Let's speak and be understood

1. I have nothing against Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob globetrotting to promote the use of the Malay language although I'm fearful that this is another jingoistic, vote-chasing "hangat-hangat tahi ayam" thing. And as if to thumb the nose at the Prime Minister's folly, the Sarawak government is allowing English to be used in the state's administration.

2. As a user of the Malay language, the national language of the Federation of Malaysia, and English, the second language of the country, I always believe that both languages have a role to play in our domestic and international relations.

3. I believe God enables human beings to develop languages for ease of communication. The Tanzanians, Kenyans and many others in East Africa communicate in Swahili.

4. If you're there, it's best that you communicate in Swahili if you know the language. If you don't and I'm certain not many Tanzanians speak Malay, you find a language that both the Tanzanians and you understand. That would most likely be English.

5. It's utterly unreasonable, costly and even perilous to insist that the Tanzanians communicate with you in Malay. How many Tanzanians understand Malay?

6. We have been speaking English to the world for ages. Our command of English used to be so good that our ministers were regularly elected to chair international conferences and our diplomats to lead the all-important drafting committee.

7. In addition to prime ministers like the late Tunku Abdul Rahman and Dr Mahathir Mohamad, other Malaysian leaders such as the late Muhammad Ghazali Shafie (aka King Ghaz), Rafidah Aziz, Musa Hitam and Anwar Ibrahim were highly sought after by the international press corp for insights and exclusives. That was my experience of covering these leaders and many more from the late 1970s right to the early part of the 21st century.

8. Sadly, in the intervening decades, we have lost much of that advantage as fewer and fewer of our ministers and diplomats are knowledgeable in global issues and are no longer proficient in English. This is made worse by the appointment of low-level politicians as ambassadors.

9. Let's face it. Unless you're the presidents of Russia, China or the United States, the delegates are not likely to be in too much of a hurry to put on their earpieces to listen to the translation of your speech. Of course, speaking in the mother tongue is unavoidable if your English is inadequate or plain bad.

10. This isn't about narrow nationalism and jingoism or trying to be a hero to one's voters in the heartland. Being understood and respected globally for intelligence and substance is what diplomacy is all about. It's not about taking to the podium at the United Nations General Assembly to exhibit one's national language or dress.

Datuk A. Kadir Jasin

Veteran journalist

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