Jack of all languages and master of none


IF there is one thing our politicians need to learn to save Malaysians from embarrassment, it is this — there is absolutely no need to use English if your command of the language is atrocious.

Old and unflattering video clips of Tan Sri Noh Omar (now Entrepreneur Development and Cooperative Minister) and Datuk Seri Rina Harun (Women, Family and Community Development Minister), who had delivered their speeches badly in English, have resurfaced.

They appeared to have been speaking to an international audience and so, had no choice but to use English.

But their listeners probably became more confused after straining to decipher what they were trying to say.

Surely, their aides should have insisted that they practised their speeches before delivering them, or really, if their pronunciation was beyond salvage, they should stick to using Bahasa Malaysia.

There is absolutely nothing wrong in delivering speeches in the national language, even if your audience prefers English, as interpreters can be made available easily.

Chinese Premier Xi Jinping speaks in Mandarin for sure. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks impeccable English but as he plays the nationalistic card, he uses Hindi exclusively, even when interviewed by the foreign media.

In a 2019 show with adventurer Bear Grylls, the Indian leader spoke in Hindi in the entirety.

Thai PM Prayut Chan-o-cha will definitely stick to speaking Thai. So will his counterparts from Japan, South Korea and Vietnam.

President Rodrigo Duterte, like most Filipinos, uses a mix of English and Tagalog, in all his speeches.

French leaders like Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, of course, choose to speak in French, probably still insisting that theirs is the rightful lingua franca, while German leader Angela Merkel prefers to speak in her native tongue.

The bottom line is this – leaders should not speak in a language they are not familiar with as their words are important and they shouldn’t be misunderstood.

No doubt, for those in Commonwealth countries like Malaysia, there is a certain level of snobbery and bias towards English-medium schooling and tertiary education in the United Kingdom, United States or Australia. English is an international language, without a doubt.

Our previous PMs had the benefit of having an English medium education.

Tunku Abdul Rahman was Anglophile, he spent years in England, as did Datuk Seri Najib Razak, who studied at St John’s Institution in Kuala Lumpur before going to Malvern College in Worcestershire and then University of Nottingham, England.

Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin had his secondary education in Muar, Johor, and the 74-year-old has a solid grasp of the English language although he studied locally.

In 2016, then Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi used English when he spoke at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

The polite comment over this episode had been “less than eloquent” but it was a disaster, really. I wrote a piece defending him for trying, as he could have easily opted for BM – which he should have done.

But the problem is this — we are right smack in the age of social media, Malaysians are in an unforgiving mood and are angry with the Cabinet line-up. The comments had been scathing, and these embarrassing videos will haunt our politicians for a while.

Comparison is often made with Singaporean leaders, which is unfair, as they have only one medium, which is English. Malay is the republic’s official language but let’s be honest, not many of them speak it well, or at all.

Over here, the present crop of leaders are from the Malay school background including Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob, whose parents were rubber tappers and certainly not from an aristocratic and privileged background.

Recently, Deputy Higher Education Minister Senator Datuk Dr Ahmad Masrizal Muhammad found himself a target when he posted a message to thank Malaysians over his appointment.

The short note was in BM except for a short sentence that read: “lets (sic) together light tomorrow with today.”

The grammar error was actually the missing apostrophe, as while the “light tomorrow with today” is strange to many of us, it was not wrong.

I googled it and found out that it was first used by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a prolific writer of poetry and prose of the Victorian era.

Last week, one fake picture went viral again, showing a signage purportedly put up in Semenyih, Selangor, which read: “Free wife, coffee brick and message” instead of free wifi, coffee break and massage.

Many of my friends quickly shared it, presumably angry at the continuing deterioration of the English language in Malaysia.

For one, our signages are in BM and even if there were those written in English, there would be no massage for sure, except maybe a “massage chairs”.

After 64 years of independence, many of us need to speak better Bahasa Malaysia and more widely, too.

And as the world evolves, it would do us good to speak Chinese as China is becoming the new economic powerhouse. If we have Arabic or Hindi thrown in, it is even more commendable.

In many European countries, most people are able to speak several languages proficiently. While we are without doubt multi-lingual, we are the master of none, really.

So how? Can ah? Cannot meh? Die lah like that.

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