Swing in public policy

September 28, 2008 at 4:20 am Leave a comment

KJ John, Malaysiakini, Jun 26, 07

When riots broke out on May 13, 1969, I was a first-year student at the Universiti Malaya (UM) First Residential College. Ushered to then University Hospital and directed to donate blood, I realised for the first time that I’m an Indian and not really a Malaysian first – at least in terms of how others identify me. How sad.
While I grew up in Kampung Raja, Sungai Petani, and later attended the Royal Military College (RMC) from 1965-68, none of us felt or was treated like we were anything other than Malaysians first.

I regularly played sepak takraw in the kampong nearby, although we lived in brick houses in a newer development. At RMC, sure, we were served chapatti while Malays and Chinese were not; but we dismissed it as the cultural appetite for food.

Hindus were given transport to the temple on Friday nights and Christians to church on Sunday. But, did it matter? Many Malays even sneaked into the trucks for a free night or day out and it was all registered as simply beating the system.

In my first year at UM, I studied Malay Culture. Although I was in the economics faculty, I felt a need to understand and appreciate culture and I thought I would understand my own culture if I better understood Malay culture. I studied all about the Malays, their culture, beliefs and value systems and even some history of their roots of their origin in Peninsular Malaya, Java, Sumatra and coastal Borneo. Their language was Bahasa Melayu and their culture fundamentally of Malay/Indonesian origin.

In a 2004 book edited by Timothy P Bernard entitled ‘Contesting Malayness: Malay Identity Across Boundaries’ authors Bernard and Maier comment in the preface that it seems odd that one seeks to define Malayness.

“It all seems straightforward, but for centuries definitions, boundaries, and origins of this word in the world of Southeast Asia have proved elusive, and it seems unlikely that the word will acquire any greater precision in the future,” they write.

“The word ‘Melayu’ appears in seventh-century Chinese sources with reference to Sumatra, and as it has been wandering around Southeast Asia ever since, carrying the notions of a culture, a people and a location. The term may have first been used in Kalimantan, or possibly around the Melayu River on Sumatra.”

Nonetheless, the authors argue that “the Malays are always on the move and transforming themselves, often very elusively, and there is a contested and wandering identity”.

Malay supremacy

When I went school in the early 1960s, there was no Bahasa Malaysia, only Bahasa Kebangsaan (National Language). Over time, the Bahasa Kebangsaan became known as Bahasa Malaysia, the lingua franca of the federation of Malaysia. After all, most Iban (and other natives of Sarawak) and most Kadazandusun (and other natives of Sabah) speak this language of the Indonesian-Malayan archipelago.

Where then did the swing in the pendulum of public policy come from? That, one day it is called Bahasa Malaysia and then again Bahasa Melayu?

During my early education in the days leading up to Merdeka and thereafter, I also learned Bahasa Jiwa Bangsa thanks to brainwashing by Radio Television Malaya. Translated, I learned that it meant ‘any language is the socio-cultural etymology of a people group and their identity’.

Our independent federation had to be built upon the foundation of a common and popular knowledge of Bahasa Kebangsaan by all inhabitants of the newly-formed Malaya. All Malayans of foreign descent were encouraged to pass the Bahasa Kebangsaan test to get their citizenship certificate. Even my mother, a Malayalee by birth, quickly learned pasar Malay which helped her to hold her own in her adopted country.

We were all simple by-products of that union and family institution. Twenty-nine of the 30 of us now in the larger family are Malaysians. Now, the question is, do we all speak Bahasa Malaysia or Bahasa Melayu?

Definitely, my mother only speaks pasar Malay, as does my father, who was even an examiner for Malayans of the Indian origin who needed to be tested on Bahasa Kebangsaan for citizenship purposes. Only their children learned Bahasa Malaysia of any value or form and their 18 children, Bahasa Melayu, at least for a while.

Only in the aftermath of the 1969 racial riots, around 1971, the role of Bahasa Malaysia was reinforced via the primary and secondary education system and became the medium of instruction. By the time I entered university in the early 1970s, some subjects were being taught in Bahasa Malaysia. Then something happened.

I have little or no memory of it but the national language became known as Bahasa Melayu instead of Bahasa Malaysia under some education minister. I wonder who and why?

Concurrently the Ketuanan Melayu syndrome surfaced, giving rise to the norm that Malay culture is the defining parameter for all Malaysian culture. Dr Kua Kia Soong’s revisit of May 13th is probably as accurate an account as any to explain the real reasons for such a shift in public policy.

Hidden issues

Having studied and worked with Malays most of my life, I personally have no objection to the use of Malay culture as the defining framework for a Malaysian culture.

But a more fundamental concern is this: after the formation of the Federation of Malaysia (made up of Peninsular Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak) have we really asked the bumiputera natives of Sabah and Sarawak (both Muslim and non-Muslim) what their views are of the framework of a peninsula-based Malay culture and language becoming the basis of the new Malaysia?

If language is the epistemological foundation of any form of culture formation, would it not therefore be truly strategic that the Bahasa Kebangsaan or Bahasa Malaysia (as one owned by all Malaysians) and not Bahasa Melayu (which is only owned by Peninsular Malayans) should be the obvious language that gives not just life but epistemology and ontology for the nation of Malaysia?

Some of these hidden issues, concerns and aspects are contained in the recent shift in public policy occasioned by the changing of Bahasa Melayu to Bahasa Malaysia via a circular by the director-general of education. Hats off to the minister and director-general for their political and moral courage to originate this paradigm shift. It is both an ontological and epistemological shift.

As AB Shamsul has written: “Based on the interdisciplinary approach, usually provided by historians of Malaysia, I will contend that the British colonial conquest was not only a matter of superior weapons, political and diplomatic shrewdness, and economic energy; it was also a cultural invasion in the form of a conquest of the native ‘epistemological space’.”

To my mind and heart; the education minister is trying to shift the focus away from such a narrowing of the epistemological space towards being more inclusive and thereby opening up the space after 50 years of so-called independence.

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