Sidestepping knowledge for pride and patriotism When I look back at my own educational history, I wonder if a different journey might have affected my citizenship.
Like most Chinese Malaysian kids, I received my elementary education at a Chinese school, and continued my secondary education at a Malay (national) school, and that's where I ended my formal education until years later when I started taking various summer classes at New York University and Columbia University for self improvement.
I grew up in a Malay kampung in Malacca, where I spent countless late afternoons playing soccer with kids of all races on a pathetic field. Through years of playing like that I've learnt to speak the Malay language without a hint of an accent, all by osmosis. But we never visited each other except when a wedding invitation comes along, and it was always the Malays and Indians who invited the Chinese, and never had I seen such courtesies returned.
In a typical Chinese Malaysian family, one learns to write in Chinese way before he starts formal education - writing on dirt if one has to. Six years of Chinese elementary school taught me the basics of the language including the classical version. There were a few Malay children in our school (none in my class) and we spoke Malay to each other, I don't remember them speaking or writing in Chinese. We played and ate together.
The secondary school I went to was located in the town. Most of my classmates were from urban areas and have also received Chinese education prior to that. Again, there was no pupil of other races in my class, everybody spoke fairly good Malay, except for a handful who thought English
was the only language worth spoken. There was a surau in the school and that's where the Malay students hung out, there was no racial harmony nor was there disharmony, we just don't mix. In secondary school, I managed to learn a lot more classical Chinese despite the short hours allocated. Today, I'm able to write a decent essay and read novels in classical Chinese; I have no complaints.
I started working soon after leaving Fifth Form. All my superiors at all the jobs I've held were Western-educated Chinese Malaysians and that's how I came to learn English - by forcing myself. Twelve years of public school education have thought me no useful English whatsoever, or maybe I wasn't smart enough.
Do I wish my journey could have been a different one? Yes, I should have been made to learn better English at a younger age, so that I don't have to speak broken English today. Also I could have read Kafka and Kundera by the age of 17 instead of 30, I could have decided to be a physicist had I read Richard Feynman at the age of 15 instead of 27.
What have pride and patriotism got to do with what language you learnt your mathematics in? Pride, the last time I heard, is a deadly sin; and what is patriotism but the food you ate growing up?
I agree that we should not only know but master our mother tongues, but do we need a lifetime of exclusive education to achieve that? Or was it pride and chauvinism?
Do we need to insist on the national language being the sole medium of our educational system? Or was it an inferiority complex and a paranoia about becoming extinct?
One learns a language for the love of it or for economical and intellectual advantages. Patriotism and nationalism have nothing to do with it.
A responsible educational system should be one that prepares our youth for a life that's much larger than some narrow nationalistic agendas, and equip them with the most effective tools to pursue greater intellect.
Many years ago, I was the sole Chinese among some 20 Malays working on a television production in Ipoh. I ate, slept and hung out with them for weeks on end. Upon completion of the project, there was the usual sadness among the cast and crew. The executive producer, who's a Perak royal, came up to me and told me something I'll never forget; he said, in English: "Steve, I
haven't met any Chinese like you. You are a friend.". I've earned their trust, and Bahasa Malaysia wasn't the reason, it was my respect for their culture and traditions and my ability to live it.
We should put our pride aside and really see what's good for the nation and her people as part of the larger human race. If English serves the task of creating better understanding, so be it.
I'm not very articulate, and I can't argue my points effectively. I just wanted to share a part of my personal history and see what others can pick out of it.