English vs. Bahasa Malaysia A German friend of mine once asked me why I did not use Malay as an every day language when I am Malaysian. What piqued his curiosity was when I had a Malay friend over and both of us had a conversation in flawless English. My German friend could not help but to ask us why the national language was not used. “In Germany, everybody speaks German! ” he said. And then it hit me, that in Thailand, locals speak Thai every day on almost every occasion.
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In Philippines and Indonesia, people of whichever descent speak in the national language. On the contrary, my Malay friend and I are both born in Malaysia. We are both brought up in Malaysia and went through over a decade of Malaysian education. So why were we not engaging ourselves in a Malay conversation? On 31st August 1967, Malay became the national language of Malaysia and also the sole official language. The enforced use of Malay in government services and education system was to ensure the retention of Malay privileges and special rights.
However, the Government made a decision to refer to the language as Bahasa Malaysia (Malaysian Language) instead of Bahasa Malayu (Malay Language) to be more inclusive of the other ethnic groups living in Malaysia. I think there is absolutely nothing wrong with having Bahasa Malaysia as our default language. It is not news that the Malays are numerically superior to any of the other races in our society. But if the usage of the national language is one of the factors that define our identity as Malaysians, are we speaking in Bahasa Malaysia enough?
Perhaps for the sake of national unity, Malaysians are always bravely exploring the socio-cultural conundrums of our identity at a time where our atavistic beliefs collide with the incoming urgency of globalisation. It is reported that in 2010, over RM38mil was spent to promote understanding of the 1Malaysia concept which was aimed at strengthening unity among the races in the country. So let’s ask the perennial questions: Who are we as individuals and who are we as Malaysians?
And in this shiny new millennium, are we going to stay as the citizens of Malaysia or will we become citizens of the world? The truth with using the national language is that not a lot of the other races use it as often. The only time I use Bahasa Malaysia is when I need to renew my passport or licenses. English translations are already available on most forms including those found in post office and banks. In shopping malls or service centers, most people will automatically start a conversation with me in English. When I meet my friends, we chatter in English.
I have lost count of my Malay friends who grew up in the metropolis, speaking English with their family members and other Malay friends! Furthermore, it is very unusual to even see two Chinese friends speaking Bahasa Malaysia to each other; they usually speak in their native Chinese language or in English! Just a few years ago, Science and Mathematics were being taught in English. This measure was taken by the Malaysian Education Ministry to ensure that Malaysian students were up-to-date about these subjects compared to their Western counterparts.
Of course, it helps that most scientific and mathematical papers are in English. However, due to the pressure from certain political parties, the plan was cut short in order to preserve the competitiveness of the national language. Does speaking English make me any less of a Malaysian? Not as far as I am concerned. I still feel like a Malaysian. I am Malaysian first, and then Chinese second. When someone asks me about my race, I answer ‘Malaysian Chinese’ because this is the country I have grown up in even though English is my everyday language.
I am just as Malaysian as any of my friends who speak in English and their own native languages in the comfort of their own homes. I am still the biggest fan of Malaysian food and I am still a holder of MyKad, which legally certifies my nationality. And I have absolutely no qualms when it comes to anyone speaking Malay, to me or anyone else. Looking at the bigger pictures, international countries investing in Malaysia are looking for local talents who are not only able to speak in their native languages but also able to carry professional conversations in English as well.
If the usage of English is to be looked down upon simply due to cultural reverence for the Malay language, how will we fare in an increasingly globalised world where your level of English determines the success in your career? “It’s because we are 1Malaysia,” that was how I answered my German friend’s question. (795 words) REFERENCES Multilingual Mania, English or National Language? Thoughts from Malaysia, viewed 1st April 2011, Sipalan, J. , 2011, Murugiah: RM38mil spent on 1Malaysia, viewed 4th April 2011, Wikipedia, Malay Language, viewed 1st April 2011,