It was a storm in a teacup. The 23 doctors at the centre of the controversy could have been required to sit for and pass the Bahasa Malaysia paper of the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) right at the outset before they were hired on a contractual basis. They should not have been allowed any waiver.
It is true that when an exemption is made in one particular instance, it would encourage others to seek waivers. It would, even in the medium term, undermine the position of Bahasa Malaysia as the official language. In this regard, the Cabinet did the right thing in reiterating a pass in Bahasa Malaysia as a pre-requisite for all appointments in the public sector.
This does not mean that those in the private sector need not know Bahasa. It is sometimes forgotten that Bahasa Malaysia is not just the official language but it is also the national language. Simply put, it is the language that all Malaysians should be able to use. After all, it is the language associated with Malaysian citizenship. From a socio-cultural perspective, it is what distinguishes a Malaysian national.
What this means is that Bahasa Malaysia should be used more widely in the private sector. There is no need for any legislation. It would be counter-productive. Those who are in the upper echelons of big, established companies should, whenever it is feasible, communicate in Bahasa. I am often appalled at the reluctance of some corporate figures to speak in Bahasa over television, for instance, when they are in fact talking to the general public in a Bahasa Malaysia news programme in which the use of the national language would have been logical. What makes it worse is that the English that they insist upon using is sometimes so atrocious that it makes you cringe.
This is, in a sense, a reflection of a certain attitude towards English and Bahasa within a significant segment of our society. English is associated with status and prestige. It is the language of elite power. Bahasa Malaysia in contrast may be the national and official language but does not command the awe and aura that English exudes.
There are many reasons that explain this attitude. Apart from our British colonial background and the dominant role of English in the global arena today, it is an irrefutable fact that English has been the definitive language of the upper stratum of the economy, of politics, of public administration, of education, of social life for decades. Bahasa maybe more widely spoken today especially in the lower and middle levels of society than 60 years ago, but it lacks economic clout and is not the conduit for the generation of scientific and technological knowledge.
What has compounded the challenge facing Bahasa is the attitude and inclination of a large portion of the Malay elite itself. They have very little pride in the Malay language. Some do not even speak it well. Their knowledge of the language, its inherent beauty and its accomplishments, is woefully limited. Add to this the negative attitude and orientation of such a big section of the non-Malay elites who show hardly any appreciation of, or empathy for, Malay. This is why academics like Khoo Kay Kim, Teo Kok Seong and Lim Swee Tin are the exception.
And yet a strong bond with the Malay language is vital for the future of our nation. When the non-Malay population identifies wholeheartedly with the language, their psychological and emotional acceptance by the Malays will reach a more profound level. Witness the non-Malay-Malay relationship in Kelantan as a case in point. Likewise, if Malay becomes a more effective medium of communication among all communities, cultural and social interaction will become more meaningful and more substantive. Interaction of this sort will be conducive for the emergence of a more united and cohesive society.
Of course, language by itself, any language, will not guarantee inter-ethnic harmony. It is when justice and fairness, care and compassion and respect for the dignity of each and every community, become living values that permeate the social fabric that we will have a truly united nation. It is a mission that we Malaysians should dedicate ourselves to as we approach
our 60th birthday.