Teh Tarik

Published: Sunday October 19, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Sunday October 19, 2014 MYT 3:05:40 PM

Politicians who curb language rights will make us a poorer nation

Some politicians are calling for language rights to be curbed. But Malaysia is richer because of its cultural and linguistic variety.

Is national unity in Malaysia about speaking only one language? Or being multi-cultural?

To answer that, try this old joke: What do you call a person who speaks three languages? Answer: Tri-lingual. Two languages? Bi-lingual. What about someone who speaks just one language? Answer: American.

For years now, we’ve been touting the “Malaysia Truly Asia” slogan to the world, declaring that we are a multi-lingual, multi-religious, multi-cuisine tourist paradise.

The implication is: why spend time and money traipsing all over India and China when you can experience those cultures, plus nusantara ones, all in one cosy, compact package called Malaysia?

Yet, some want to abolish that cultural diversity. Two weeks ago, some politicians called to abolish Chinese and Tamil primary schools.

And on Thursday, a former Information Minister said the only reason the Chinese are called “pendatang” or immigrants is that they have “preferred isolation over assimilation” and have “refused” to learn Bahasa Malaysia (properly).

The question here is: would Malaysia be culturally richer (or poorer) if Hokkien, Tamil, Kadazan, Cantonese, Iban, Bidayuh, Teochew, Malayalee, Mah Meri, Hakka, Bajau, Suluk, Hainan, Foochow, Punjabi, Telegu, Semai, Melanau, Kelabit, Kayan, Kenyah, Bugis, Minang, Jawanese, Murut, Lunbawang, Jakun, Temiar, Bateq, Filipino, Siamese and Portuguese peoples living here ... phew, let me catch my breath ... all stop speaking their ancestral languages and speak one, and ONLY one, National Language?

This sheer variety clearly makes a rich, colourful tapestry.

Do we want to throw all that away and become a mono-cultural, mono-lingual nation?

Or to use other analogies, do we want to sacrifice the natural biodiversity of the rainforest for rows of mono-cropped plantations? Do we want to force everyone to eat the same cuisine and live in bland (actually, boring) “perfectly planned towns”?

Perhaps the good ex-minister has been misinformed.

People flock to a language and culture not through force but because they respect, and are attracted to, its merits.

In the past, many Chinese (including my family) and Indians in Malaysia gave up being educated in their mother tongues to enter English schools.

Nowadays, teenagers imitate K-pop moves while richer folks send their children to expensive, private English-speaking schools. Can our Malay-medium primary schools become so world-class that everyone rushes to send their kids there?

Persuasion always works better than compulsion.

I admit that I often felt forced to learn Bahasa Malaysia just to pass exams in my 13 years of Malay-medium education.

It became more of “my” language only thanks to songs by Sheila Majid and Syafinaz, or when speaking it to other jungle trekkers.

My best Malay language “teacher” has actually been the PAS politician Mat Sabu. I listened to cassette tapes of his humorous political ceramah, not because I was “being told to obey” but because I was curious how he questioned the system in a funny way, much as Russell Brand does in the West.

Linguistic uniformity and cultural assimilation do not guarantee unity. If they did, then the Babas and Nyonyas, who speak Malay, cook with Malay spices and wear the sarong kebaya, should be recognised as bumiputra.

Both whites and blacks in the United States speak English, but the latter have long felt discriminated against, with the protests against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, being a recent example.

Or let’s take Indonesia, where Chinese schools were forcibly closed in the 1960s. But even though a whole generation of Chinese there speak only Bahasa Indonesia, they were still targetted in the 1998 racial riots.

Similarly the Shias and Sunnis of Iraq both speak Arabic but they are busy killing each other now. Why? Because the Shia-controlled central government in Baghdad had discriminated against Sunnis, who then rose in revolt with help from Islamic State fighters.

Clearly then, national unity is about genuine mutual understanding and respect for each other, rather than the shallow idea of domination, control and enforced linguistic assimilation.

This is best shown in Switzerland, where peoples speaking four official languages (German, French, Italian and Romansh) have co-existed for 800 years to create an oasis of peace, prosperity and democracy while Europe went through two World Wars.

The ex-minister also had issues about speaking the National Language “properly”?

Is it wrong to speak it with a Chinese or Indian accent? Yet, the way it’s spoken in Sabah, Sarawak, Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah certainly does not sound like the “standard Malay” heard on TV.

Does that mean that they, too, have “refused” to learn Bahasa Malaysia (properly)? That would be like saying that when Phil Collins speaks with a London Cockney accent he is not being “really English.”

And oh ... let’s also start using real Malay, not faux imported English words. Let’s say Ilmu Alam instead of Geografi, and perusahaan rather than industri because, surely, we have a mind of our own rather than an imported minda?

Diversity is our strength. I have heard two Chinese speak Kelantanese to each other in a coffee shop in Kota Baru.

Non-Chinese now make up 13% of students in Chinese schools. Some Penang Malays speak Hokkien. Some Chinese shopkeepers in Kapit, Sarawak can speak Iban.

I can speak Cantonese but hardly any Hokkien. Yet, I learnt the most pungent Hokkien curse words from my Malayalee Indian friend, who himself picked it up when he studied in the small town of Sungai Pelek, Selangor.

This linguistic cross fertilisation is the magic of Malaysia.

To use a food analogy, this country becomes culturally richer when Malays make yong tau foo and pau while Chinese cook nasi lemak and laksa. And everybody partakes of Indian-style roti canai and teh tarik.

It’s much more fun for everybody if we share and appreciate our differences.

Andrew Sia prefers full-bodied teh tarik over weak-tasting English tea any day. Speak to him at

Tags / Keywords: Language, Unity, Chinese schools, Bahasa Malaysia

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