the heck was the point of that? I wasn’t looking for a pass.
So I did the exam, without my BM tutor’s last piece of advice, passed the oral BM exam and scored a C4 for the BM SPM paper.
Despite my revised BM SPM grade, that did not prepare me for legal practice where I had to take it up several notches. It was familiar yet more challenging terrain.
For the first two to three years of my legal practice (inclusive of my pupilage), whenever I drafted anything I consulted at least two Malay dictionaries (Kamus), three English-Malay dictionaries, two Malay thesauruses, two English thesauruses and one English-Malay Legal Dictionary. That was necessary for me to ensure I accurately translated the drafts I worked on in English to Malay or when I worked on drafts in Malay only. I would compare and re-compare the words I used so the word I used reflected the colour, tone and thrust I had in mind.
It was tedious and painful and slowed my drafting significantly. But that was temporary as it was foundational. When I started out, I spent at least an hour or two on simple affidavits. But the more I did, the quicker I became, the less need I had to refer to my collection of dictionaries and thesaureses.
During the same period, I examined witnesses and argued in court regularly in Malay, as stilted, inaccurate and sometimes plain wrong, especially in the subordinate courts where the bulk of my early practice lay.
I was one of those urban legends you hear about that was reported to have said the following to express my apology and embarrassment over an error to the Magistrate, ‘Puan, minta maaf atas kesilapan saya, kemaluan saya sangat besar.‘ I leave it to you to imagine the smiles all around the court and a few disparate bursts of laughter in the room after I concluded that phrase. The Magistrate herself was more amused than impressed.
For those not familiar with the language, malu in Malay means embarrassed. Kemaluan in Malay means embarrassment but it is more commonly and colloquially means genitals, that of a man or woman. A translation of what I said meant: ‘Puan, I apologize for my mistake. My genitals are very big.’
By my fourth year, I avoided such obvious errors and, by my admittedly low standards, felt I achieved an acceptable degree of fluency in my speech, writing and more importantly thinking in BM.
Although I am always looking to improve my mastery of Malay, it was only in these last few years that I have taken a more than passing interest in it.
In 2018, I took up a Diploma of Professional Translation Course conducted by Dewan Bahasa Pustaka – Persatuan Penterjemah Malaysia, which I found challenging and enlightening. That sparked a desire to acquaint myself deeper with the Malay language. I came away from the course with a much healthier, respect and appreciation for the Malay language than when I began.
Since then I have wanted to better my Malay both in speech and on paper. Not in an urgent-must-happen-now kind of way but rather an I-will-get-there-at-some-point-reading-and-writing-what-I like kind of way.
These days I balance my reading in English with good Malay writing and Malay newspapers. I listen to more Malay music and read more Malay creative writing. I enjoy the language, and rhythm and appreciate its nuance more.
I am pleased that I have, on my own, in my own way, finally, come to find genuine pleasure, appreciation and interest in the Malay language. All good things take time, and have their own time.