Guan Eng's Chinesegate shows we need to mature from language politics

– Reuters

Lim Guan Eng has been crucified for using Malay, English and the "unforgivable" language, Chinese, in one of his press releases as Finance Minister.

Compare that to when President Obama once did a campaign ad entirely in Spanish to support (Mexican and South American) immigrants known as DREAMers ( It was well received by Americans, apart from Umno, I mean, Trump voters.

I find it deliciously ironic that a leader who provides an extra translation in Chinese to push for full transparency is condemned (by the "Friends of BN" Facebook group or FOBN).

Yet, when a certain former leader was covering up the country's true finances (and allegedly overpaying China for some deals), did FOBN deem him "patriotic"? Because he spoke in Bahasa Malaysia?

Why are some proverbial "pihak-pihak tertentu" or "certain quarters" in Malaysia more concerned about the linguistic packaging, rather than the substance of issues?

Let's step back for a moment here. Would there also have been such an allergic political reaction if a Malay leader used the Chinese language?

For example, there is Youtube clip showing Education Minister Dr Maszlee Malik, apparently at his work desk and wearing his government name tag, telling reporters, "Wo shih Ma Si Li, wo shih yi ban malai ren, yi ban hua ren, wo mama shih Hakka yeen. (I am Maszlee, I am half-Malay, half-Chinese, my mother is Hakka)."

Yet nobody objected when Dr Maszlee did that (he also speaks fluent Arabic, by the way). After all, the Prophet himself encouraged Muslims to pursue knowledge, even up to China (presumably, with the help of the Chinese language).

Similarly, during the launch of the ECRL project in August 2017, by then Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, most banners were in Chinese and the emcee spoke in Mandarin. Where were the FOBN "valiant defenders" of the national language then?

Many Pakatan Harapan leaders, when campaigning for the elections, added a "da jia wan shang hao" ("good evening everyone?" in Mandarin) and a "vanakum" ("greetings" in Tamil) into their ceramah speeches. There was no issue with that either.

The Arabic language is also heard at many government functions, even though it's not our national language. But nobody complains.

Let's look at an example beyond language.

Heads turned when M. Kulasegaran was sworn in as Human Resources Minister. This was because he was not wearing a songkok, but rather a traditional turban, called a thallapa. This, he said, "was also worn by (ancient) Tamil kings."

Now, can you imagine if Lim had been sworn in with headgear "also worn by ancient Chinese emperors"?

He would have probably been skinned alive politically for "disrespecting" the songkok and "insulting" Malay/national culture. Yet, when Kulasegaran did it, it was regarded as a "cute" cultural detail.

The difference is this: Indian (including Sikh) Ministers who wear turbans for official government functions are not considered a "threat".

But a Chinese Minister, who dares to translate a Malay press release into Chinese, is deemed to be linguistically "armed and dangerous".

Lim then replied to the FOBN attack, on his personal Facebook page, saying, "Using more than one language to make a statement does not mean that my love for Malaysia will be reduced...or that it will affect the status of Bahasa Malaysia as the official language."

It was a statement that nobody would disagree with. But the problem was that he said it only in Chinese, which FOBN (and others) used as ammunition to attack Lim further.

Sure, Lim has the right to use whatever language he chooses on his own FB page, just as I have the right to rant and rave on my own FB page.

Lim, who has a reputation for being combative, seemed to be trying to give a linguistic snub to FOBN, which he deemed to be racist. But that only brought on more attacks.

An analogy would be: a group of Malaysians are talking at a table in English or Malay, and suddenly the Chinese start conversing in Mandarin among themselves.

When I posted about this Chinesegate issue on my FB, one of my more open-minded Malay friends said, "I am envious that LGE is trilingual, and more envious that Dr Maszlee is quadrilingual."

Another, a bumiputra university professor, went further to suggest that the government should also consider using Kadazan, Iban and Tamil. My response was, yes why not?

After all, RTM has broadcast news in Malay, English, Mandarin and Tamil, my colleague Martin Vengadesan reminds me.

And at KLIA, I've heard multiculturalism go further, with announcements in Arabic and Japanese (plus Mandarin). Well, Malaysia Truly Asia, right?

If we can cater to these foreign languages, perhaps announcements, say at Sabah's airports or bus stations, can also be made in Kadazan, Bajau, Suluk or Rungus (depending on which district).

Malaysia has always been the meeting point of the monsoons, whose wealth was created when traders from East and West, from China, India, Arabia mingled and matched goods (and cultures) in this blessed land.

In other words, diversity and multiculturalism, were our historical competitive advantages. This is even more so now with the rise of China and India in the 21st century.

In fact, the Malay language itself was created by a fusion of native tongues, first with Sanskrit and Tamil, and then with Arabic.

If linguistic "patriots" really want to strengthen the status of Bahasa Malaysia, maybe they should first stop the "invasion" of English words into the language.

I personally prefer the words Ilmu Hisab (instead of Matematik), perusahaan (rather than industri) and Ilmu Alam (not Geografi). That's the way I learnt it in school until the subjects were "glamourised" with plagiarised, OK I mean, "borrowed" words.

That would probably be more useful than attacking a Minister for providing an extra Chinese translation of his press release.

Most importantly, if we are to truly progress in Malaysia Baru, we must rise above all these language polemics. Or we risk being bogged down with endless battles over symbols and "sensitivities", seeing shadows and slights in every corner.

Let's look beyond the linguistic packaging, and get into the meat of things.

For example, if we want to be truly patriotic and defend our nation from "foreign threats", we should protect our national treasures, such as our forests, rather than chop them down just so that a few leaders can pursue their worship of luxury Foreign Handbags.

We should protect Malaysian workers, and not underpay and overwork them just so that the big bosses can add a 7th luxury Foreign Car to his collection.

We should combat corruption, even if it's done by a leader whose first language is Malay. We should pursue good ideas, even if they come from leaders who are more fluent in Chinese, Tamil or, yes, English.

And we should help all poor Malaysians, whether they speak Teochew or Temiar, Kelabit or Kelantanese, Malayalam or Melanau, Bidayuh or Bajau.

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Andrew Sia

Andrew Sia

Teh Tarik is a delicious brew of ideas that can be served ‘khau kurang manis’ (strong and in your face) or sweet, milky and frothy.


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