Form 3 students in discussion. We must put in effort to master the national language. FILE PIC

NATIONALISTIC (or not) is the statement, “Kepada rakyat Malaysia yang tidak tahu Bahasa Malaysia, anda tidak layak menjadi warganegara Malaysia!” (To those Malaysians who do not know the own national language, Bahasa Malaysia, they should not call themselves Malaysians)?

To be honest, I am in a dilemma because I have many Malaysian friends who are good citizens, but do not know how to speak or write in Bahasa Malaysia, or BM.

In fact some of them are not Chinese or Indians, but Malays. In fact, I also worry that my own children may not be able to speak or write in Bahasa Malaysia because they are sent to English-medium schools. And, I am also nervous that I am writing this article in English rather than in Bahasa Malaysia!

So, where do we put our opinions on this subject?

That particular statement (mentioned earlier) was purposely put as a Facebook status to provoke opinions from Malay-sians. I must say that as much as I have anticipated some of the responses (for or against), I also felt surprised that Bahasa Malaysia has not been put in a dignified position in the minds of many (Malaysians). It has been put on “optional” mode to many Malay-sians where even if they do not know the language, they do not feel that their lives will be affected.

By right, English is a second language to Malaysians; but in reality, those in urban areas, take it as a first language (I am also guilty of this).

As I progress in the corporate world, I find myself dealing with government officials more and more. Hence, I am forced, or rather obliged, to use Bahasa Ma-laysia when conversing with the officials. That word “obliged” or “forced” that I just used is so, so wrong. As a citizen of Malaysia, I should not feel that way. I should feel comfortable enough to discuss official matters in Bahasa Malaysia, “the” national language.

One of the comments that I received on Facebook as a result of the abovementioned statement is this: “Even though you are good in Bahasa Malaysia, have you done enough for the country? What is the use of being fluent in the national language when you are just eyeing subsidies and the like? What about those who prefer to express in other languages, but yet give their all to the country? Don’t judge a person’s loyalty and/or patriotism by the language they converse in. Better yet, don’t judge at all!”

There are many truths in that series of comments and I agree with all. However, do we just forget Bahasa Malaysia altogether even if we are good citizens? Do we not care about our heritage and culture? I wonder whether Hang Tuah’s “Takkan Hilang Melayu di Dunia” (Malays will not be forgotten) will be invalid in the case of the language itself.

Many also said that we should always look at substance over form. The former (substance) relates to the deeds of a citizen and the latter (form) relates to physical matters such as language. Yes, substance over form is good but surely we cannot entirely ignore the form?

You must know how to read and write the national language but not necessarily at a superb level. When a foreigner asks a Malay-sian, “Do you know how to say (certain words or phrases) in your national language?”, surely you cannot say, “Sorry, I do not know my country’s national language”.

This is just like how the Americans and Australians require a certain level of English proficiency before you can become a citizen or a permanent resident.

In fact, when I was in an Australian university some 20 over years ago, I was failed by my lecturer not because of my facts (substance), but because my English (form) was horrible. I got a distinction (but fail unless I pass English Summer School). I had to go to Summer School — and passed.

Perhaps, the context of the statement (in the Facebook status) has been perceived to be too extreme but, again, we cannot ignore it 100 per cent. Malaysians are lucky that the government did not force us to really, really use Bahasa Malaysia in our daily lives, both official or not. In Indonesia the Chinese speak fluent Bahasa Indonesia and even have Indonesian names like Wirianti, Suprianto and whatnot. Sometimes I cannot tell the difference between a Malay Indonesian or a Chinese Indonesian. Now, in Malaysia we have the privilege of not being forced as such; and what do we do? We ignore it altogether. Surely that is not good for the nation?

As mentioned earlier, I do agree that Malaysians who cannot speak or write in Bahasa Malaysia are not less of a Malaysian than those who can speak Bahasa Malaysia. It is, of course, what we do that matters to show our support for the nation. Nationalism or patriotism can be measured in other ways apart from the use of language. However, we must not ignore it totally. We must at least put in effort to master the national language. We may not be really, really good at it in the proficiency scale, but at least we can tell foreigners that, “Yes, we do know how to speak and write our national language”.

While we put in effort to maintain the dignity of the national language, we are commercially pushed to master the English language for the sake of globalisation and internationalisation of the professional work that we do.

There is no harm in learning many languages. The Malaysian Chinese and Indians know how to speak three languages (assuming they can speak Bahasa Malaysia and their tongue of origin).

The Swiss can speak German, Italian and French. The people of Miami (Florida) speak Spanish, but when asked in English, they will reply in English.

A national language is what keeps us together just like how a nation’s flag or a national anthem does. It is a sense of belonging. A focal point of reference to remind us that we are Malaysians.

Our hundreds of years of open immigration policy has led at least two major ethnic groups to be assimilated into the citizenship of the nation — namely from China and from India. Imagine, one day, if the Bangladeshis and the Rohingya are accepted as citizens of Malaysia?

Do we still want them to only stick to their own languages or would we also ask them to learn Bahasa Malaysia?

Finally, I would like to remind Malaysians that our nation is a young one. We are going to celebrate only our 60th independence anniversary this Aug 31.

What have we as a nation gone through over the past six decades? Our first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, was pretty much concentrated on establishing the nation’s sovereignty matters — such as battling communism and apartheid; and such. The subsequent prime ministers, Tun Abdul Razak and Tun Hussein Onn, were great at abolishing poverty and assimilating citizens of all walks of life. Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi were championing the country into internationalisation — the former on modernisation and the latter on moderation of Islamic values.

After all these, we are now faced with the urge to transform from a developing nation to a developed nation and we will need to support the current prime minister, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, to realise this in whatever way we can.

What does a developed nation have if we are to benchmark? A developed nation has identity, a strong identity. What are the building blocks of identity? I must say, culture. What is a culture of a nation without common elements for all citizens to grab hold onto?

We need that common element. I say, let us start with strengthening the acceptance and appreciation of our very own national language, Bahasa Malaysia.

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