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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.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #30

Chapter 4: Modern Model States

The Relevant Lessons For Malaysia (Cont’d)

A few years ago I was a guest teacher for the senior class in the school near my village in Malaysia where I once taught briefly as a temporary teacher. What an experience! I was taken aback at how passive and quiet the class was. There was no spunk or energy. In an attempt to stimulate some discussions I uttered some really silly and outrageous remarks just to get a reaction. Alas, none was forthcoming.

These students had such reverence for their teachers that they did not dare question me. More startling, when one brave soul attempted to challenge my statement, the others quickly put her down, saying in effect that questioning what I said was tantamount to being disrespectful, and thus sinful. It is this psychological effect imparted by the religious teachers that is so devastating.

These students did not begin that way. Something must have happened to them in their later years. I was with a lower class at another session and the atmosphere was much different. The pupils were lively, full of sparks and eager. I was relating to them the folk story, Batu Belah Batu Melanggup (The Mysterious Cave), about a mother who returned home after a hard day searching for food. All she had to show for her effort was a handful of mushrooms, which she cooked for her family. When she was done she was too tired to eat with her children and went to sleep instead. On wakening up, she was shocked that her children had not left her any portion. Saddened and disappointed with her children, she stormed out of her home to the mysterious cave, with her crying children trailing behind her, apologizing profusely. Undeterred, she continued on and was swallowed by the cave, leaving her children behind, orphaned.

The moral of the story as related to me in my childhood is that children must always think of their mothers first, as encapsulated by the hadith that the path to heaven is at the mother’s feet. The pupils’ reaction to the story was as I anticipated; they blamed the selfish children.

A few years earlier I had related the same story to my son’s middle school class in California, and the children there reacted with horror at the mother’s action, variously labeling her as cruel and uncaring for abandoning her children – a very different reaction from that of Malaysian pupils.

When I mentioned the response of my son’s class to the Malaysian pupils, they were appalled. After much prompting on my part, some of the pupils did finally agree that the American viewpoint was not unreasonable. And from there the discussions took off. Surprisingly most of the girls were supportive of the American viewpoint (perhaps a reflection of a nascent maternal instinct) but the boys stuck with the traditional interpretation. At the end of the class even their teacher was also surprised that I had managed to create a lively discussion with that simple story.

The point is, even the classics could be interpreted in many ways. Unfortunately today in the typical Malaysian classroom, even at the highest levels, teaching is a one-way street: from teacher to student. No discussions, no feedback; everything is black and white. Besides, the right answers are given at the back of the book, or in some sample essays written by somebody.

Respect for teachers is good, but not blind obedience. In many ways religious teachers in Malaysia remind me of athletic coaches in American schools. American students greatly respect their coaches because these coaches control who gets to play. Likewise, Malaysian religious teachers control their students by exploiting the students’ psychological vulnerabilities.

While the Irish are purposefully reducing the role of the Church in the state and in their personal lives, Malaysian Muslims are seeking an even greater role for religion. The current frenzy of Islamization in Malaysia eerily reminds me of the early Irish experience. If this is not stopped and reversed now, it will be too late and Malaysia will suffer the same fate as Ireland once did. I will return to this issue more fully later in the chapter on Islam (9).

The other lesson worthy of emulation is the Irish attitude towards the English language. Malaysians share with the Irish a common legacy of being colonized by the English and as such, we harbor many negative sentiments regarding things English, including and especially the language. Malaysia has an advantage in that unlike Gaelic, Malay is still a living language and widely used. We should nurture that. At the same time we should be pragmatic and accept English for what it is – an international language. Had the Irish stick with Gaelic, their citizens would be at a definite disadvantage. By opting for English in their schools and colleges (and also in everyday use), the Irish are poised to benefit from globalization. Indeed many multinational companies are flocking to Ireland precisely because of the ready availability of well trained, English-speaking workers. By adopting English, Ireland is able to leapfrog its development. The Irish may be anti-English in other spheres, but not in language. Malaysia, even though it has been independent for nearly half a century, still harbors lingering suspicions that everything English or (Western) is bad.

The Irish had gone overboard in ignoring their native tongue and is now desperate to resurrect that near-dead language. Gaelic is now mandatory in schools and a pass in the subject is required for senior public appointments. Politicians now generously sprinkle their speeches with Gaelic.

Besides being the official language of Malaysia, Malay is also the language of hundreds of millions more in Southeast Asia. Assured that Malay would not meet the fate of Gaelic, Malaysia should encourage its students and citizens to study and use English.

Even the Koreans, Chinese, and Japanese are desperately learning English, and their languages are even more advanced and older than Malay. English is an international language not by fiat but as a matter of fact. We need an international language, just like we need a uniform global standard for everything else, to facilitate exchanges and communication.

In the past elite linguists tried to concoct “Esparanto,” but that artificial language failed miserably. By default, English is now the international language.

Adopting English does not mean that the world wants to imitate the ways of the English. Malaysians fluent in English have no desire to be a Mat Salleh culup (Englishman wannabe).

Why English and not Chinese is the preferred international language is an interesting question. After all Chinese is spoken by more people than any other language. It would have been the more natural candidate. Trying to explain why English and not Chinese is the language of choice is like trying to explain why the personal computer is preferred over Apple; or VHS format over Beta on video recordings. The consumers have voted. Undoubtedly had the Anglo-Saxon world (Britain and America) been third-rate economic powers, English would now enjoy as much popularity and wide usage as Swahili.

In truth the future does not belong to the English speakers. Indeed those who are fluent in English in addition to their own (or any other) language will be at a great advantage, enjoying a marked premium in the marketplace. Next would be those fluent only in English. The losers would be those who speak only their own mother tongue regardless of how widespread that language is used. China is making its most prestigious universities use English as the medium of instruction. As the Chinese premier rightly said, he has no particular love for that language but it is in the national interest that the best Chinese students be fluent in it.

Properly designed, Malaysia’s educational system could produce citizens who would be in great demand worldwide. Most Malaysians, especially non-Malays, are already functionally trilingual: their mother tongue, Malay and English. What a great advantage! Malays too could be trilingual: Malay, English and Arabic. But with the preoccupation with Malay, English gets shortchanged. The official mindset seems to be that for Malay to advance, other languages must be suppressed. I argue the contrary. Studying other languages facilitates the learning of Malay.

By being fluently bilingual or trilingual I mean more than just the ability to communicate in multiple languages. It means the ability to breath, live, and dream in those languages. Such a skill would give one a different perspective on looking at the world. The difference in saying “beautiful house” in English and “rumah cantek” (“house beautiful”) in Malay reflects not simply a mere rearrangement of words but of viewing the universe differently.

When I was in school I never appreciated Malay literature. It was only later in college, after being exposed to the richness of English literature that I began to understand my own native literature. My knowledge of good English literature enhances the understanding of my own. Had I been cocooned in the world of Malay language alone, I would have missed all those splendid opportunities.

Eminent writers in Malay today (I include Indonesian writers) are those who have been exposed to great literatures of other languages. Before Pramoedya Ananta Toer produced those epic novels, he was already translating the English classics into Indonesian. Similarly, Malaysia’s Kassim Ahmad and Shahnon Ahmad (no relation) had significant education in English. They were exposed to the refined ideals of the Western world that enhanced their literary perspective and skills.

One of the reasons I (and many others) found concerts of the late Sudirman so enjoyable was because his choreography and stage presentations were unique. He was not simply aping the style of popular Western artists (as so many third-rate performers do); he broke new grounds, with the artistic and skillful blending of East and West. I have always wondered how much better Malaysian movies and television shows would be had our producers and directors been trained at such eminent institutions as UCLA cinematography school.

Next: The Relevant Lessons For Malaysia (Cont’d)


Anonymous Tom Lai said...

Doc, re "Why English and not Chinese is the preferred international language is an interesting question After all Chinese is spoken by more people than any other language" - might I suggest that English came about achieving its status thanks to the US. Being the New World with its immense wealth, democratic ideas, freedom, break away from old traditions etc, it became a magnet for everyone. Couple that with literally winning WWII for the rest of the world and its resulting industrial and economic might, the attractiveness of US is obvious. Had the US been French speaking, then I bet that would have been the international language today.
Incidentally, though Chinese may be spoken by the most number of people but that is mostly in China. Defining as "international" language -should mean most extensively spoken/used around the world.
Anyway, good article, Doc. Always a pleasure to read your blog.

7:36 AM  

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