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Guan Eng’s Mandarin statement – Language, national identity in the post-2018 election era

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If PH wishes to increase its Malay support, it needs to stop shooting itself in the foot by engaging in unnecessary controversies, writes Azmil Tayeb.

The topic of the national language has always been contentious in Malaysia.

Unlike Indonesia, where various major ethnic groups have long agreed as part of the 1928 Youth Pledge (Sumpah Pemuda) on the use and popularisation of Bahasa Indonesia as the nationally unifying language, Malaysia does not share a similar historical experience.

Although the Malaysian constitution enshrines Bahasa Melayu as the national language, the reality is more complicated and contentious, as exemplified by the recent brouhaha concerning Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng’s release of an official statement in Mandarin.

Our modern historical experience is first shaped by the British divide-and-rule policy, which segregated and pitted one ethnic group against another. Communitarian politics became a dissoluble part of the Malaysian post-independence political landscape when the leftist movement that largely transcended ethnic lines was decimated during the Emergency era from 1948 to 1960.

From then on, Malaysia has practiced a type of political system termed by political scientists as consociationalism, which in a nutshell means the interests of each competing ethnic or religious group on the ground level are represented by a corresponding ethnic or religious-based political party in the government. It is a common political system found in societies riven by ethnic and religious rivalries such as Lebanon and Belgium.

When the post-independence federal government wants to implement a single language that can transcend and integrate the segregated ethnic groups under a national banner, the preservation of each ethnic group’s mother tongue naturally becomes part of the public debate and a constant source of contention.

The ascendancy of Malay nationalists in the 1970s gave rise to a more muscular implementation of Bahasa Melayu in all aspects of Malaysian life. But the movement to preserve ethnic mother tongues, particularly Mandarin and Tamil, continues as the cause is picked up by ethnic-based political parties and civil society organisations.

Old communitarian politics

The 2018 general election, which resulted in an unprecedented change of federal government, has not at the same time led to the demise of old communitarian politics. The uproar concerning the appointments of Lim Guan Eng and Tommy Thomas as the Finance Minister and the Attorney General respectively are prime examples of the resilient nature of communitarian politics in Malaysia.

So is the latest controversy that embroils the finance minister. One way to look at Lim Guan Eng’s political faux pas is through the lens of Malay insecurity after the general election. According to Merdeka Centre, only 25-30% of Malays voted for Pakatan Harapan (PH) while 25-40% voted for BN and 30-33% voted for Pas. This finding stands in stark contrast to the fact that 95% of Chinese and 70% of Indians supported Pakatan Harapan in the election.

The same Merdeka Centre findings also state that many Malays backed PH in the last election mainly due to their visceral disdain towards the avarice of former Prime Minister Najib Razak and the oppressive policies of the previous Umno-led government – and not because of their love for PH.

In short there is still strong distrust among the Malays of PH, especially the DAP.

The DAP, rightly or wrongly, is seen by many Malays as an advocate for Chinese interests and a threat to the Malays’ privileged status. Lim Guan Eng’s unapologetic insistence on issuing official statements in Mandarin only serves to further enflame this deep-seated inter-ethnic animosity.

Lesson from the Ahok tragedy

The religious controversy that engulfed the former governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (or popularly known as Ahok), which eventually led to him being sent to prison may serve as a cautionary tale for Lim Guan Eng and other non-Malay Muslim politicians when dealing with the Malay-Muslim’s fragile sentiments in the aftermath of the general election.

Ahok, a Chinese Christian, got himself into political hot water by citing a certain Quranic verse during a public speech, which was readily exploited by his opponents to mobilise the Muslim community against him.

The resultant mass movement of Aksi 212 eventually led to Ahok’s loss in the 2017 gubernatorial election and his subsequent guilty verdict for violating the 1965 Blasphemy Law.

On the eve of the gubernatorial election, Ahok enjoyed a high job approval rating of more than 70%. But interestingly, 30% of voters who expressed satisfaction for Ahok’s job performance also said that they would not vote for him due to his non-Muslim identity and perceived blasphemy against Islam. Ahok lost the election and is currently serving a two-year prison sentence.

The lesson from Ahok’s political tragedy is that Lim Guan Eng and other non-Malay-Muslim politicians in government need to be more circumspect and measured when making public statements.

Pick battles carefully

Political capital and public goodwill is finite and must be employed judiciously for worthwhile causes – and not wasted on petty emotive issues that can distract the government from carrying out its promised reforms.

In other words, PH politicians need to pick their battles carefully especially on matters that can roil the Malay community. Lest they forget, 70% of Malay voters did not support PH in the last election and there is no guarantee that the remaining 30% will continue their support as well.

Elements of the old regime, namely Umno, relish every opportunity to pounce on gaffes made by non-Malay-Muslim PH politicians and sow doubts in the already fragmented Malay community.

If PH wishes to maintain or increase the level of support it enjoys from Malay voters, it needs to stop shooting itself in the foot by engaging in unnecessary controversies such as the Mandarin language imbroglio.

Language can serve as both a unifying and dividing force. The biblical parable of the Tower of Babel is the perfect illustration of the contradictory nature of language. The mythical Tower of Babel was constructed so high up the sky and comprised people speaking a single language. God later transformed the inhabitants of the tower into various linguistically different yet mutually incomprehensible groups, destroyed the tower and scattered its people across the earth to form the seeds of the diverse human community we know today.

At the heart of this parable lies the story of humankind challenging the power of God, the epitome of human arrogance and hubris that culminated in the unleashing of divine wrath – a lesson best heeded by Lim Guan Eng and other PH politicians.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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Dr Azmil Tayeb, the honorary secretary of Aliran, is a political science lecturer at Universiti Sains Malaysia. He is the winner of the 2019 Colleagues' Choice book prize (social science category) awarded by the International Convention of Asia Scholars for his book Islamic Education in Indonesia and Malaysia: Shaping Minds, Saving Souls
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Gram Massla
Gram Massla
8 Jul 2018 4.57am

Do people speak Malay in China, or, for that matter, India? If this land is Perseketuan Tanah Melayu then all matters pertaining to state and national affairs should be addressed in one language, and one language only. Bahasa Malaysia. Second, we need to be cognizant of political and power realities and ensure that another May 13 will not happen again. Third, and this is vital, those Malaysians of Chinese persuasion on whose hands hold much of the country’s wealth, will have to work harder to merge into a truly Malaysian identity, and forego their China one. Here we can begin to have another debate: what is a truly Malaysian identity?

Wong Kok Keong
Wong Kok Keong
1 Jul 2018 10.39am

Two problems with Dr Azmil’s article:
1) LGE did not shoot himself in the foot. He offered Mandarin translation of the BM press releases. And he did it based on experience governing Penang when Mandarin papers sometimes mistranslated his BM releases. As a translation, the Mandarin versions do not replace BM press releases, let alone usurping BM as the national language. Surely, other languages are also allowed and encouraged in a PH government. Even Wan Azizah came out strongly to make this clear.

2) Given that Merdeka Centre got it wrong by concluding from their survey that BN would win the May 9 election, it is better to take their survey like all other survey type research with a grain of salt. Quantitative survey cannot tell all.

Mary Chin
3 Jul 2018 12.39pm
Reply to  Wong Kok Keong

To me it was probably yet another LGE blunder — one of the many, which show he doesn’t know how to say the right thing at the right time (despite the years of experience). PM is probably right: it was a mistake. LGE being LGE, instead of cooling the mess he steps it up by vowing to do it again and again in the future. Common sense in social interactions whether at a meeting or a kopitiam: we avoid speaking in a language someone in the group can’t understand.

Mary Chin
3 Jul 2018 12.52pm
Reply to  Wong Kok Keong

I know some can’t understand even if statements are issued in BM. That some Malaysians can’t understand BM is an issue and is a completely different problem, which shouldn’t happen. I was in Chinese school all the way till Upper 6, I also spent 14 years away from the continent — BM remains a lifelong blessing.

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