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Mind your national language

Let the language of the nation bloom without the punitive hands of the authorities


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It is unfortunate that Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) chairman Awang Sariyan found it fitting recently to propose harsh punishments for those he regarded as being “disrespectful” of the national language.

The professor wanted to impose a penalty of RM50,000 or jail as a way of supposedly evoking love and patriotism for the country by amending the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka Act 1959.

Predictably, this queer logic triggered reactions critical of the proposition, with one calling it “mind-boggling”.

It is baffling that severe punishment for “disrespecting” Bahasa Malaysia is seen as an effective measure of instilling love for the language. Such a strange brew of coercion could instead lead to resentment and alienation.

If the law is to be imposed, would a corporate body or an institution using an English name be considered disrespectful?

Or would a political body preferring an English name to its Malay equivalent be considered awfully disrespectful, as in the case of the United Malays National Organisation (Umno)?

To be sure, Bahasa Malaysia as the national language is a given. It has been accepted by ordinary Malaysians as an essential tool of expression, inter-ethnic communication and understanding and, therefore, its survival and continued use in the society is certain.

What is needed is appropriate encouragement and incentives for people to make use of the language so that it is seen and felt to be truly “ours”, not that of the Malay community per se.

That is why, for instance, the English language, which has become an international lingua franca, is no longer ‘possessed’ by the English people, and there are several variations of the language that exist worldwide without the English people having to feel threatened.

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This would mean that a vibrant use of the national language would necessitate liberty for all Malaysians to actively use all the words that are found in the repository of the language.

Herein lies the problem. Can non-Malays/non-Muslims then make use of such Malay words, mainly borrowed from the Arabic, as Ilahi, masjid, iman, dakwah and ibadat in their writings and conversations? These are some of the words that certain states in the federation have banned non-Muslims from using.

Restrictive use of the language obviously does not make the national language universal in usage and pride. Language should not be licensed. It is divisive and counterproductive.

In the same vein, Malaysians, who are especially well-versed in Bahasa Malaysia as well as other languages, would expect to be considered fully fledged citizens, deserving of equal treatment as enshrined in the Federal Constitution.

While the national language has great potential for uniting people of various backgrounds, their sense of belonging to the larger community may be weakened particularly by certain government policies that are discriminatory. Put another way, it takes more than a national language to unite a people, especially where a sense of marginalisation prevails.

Efforts to improve the mastery of English (as well as a continued use of mother tongues) should not be regarded as disrespectful of the national language, given that English is considered a useful language for trade and commerce as well as knowledge-seeking.

In this regard, the use of English as a second official language in Sarawak need not be perceived as a conscious attempt to suppress the use of the national language and thus, disrespectful of the language.

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Besides, history has shown that cultural encounters have made it possible for languages to be enriched and made versatile through the borrowing of words and ideas. If such linguistic adoptions were to cease, a language would not be able to flourish.

The Malay language would have been deprived of such words as kongsi, angkasa, agama, anugerah, asmara, almari, bahasa, bendera, budi”, bumiputera, kedai, durjana and bas had it not been for the borrowing from, say, Sanskrit, Portuguese, Arabic, Tamil, Hokkien and English that occurred over hundreds of years.

A liberal approach to linguistic encounters is essential, particularly in a world that has been made borderless by the internet, international trade and diplomacy.

Let the language of the nation bloom without the punitive and powerful hands of the authorities. – The Malaysian Insight

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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ordinary citizen
ordinary citizen
30 Jun 2022 9.16pm

“Can non-Malays/non-Muslims then make use of such Malay words, mainly borrowed from the Arabic, as Ilahi, masjid, iman, dakwah and ibadat in their writings and conversations?”

One should engage the Malay/Muslim communities at large (rather than the political/religious leaders who purportedly represent them) in discussions over these. But we need to understand them in-depth, what really troubles them before we can even convince them that this-and-that won’t “pesongkan akidah” or disenfranchise them or whatnot. It could be a transgenerational trauma passed down since the colonial era, for all we know.

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