Rais Yatim, Guan Eng and fate of Bahasa Malaysia

I wish to comment on the Utusan Malaysia headline about Rais Yatim’s concern that Lim Guan Eng has allegedly failed to show proper respect for Bahasa Malaysia at official functions in particular at an affair involving a private college.

I wish to enlighten the minister in question that Bahasa Malaysia was placed in complete disrespect about a decade ago by none other than the Umno strongman himself, Mahathir Mohamad, whom I believe Rais worships as a great leader.

It was Mahathir who had dethroned the ‘sacred’ position of Bahasa Malaysia when he reverted the subjects of science and mathematics into English under the pretence of ‘bettering’ our children’s future.

The fact was, to me, Mahathir was merely practicing political expediency to attract non-Malay votes when Malays had deserted Umno in droves over the seemeingly unfair jailing and treatment of Anwar Ibrahim that sparked the Reformasi movement and ended the two-thirds majority of parliamentary control of the Barisan Nasional.

Does Rais Yatim know that at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, we academics have to lecture in English? A few years ago there was an unwritten order that was circulated that all academics should teach in English in order to raise the standard of the language as well as prepare UTM to be a celebrated international university.

I teach architectural philosophy and I maintained that I should deliver my lectures in Malay because most of the students came from Malay medium schools and bumiputeras are having difficulty coping with life on campus with the scarcity of Malay references. But when UTM opened its floodgates to international students so that, it hoped, it would climb in world ranking as among the so-called ‘best universities’ in the world, I could no longer deliver my lectures in Malay.

Even though barely five percent of the students in my classes are international students I still have to speak in English. (As it so happens, these international students are the worst at English!) Now, mind you, I come from an English medium education and studied for nine years in the USA and the UK. Like most overseas trained academics at UTM, I am most comfortable and at ease in delivering lectures and writing papers in English.

But because I was interested more to disseminate my knowledge than ‘tayang’ my English superiority, I forced myself to adjust to delivering lectures and writings in Malay. Anyway before Mahathir’s U-turn on language, all public univeristies has a standing order to respect the national language and English came second.

What I am trying to say is that, does Rais Yatim have the right to criticise Lim Guan Eng for allegedly disrespecting Bahasa Malaysia when public universities in Rais’ own backyard have a standing order now to ‘disrespect’ Bahasa Malaysia?

Nowadays, I am told that any academic who cannot speak English or write in that language will find their careers at a standstill. How else can you get the ISI indexed journals to accept papers if they are not in English? How many ISI indexed journals are there in the Malay language? Once I invited a fellow Malay academic to contribute a chapter in a book I was editing and he spurned my invitation when I told him that it was to be in Malay.

I write equally well in both languages and my publications prove this. Some PhD theses I would insist to be written in Malay while a few  I would allow to be written in English. Why? Simple. There are so many things that the Malay language is lacking in terms of modern philosophies in architecture. If I do not transfer the Western ideas and philosophies in architecture, how are we to frame our architectural discourse for our own national culture, which I am told is based on the Malay culture?

At this point in writing, I have asked the Faculty of Built Environment, what are the orders from UTM superiors in relation to the PPSMI being reverted back into Bahasa Malaysia? Should we prepare our powerpoints in BM or not? The answer is ....well ...non-committal. No comment. The dean signals that there has been no directive. (Please read my writing on ‘Bahasa Apa Nak Guna’ in roketkini.com.)

Does the minister, Rais Yatim, also know that private colleges and universities in Malaysia  have, as their lingua franca, English? When I asked the publishing office of Taylors University whether they shoud at least publish one or two books in Malay, just to give some sense of respect to the national language, the answer I get is that English is the language of  international education.

I take the answer to mean that Taylors University is not going to lose any sleep over the issue of ‘memartabatkan Bahasa Melayu’. But luckily, the School of Architecture’s Centre for Modern Architecture Studies in South-East Asia (Massa), a centre that I co-founded, published its first two books in two languages; Bahasa Malaysia and English. Kudos for Massa and the School of Architecture!

Recently, when I invited six of Taylors University’s lecturers to help with the writing of my biggest project with Dewan Bahasa, four volumes of Ensiklopidia Senibina, they answered with enthusiasm and the vice-chancellor himself gave me asurances that the contribution in Bahasa Malaysia will be accepted on par with the writing of papers in English. Kudos again to Taylors.

But, what of the other private universities and colleges? Although I am not a Malay patriot, to see that the national language being ‘disrespected’, sidelined, ignored, except in subjects of Bahasa Malaysia and Pendidikan Islam, I fail to completely understand the minister’s concern!  

In my reading, if things go on unchecked, Bahasa Malaysia will be dead in not more than a decade into the future. Secretly, I wonder who is actually going to read my work in the Ensiklopidia Senibina in a few years time. Perhaps by then, those at Dewan Bahasa will probably have to look for new careers.

Finally, my daughter, who follows a post-graduate course in mass communications at UiTM, says that all her classes are conducted mainly in English (all powerpoints are in Englsih) when in fact, there are no international students in her classes. Well, what do you say to that, Rais?

The bastion of Malay education also seems to ‘spurn’ its own mother tongue. I may be wrong but from my limited information, the only educational bastion left that places due respect to Bahasa Melayu is UKM, the place where over 100 professors signed a resolution to reject Mahathir’s ‘disrespect’ of the national language in the PPSMI affair.

I am writing this for simply two reasons. Firstly, I think that the nusantara is badly in need of concepts and ideas in its own mother toungue, Bahasa Melayu. A great academic once told me that civilisation or ‘ketamadunan’ cannot occur if the language of knowledge fails to be imparted in the mother tongue.

Personally, I am not interested that much in Bahasa Melayu or the Malay culture for that matter. To me Bahasa Melayu is just one academic discipline and I need it to disseminate my thoughts to where I live and where my children and their children will grow up in. Period. I’ll say this again; I am NOT a Malay patriot. That is why I have not chosen to write this issue in Malay.

The second reason I have in writing this article is that I think public officials or politicians who say one thing to Malay newspapers about personalities who disrespect Bahasa Malaysia but know full well about the decadent condition of Bahasa Melayu should perhaps tender their resignation as they are either ’unpatriotic’ to their party or country or worse, simply playing up racial sentiments to drive our peoples apart. These individuals should have no place in our New Malaysia.

Finally, I wish to go on record as saying that, as a concerned Malaysian citizen and as an impartial academic, I have had occassions to listen to Lim Kit Siang, Lim Guan Eng and Boo Cheng Hau speak good Bahasa Malaysia at many functions and, when they have to answer the Chinese newspaper reporters, they would ask leave to speak in Mandarin.

To me these three are not the ones who are disrespecting Bahasa Melayu; the culprits are but those who keep yelling the loudest that they are the champions of that particular culture and language who are responsible. We have a saying in Malay, ‘harapkan pagar, pagar makan padi’!

(Before leaving off, I hope someone out there can translate this article into Bahasa Malaysia and post it in the Malay blogs or websites to be read by those who have less command of the Englsih language. I can translate it myself but, then, I can be accused of being a Malay patriot.)


Mohamad Tajuddin Mohamad Rasdi is a professor at UTM, Johor.