When one’s passionate about language

  • Thinking Liberally
  • Tuesday, 07 Nov 2017

I was in Singapore over the weekend to attend the Singapore Writers Festival. First held in 1986, the festival is now an annual event in the city-state.

The festival has been successful in attracting some major international speakers. But I attended the festival to understand Singapore a bit more. So, I only joined the sessions about Singapore, featuring local speakers.

Two of the sessions touched on the issue of activism in Singapore. One was focused on youths and how they contribute to making a difference. The other was more general, talking about how activism is conducted.

In both, the issues discussed were rather “safe” compared to the events that we see in Malaysia.

I also attended several sessions that were conducted in Malay because I wanted to learn more about the Malay society in Singapore today. Here I found the debates were more substantial.

One panel discussion particularly attracted my attention. It was on how Malay literature in Singapore has evolved over time, and how government policy on language influences that evolution.

The crux of the debate was the impact of a dual language policy introduced by the government, through which English became a widely spoken language. The policy resulted in English becoming more preferred than Malay.

In more practical terms, the policy very quickly resulted in students in schools and universities, including Malay students, using more English in their daily communication. And even when it comes to books, they prefer to read English books rather than Malay ones.

The discussion resembles the one we have been having in Malaysia for years. There were passionate comments about how people might no longer appreciate the Malay language if the current trajectory is maintained.

Several people compared the practice in Singapore with Malaysia, since the two have much shared history.

One of the issues was the corruption of the Malay language by foreign languages. So many people these days mix their languages when speaking. And there was a general feeling that the introduction of English words into supposedly Malay sentences corrupts the language.

I took the chance to question the speakers on this point. I am not completely convinced that using foreign words in our sentences would always corrupt the language.

A language evolves over time, and new words are brought into the language very regularly. Not just into the Malay language, but into English and almost all other languages, too.

There are so many words that originated from French, Spanish, and more, in the English language today.

If we reject the introduction of all new words into a language, then how would the language evolve? The Arabs introduced the word algebra into English as well as Malay.

When that word was first brought into the Malay and English lexicons, I wonder if language purists at that time tried to reject it.

If new words cannot be used at all in a language, I wonder if we would even have the Malay language? Or any language at all for that matter?

But the most fascinating discussion I had was actually not at the festival. It was in a GrabCar when I was leaving the festival.

Somehow the stars must have aligned themselves in a pretty special way because the driver who picked me up also attended the event and was behind me when I stood up to ask the question. He is a Singaporean who lives in Johor Baru and drives into Singapore every day to ferry passengers.

As soon as I sat in his car, he started a 30-minute lecture, telling me how frustrated he is with some Singapore Malay parents who, to his mind, refuse to move with the times.

Their desire to retain the Malay language is usually dumped onto the shoulders of their children, and he believes this sometimes results in undue pressure on the kids.

Since he lives in Johor Baru, the conversation of course very quickly moved to Malaysia and our politics. Again, he expressed his frustration that our politicians keep changing their minds about our language policy.

He believes we need to have English as the main language of communication, while Malay should remain as the national language.

As we reached my destination, he softened his tone and started telling me about how he is proud his two younger brothers are now successful executives in multinational companies. As the oldest son, he had to sacrifice and work so that he could fund his brothers’ studies. And he can see how a command of the English language benefits them.

All in all, it was an enjoyable weekend. The festival was a good experience. And the passionate conversation with the GrabCar driver was really fun, albeit completely unexpected.

  • Wan Saiful Wan Jan is chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (www.ideas.org.my). The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.
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