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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Saturday, April 30, 2005

Develop the Race First, Language Will Follow Suit

Comments And Analysis
The Sun Daily, April 22, 2005

Develop the Race First, Language Will Follow Suit

M. Bakri Musa

The recently concluded Second Malay Education Congress repeats the pattern of previous gatherings: tedious and repetitive presentations followed by a slew of resolutions asking for – what else – more government help.

Malay leaders, nationalists and scholars confuse one simple fact. Developing the Malay language is not the same as developing the Malay community. Measures that help one may not be beneficial to and indeed may hinder the other. Malay language has grown immensely since the country’s independence, yet there is no comparable progress of the Malay community. Malay language has proven itself capable of use at the highest intellectual level, yet Malays still need substantial quotas to enter our universities. This essential point is missed by many.

In our preoccupation with fostering the Malay language, we neglect the more important and difficult task of developing Malay society.

A language that is the mother tongue of over 200 million people in the region cannot be suppressed. Those self-professed “warriors” of Malay language are preoccupied fighting a non-existent enemy. They would be better off focusing on developing the Malay community.
Malays risk being marginalized if we are not prepared for the highly competitive world. Malays in Indonesia are fast sinking into a permanent economic basket case; those in Mindanao and Southern Thailand are consumed fighting against instead of accommodating with the authorities; while our brethren in Brunei are in a perpetual feudal dreamland narcotized by the opulence provided by their oil. Malaysian Malays are our last remaining hope, and for that reason alone we have a special obligation to do what is right and be an example to our kin elsewhere.

In an earlier essay (The Language Dilemma Malays Face, Sept 11, 04), I suggested that we have for too long clung to the myth of Maju Bahasa Maju Bangsa (as the language progresses, so does the race). There is no historical or empirical evidence to support this notion. I argue the contrary: Maju Bangsa Maju Bahasa. Develop our race first, then our language will follow suit.

While we can force the growth of the Malay language by passing laws, developing the Malay community is a much more monumental undertaking. It cannot be done through fiat or endless exhortations.

Yet we persisted for decades in doing both despite the proven futility. We introduced rules mandating quotas in various spheres, and for businesses to have Malay participation. The end result of university quotas is a glut of unemployable Malay graduates; for forced participation in business, a class of economic parasites and rent seekers. Far from enhancing our competitiveness, such preferences erode it. They also corrode our moral fiber.

We endlessly exhort our people to seek knowledge, but we do not equip them with the necessary tools. The bulk of new scientific and technical knowledge is in English, yet our people are woefully illiterate in that important language. We tell our entrepreneurs to tap the world’s markets, yet we fail to acknowledge that before we can do that, we must first speak the language of our customers, be it English, Mandarin or Swahili. This is elementary.

The biggest markets today and thus our potential important customers are the English-speaking world. Yet we perpetuate in our people’s mind the myth that learning this language is tantamount to denigrating our own.

To be literate only in our own language makes us insular, and our collective insularity is our biggest stumbling block. If we were more outward looking we would learn that our dilemmas are not unique and that others have successfully overcome similar problems. The Irish managed to overcome their long inferior status in comparison to the English, with Ireland’s economy now regularly outperforming that of Britain. At one time the Irish were literally strangled by the strictures of the Catholic Church, much like Malays today are to Orthodox Islam.

There is much that we Malays can learn especially from the Irish and others. Before we can do that however, we must first crawl out from under our self-made coconut shell. Learning another language – in particular English – is the equivalent of lifting off this shell, and exposing ourselves to and learning from the wider world.


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