By M Santhananaban
Some six decades after independence, Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob has made a stupefying and startling statement.
He has directed his entire government machinery to communicate in Bahasa Malaysia with foreign individuals, institutions, international organisations and countries and provide English translations of their communications.
For a country grappling with the adverse socioeconomic effects of the Covid pandemic, a depreciating ringgit, the repercussions of a billion-dollar embezzlement scandal that has caught international attention, and the realisation that three Asean countries have, in the past decade, overtaken Malaysia in terms of gross domestic product (GDP), this seems a perverse development.
This policy directive seems to go so much against the grain of what Malaysia has traditionally stood for. It is uncharacteristic, unusual and shocking for most Malaysians because both their largely all-embracing Islamic outlook of brotherhood and the Malay people’s enormous wealth of goodwill to welcome foreigners is legendary.
Usman Awang, an acclaimed Malaysian poet laureate, had decades ago, composed a poem to describe the Johor Malays. The theme of his work was the capacity of Johoreans to welcome, accept, include and embrace migrants of all kinds from many countries who took up residence and made Johor their home.
This unique quality of the making of a Johor Malay from so many strands of immigrants has enriched, energised and ennobled Malaysian society. An important and integral facet of such acceptance and inclusiveness was the compassion, communicability and hospitality of the average Malayan and Malaysian. The rudiments of Bahasa Malaysia which these migrants quickly acquired enabled their smooth integration into Malaysian society.
But from the very early days, successive governments, especially after independence, encouraged Malaysians to learn and master English. While Bahasa Malaysia has been used as the main medium of instruction and has become entrenched as the official and primary language, no previous prime minister has attempted to suppress, sideline or stigmatise the use of English.
The alumni of the earliest institutions established to educate the Malays – beginning with the Malay College in Kuala Kangsar and the Maktab Perguruan Melayu Matang in Taiping, which was a precursor to the Sultan Idris Training College in Tanjong Malim – were encouraged to acquire fluency in English.
Two notable grandees from the latter college were Ghafar Baba and Senu Abdul Rahman, who rose to occupy high government positions.
They recognised that the use of English was not a disability, a defect or an act of treason.
These wise men and women who learned and acquired high qualifications in English were the enablers that equipped the country to communicate with not just the rest of the world but with our neighbours.
Recall that one of our illustrious jurists, Suffian Hashim, served the Brunei public service on secondment to draft their constitution.
Given this history, the role of English has been a positive and productive tool for Malaysia.
If our academics, educationalists and diplomats as well as finance, trade, investment, military, medical, science and research people could communicate easily and effectively in English, it would be an asset for the country.
They often have to communicate important points of views precisely, promptly and in person. They would inspire confidence and trust when they speak. Such communication is not something negative or nugatory to our national wellbeing, development and growth.
English provides that most vital lifeline to pursue our goals of enhanced development, diplomacy and discourse with the rest of the world and its use by Malaysians should not be construed or perceived as an act of disloyalty or disrespect.
Dato M Santhananaban is a former ambassador with 45 years of public service experience