How sincere is the love for our national language?

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Those who genuinely promote Bahasa Malaysia deserve our salute but not those who pretend to do so by condemning other languages or dialects.

In the 1950s, my parents were Chinese school teachers. We were then staying at the teachers’ quarters behind a school in Pandamaran, the new village adjacent to Port Klang. But they sent me to study in an English school in Klang, a few kilometres away.

I remember the first time I approached a teacher during class. I requested, in Hokkien, that I wish to go to the toilet. She uttered some words that I could not understand and so I returned to my seat. I only realised many years later that she wanted me to say, “please excuse me”.

I was the first among my siblings to study in an English school and had not heard English being spoken at home or in my village. In Standard Two, I was first in class and the prize was a racquet. But I could not play badminton with it and did not realise that it was a tennis racquet.

In school, I learned Malay like duck to water, as it was a breeze for me to spell and pronounce Malay words. I was among the top scorers, which was no mean feat, as from Standard Five onwards, half of my class were students who have completed Standard Six in a Malay school.

But my interest in the Malay language began to wane after Malaysia and Indonesia adopted the common spelling in 1972. I did not learn the New Rumi Spelling and was not confident writing in Malay, often forgetting whether it should be spelled kampong or kampung, for example.

I started working from 1969 and English was officially used, both spoken and written, in all the organisations that I have served for the past 53 years. I seldom speak to my colleagues, customers and suppliers in Malay, Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien or Hakka.

Initially, I worked in sales, service and spares (3S) of the motor industry before switching to sales of life and general insurance. From 1973 until today, I have been involved in the travel industry and have also set up many tours and car rental companies, and as a freelance trainer.

Using English, I have interviewed thousands of job applicants, recruited and successfully trained hundreds of staff. I have also conducted training seminars for thousands of tourism industry practitioners in courses mostly organised by the government and travel associations.

Throughout my career, English has served me well. Initially, I easily found jobs with large motor firms that were distributors for Volkswagen, Audi, Rover, Volvo and Datsun (changed to Nissan in 1984). Later, I received continuous job offers without having to apply for any.

But my life would have been very different if I was sent to study in a Chinese school as I would have to look for jobs in typical Chinese businesses. However, if I had immersed myself in this community, I would have acquired entrepreneurship and emerged as another rich towkay.

But alas, I remained a poor employee and still working freelance. I speak, read, write and dream in English and communicate with my siblings in English. My brother is Australian, and so are my elder daughter, granddaughter, and son-in-law. My younger daughter works in Singapore.

Nevertheless, I have the greatest respect for all languages and dialects, especially our own Bahasa Malaysia. Aside from those who could speak and write well, I have great admiration for those who truly love and promote a language or for that matter, a religion, culture or art.

The French are renowned for their pride in their language and culture. For example, they set up 850 Alliance française centres in 137 countries, an irrefutable testament of their commitment. In contrast, we have sent Malay textbooks to universities in the United States and Netherlands.

This was recently disclosed by Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia lecturer Prof James Collins who was reported to have said “Thousands of books have been given to the Ohio University library but who knows who is using these books, as Malay was never taught in this university”.

He divulged that all the Malay language books given to libraries in Leiden, the Netherlands, have been returned and there is no longer a Malay section nor Malaysia’s profile there. He proposed that Malay language teachers be sent abroad to teach the language overseas.

But this requires funding which is in short supply as many people in this country have difficulty putting food on the table. If foreign universities have the facilities to offer additional courses and students are required to learn an additional language, would they pick Malay over others?

In primary school, my classmates and I learned the proverb “Where there’s a will there’ a way”. Unfortunately, the will to promote Bahasa Malaysia has been lacking. Although raised repeatedly by many, nothing concrete has been done to popularise the language internationally.

Those who genuinely promote Bahasa Malaysia deserve our salute but not those who pretend to do so by condemning other languages or dialects. Many pseudo-champions of languages are only good at rhetoric by denouncing others as talk is cheap and does not require hard work.

As debates on Bahasa Malaysia have been ongoing, it is time to show our love for Bahasa Malaysia through action by offering free language classes to the millions of people in our midst. They include citizens and millions of foreign workers, their spouses and children living here.

Funding would be minimal by making use of the numerous under-utilised government centres and community halls nationwide, with volunteers recruited as teachers. Teaching should be student-centred, informal and fun that includes singing, dancing and winning token prizes.

Had we done this, many among the tens of millions of foreign workers that have passed through our shores over the past decades would have mastered Bahasa Malaysia, not just basic Malay. They in turn could be actively teaching and promoting Bahasa Malaysia in their home countries.

Teaching foreign workers and their families Bahasa Malaysia would be a great way to show our appreciation to them for contributing immensely to our convenience, comfort and economy. Instead of bitter experiences, they would have fonder memories of their years spent in Malaysia.

So, is our love for Bahasa Malaysia superficial or sincere enough for action to be taken? Or was it a ‘syiok sendiri” exercise just to gain popularity? In any case, it will be exploited to the hilt in the coming general election, driving away more foreign investors, students and tourists.

The views expressed here are strictly those of The TrueNet reader YS Chan from Kuala Lumpur.