Linguistic supremacy and hegemony: The roads not taken post-1969

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One
of the most glaring failures of the Malaysian nation-building project
is our failure to develop a national language that is actually used
as the lingua franca of all Malaysians, writes Farish Noor. While the laborious debate
over whether BM should be termed ‘Bahasa Malaysia’ or ‘Bahasa
Melayu’ has been raging for decades, it is clear that Malaysia’s
plural society remains divided along linguistic-cultural lines.


 

The
thorny issue of what constitutes the ‘mother tongue’ of so many
Malaysians has led to at least one major political conflagration
among the component parties of the BN, which in turn was used as the
justification for the nation-wide security crackdown called ‘Operasi
Lalang’ in 1987. Ironically it is well known to all and sundry that
despite the ethno-linguistic posturing of the hot-headed
communitarian leaders of the BN over the issue in the 1980s, these
very same elites continued to speak to each other in English in
private.

The
hypocrisy of our leaders – from all parties – on the issue of the
national language is something that no mature Malaysian ought to be
stranger to by now. In fact, the issue of our national language (or
lack of) has been one of the many punching-bags of Malaysian politics
and every single communitarian-minded leader has jumped on the
linguistic-nationalist bandwagon at least once in his or her
political career.

This
is perhaps one of the saddest things about Malaysia ’s
post-colonial politics and the development of Malaysia post-1969: It
has been the case that almost every single ambitious and aspiring
politician in this country has sought to rise to power by playing the
communitarian card, touching on the hot buttons of race and language.
It was only recently that BM was re-designated as ‘Bahasa Malaysia
’ after it had been re-defined by nationalist politicians as
‘Bahasa Melayu’. The merry-go-round turns until today, and it
would be prudent for us to go back to our early history to recover
the moment where this country missed the point and went off track for
good.

Let
us begin by remind ourselves of some basic historical facts: Bahasa
Malaysia was and remains a hybrid language very much like Urdu, which
was dubbed as the ‘language of the camp’ and which remains an
amalgam of Hindi, Persian, Arabic and other languages of Central
Asia. The Malaysian language is likewise made up of words that are
derived from Sanskrit, Arabic and other languages of the pribumi
communities of the Southeast Asian region. Today it also betrays
signs of cultural influence from the West, with English, Dutch and
Portuguese words thrown into its repertoire as well.

Starting
from this premise, it is difficult to understand how the Malaysian
language could have been seen and used by those who wished to
foreground an understanding of Malay and Malay identity as
fundamentally fixed, closed and pure. Yet this was precisely what
happened as soon as the debate on the status of the national language
began during the 1950s.

Post-1969
witnessed the intensification of the debate over the status of the
Malaysian language. The proponents of the pro-Malay policy (who
wished to define BM as ‘Bahasa Melayu’ and thus identify the
language with one primary racial-ethnic community) came from all the
ranks of the Malay-Muslim parties, organisations, NGOs and student
movements. As was the case with many other issues that caught the
imagination of the Malaysian public then, most of these debates took
place on the campuses of the country and were led by right-wing
communitarian ethno-nationalist students who were aligned to the
various Malay cultural, linguistic and religious student groups on
campus, such as the Persatuan Bahasa Melayu Universiti Malaya (PBMUM)
and the Malay Students’ Association of UM (PMUM).

In
1974, the student leaders of PMUM and PBMUM protested against the
government’s decision to allow the creation of Tunku Abdul Rahman
(Tar) College that had been one of MCA’s major demands on Umno. The
Malay students of the local universities were particularly angry over
the government’s decision to allow a Chinese college to use English
as the medium of instruction at a time when efforts were being made
to make BM the medium of instruction in all the other institutions of
higher learning in the country. Earlier, the students had defaced
most of the campus signboards that were still in English. They also
condemned the Tar College project on the grounds that as a privately
run institution it would only serve as an additional source of funds
for the wealthy MCA leaders. This cycle of protests and
demonstrations culminated in the seizure and occupation of the local
university campuses by the student unions in September 1974.
Universiti Malaya’s campus was taken over by PMUM members led by
Kamarazaman Yacob, who then formed the Majlis Tertinggi Sementara
(Temporary Supreme Council, MTS).

While
right-wing ethno-nationalist students were calling for BM to be seen
as the Malay language and elevated to the status of the primary
language of the country, other Malay-Muslim organisations and parties
followed suit. Both Umno and Pas were likewise adamant that the Malay
language be seen as the language of the Malays, and that the
recognition of BM as the national language also meant that by
extension the dominance of the Malay-Muslims had to be recognised and
accepted by all Malaysians.

Pas
in the 1970s was led by the Malay-supremacist Asri Muda, who not only
brought Pas into the ruling Barisan coalition but who also was a
steadfast advocate for the special position and privilege of the
Malay-Muslims. Asri’s constant attacks on the Umno-led government’s
record in the area of cultural and language development was one of
the factors that put Umno on the defensive and forced the government
of Tunku Abdul Rahman (and, later, Tun Razak) to act. In 1970, under
pressure from Pas and the other defenders of the Malay language and
culture, the government implemented the National Education Policy
that made the promotion of the Malay language one of its key
objectives. In 1971, Tun Razak followed this up with the Kongres
Kebudayaan Kebangsaan (National Culture Congress) that paved the way
for the Malaysian National Culture Policy, which also privileged
Malay culture and identity above others.

A
close reading of the history of Malaysia during the years immediately
after 1969 would show that practically every single Malay-Muslim
leader of note: Mahathir Mohamad, Asri Muda, Anwar Ibrahim, et al. –
were positioning themselves as the champions of their race, religion
and language. But while Malayness and Islam could not be effectively
hegemonised and used as a tool for dominance with a nationwide
impact, language could. By demanding that BM be seen as the language
of the Malays and demanding that BM be given the special position
that reflected the special position of the Malays, these
ethno-nationalist supremacists were working to ensure that the
Malaysian public domain and the Malaysian culture that developed in
the wake of ’69 would be coloured with clearly identifiable
Malay-Muslim hues.

The
foregrounding of the Malay ethno-linguistic agenda also meant that
the other ethno-linguistic communities were given two stark choices:
Either to accept the supremacy of the Malay language as the national
language or to opt out of the system and thereby relegate themselves
to the margins of their respective ethno-linguistic ghettos.
Unfortunately again, many of the leaders, spokesmen and intellectuals
of the other communities chose to opt for the latter, and compounded
the problem by retreating to their own linguistic enclaves.

From
the 1970s to the 1990s we have seen the development of a lopsided
Malaysia where one language – Bahasa Malaysia – was singled out
to serve as the benchmark and collective marker of one ethnic-racial
community. In the process of doing so, a systematic erasure and
forgetting of BM’s hybrid and plural past and character was carried
out, thereby reinforcing the impression that BM emerged almost
exclusively, sui generis, out of the bosom of an undifferentiated and
essentialised Malay cultural bosom. Yet all of these nationalists
forgot (or chose to forget) the fact that BM was always a hybrid and
eclectic lingua franca that bore the cultural traces of other
communities, including the Chinese, Indians, Arabs, Thais,
Indonesians, Europeans and others. Instead BM was essentialised as a
unique, pure, uncontaminated language-system that it certainly was
not and has never been. (Any more than we can say that any other
language in the world, be it Chinese, Japanese, Tamil, English, etc.
were ever ‘pure’ either.)

Compounding
this situation was the cultural-linguistic impasse that had been
reached that forced the other communities of Malaysia to likewise
turn to their own ‘mother tongues’ for support and succour. In
time, there developed various lobbies calling for the protection of
mother tongue education for practically every other racial-ethnic
community in Malaysia; and to make things worse, many of these
linguistic-communitarian advocates betrayed signs of being just as
demagogic, exclusivist and even as racist as their Malay-Muslim
supremacist counterparts.

Malaysia’s
failure was not to create a generation of post-1969 leaders who would
have discarded the values and praxis of linguistic nationalism and
who would embrace diversity and hybridity instead. What Malaysia
needed most of all was a leader who would have been able to say to
all the communities of the country: “The Malay language is not
merely the language of the Malay people: Look at the vocabulary of BM
and you will clearly see the influences of every other community of
Asia . So let us accept this pluralism and diversity in our language,
let us play with it and expand it repertoire of words, so that it
will reflect the pluralism of Malaysian society even more”. But of
course such a leader never emerged – instead we were served a host
of communal-minded sectarian nationalists whose only penchant was to
stand on the stage and demand special rights for their special
community on account of their special history and special identity,
and who not once took into account the needs of Malaysia as a whole.

Had
we taken the opposite path towards the recognition of diversity and
pluralism that is already pre-existing in BM, imagine what could have
developed? Working from the premise that BM was and is already a
hybrid language with no fixed sematic and semiotic frontiers, the
vocabulary of BM could have been expanded and deepened further with
the introduction and adoption of more words from other languages. As
it was, BM remains clearly one of the proto-Indonesian languages with
strong traces of Sanskrit and Arabic thrown in. Had the designers of
this new national language been given the incentive to adapt the
language further, BM today would have more words that are derivative
of Mandarin, Hokkien, Cantonese, Tamil, Urdu, Javanese, Bugis,
Acehnese, Thai, English and others.

Unlike
the Indonesians next door who demonstrate an acute understanding of
the plasticity of language and discourses, our national language was
instead frozen in time and embalmed in official documents. Over the
years what has actually developed has been the street ‘bazaar’
Malay which now serves as the real – albeit uncritical and
depoliticised – lingua franca of the Malaysian people.

How
sad that after half a century of coming into being, we still do not
have a national language where every Malaysian citizen can find
herself or himself.

The above is an excerpt of an essay that Farish is currently writing entitled: "The Many Roads Not Taken post-1969′

Dr.
Farish A. Noor is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of
International Studies, Nanyang Technological University of Singapore;
and one of the founders of the www.othermalaysia.org research site.

 

 

 

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