English or National Language? Thoughts from Malaysia

by multilingualmania on January 5, 2011

in Bilingualism, International


Malaysia is a South-East Asian country, neighbor to Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand. The national language is Bahasa Malaysia, which literally translates to ‘Malaysian Language’. It is used for most official functions and all layers of government administration.

The three largest ethnic groups in Malaysia are the Malays (50.4%), the Chinese (23.7%) and the Indians (7.1%). The government refers to the national language as Bahasa Malaysia, but under the country’s National Language Act 1967, the official language of Malaysia is Bahasa Melayu.

What is the difference between the government’s ‘Bahasa Malaysia’ and the constitution’s ‘Bahasa Melayu’? The former translates to ‘Malaysian Language’, the latter to ‘Malay Language’. This is a very subtle but powerful difference – Bahasa Malaysia or Malaysian Language, implies that the language is the language spoken by all Malaysians, while Bahasa Melayu or Malay language implies that the language is spoken by the dominant ethnic group, the Malays. The Government made a decision to refer to the language as Bahasa Malaysia, to be more inclusive of the other ethnic groups living in Malaysia, and have refused to be drawn into a debate of semantics by those who claim that the language is truly that of the Malays and theirs alone.

Whatever the name of the language, it is a requirement for all students to get at least a passing score in their Bahasa Malaysia paper for their final high school paper, which is an equivalent to the British GSCE (General Certificate of Secondary Education). You can score the highest grade possible for all your other subjects, but until you pass your Bahasa Malaysia paper, your school will not grant you the certificate. Any student who fails the paper will have to retake it, until they score a passing grade.

Furthermore, up until very recently, all subjects were taught in Bahasa Malaysia.

This made it difficult for us who weren’t all that fluent in it. Sure, I could get by in day-to-day conversations, but learning everything in a language that is not your first language does have its challenges. First languages are said to be the languages that we think in; imagine the added difficulty of learning something in a language that is not the language you think in, for eleven years. All the books that you read for fun are in English, but those in school are in another language. You converse with your family in English or Chinese or Indian, but the medium of instruction was in another language. Not every student is able to convey their thoughts equally in both languages. A lot of the times I found myself struggling with a particular word or phrase, and having to translate it from English to Malay. Imagine how much easier it would be if the medium was in English! It gets frustrating because here is THE exam that will determine where you go and what you do in life, or at least the very first part of your career, but it’s not in your first language.

There are schools in Malaysia where the medium of instruction is English; these are privately run and commonly referred to as ‘International Schools’. However, the fees are exponentially higher than those of government schools, and out of reach for the average family. The students who go there are mostly the children of Malaysian expatriates, or those of rich Malaysians who want their children to get an excellent grasp of English. In Malaysia, as in most other parts of the world, being fluent in English means a bright, future ahead; many a parent would dream of their children going off to work overseas, or starting their career at an international company, where the pay is better and there are more opportunities in terms of career advancement.

Most families eschew this, however, and prefer saving money for their children’s university education instead. Those who are able to struggle valiantly to do so, as the general perception is that degrees from an overseas university is superior to that from a local one, mainly due to the fact that university courses overseas are taught in English, and that living in a developed English speaking nation (UK, US and Australia are the favorite destinations) will broaden their horizons.

Well, I was fortunate enough to be able to go overseas, a privilege that not every student has. When I was in Australia, I was glad that, here, finally, I could fully express myself. There was no need to translate any words in my mind, and all the books I love reading were in the same language as the one my textbooks. There was no more struggling with certain phrases or idioms…in essence, I could write and speak it, almost as soon as I think it. It was no surprise to me that as soon as the medium of instruction changed to English, my grades improved dramatically.

In truth, I seldom use Bahasa Malaysia any more. The only time I use it is I’m back in Malaysia and have to deal with renewing my passport, or driver’s license, or filling up forms at the bank or postal office. Even at restaurants or shopping at the mall, most people tend to automatically converse with me in English. In Malaysia, how it often works is that, the Malays, those who speak Bahasa Malaysia the most, converse with each other in ‘their’ language. They use either Bahasa Malaysia, or English to communicate with the other ethnic groups, the Chinese and the Indians. It would be very unusual for two Chinese friends to speak Bahasa Malaysia to each other, and the same goes for the Indian community; these two communities speak in their “native” languages, or in English.

For a brief handful of years, the Malaysian Education Ministry has allowed for Science and Mathematics to be taught in English, and all exam questions in these two subjects could be answered in either English or Bahasa Malaysia. The reason behind this change was that the Ministry wanted Malaysian students to be as up-to-date about these two subjects as their Western counterparts. Recently, due to protests and pressure from certain political parties that are afraid that such a move would be bad for the popularity and competitiveness of the national language’s use by the local scientific community, the Education Ministry has decided to revert back to teaching the two subjects in Bahasa Malaysia.

I can only look at all the political maneuvering and debates, and just wonder, whether, somewhere out there, there’s a student who is now facing the same challenges I did, who is now struggling to finish his or her homework, who might have gotten better grades had everything be taught in English. I have no regrets in being well-educated in the national language; learning languages offer you a different outlook on life. But I had the privilege of being brought up at home surrounded by English, and thus it became my first language. What about all the other students who aren’t as privileged? How will they fare in an increasingly globalised world where your level of English determines your success in life?

About the Author: Timothy CM Heng is a freelance writer who spends most his time writing for charities, surfing Facebook for business opportunities, and getting lost in his own dream world. Not content with having an imaginary friend, he has eleven.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

cl February 7, 2011 at 8:52 pm

I’ve heard one criticism about the PPSMI objectors, which is that they ‘confused education with culture’, something like that. Can’t really say how much I agree with that, but it makes me realize the extent that BM is used outside classrooms. Historically, American cartoons remain in English on Malaysian TV. And quite a number ‘Malay’ dramas are actually in bahasa rojak. I used to have no problem with that, but now I can see the long-term ramifications with concern to BM. Fewer and fewer know how to use BM (and English) properly. So, to rejuvenate BM, more attention should be given outside the school system, e.g. English cartoons should be dubbed in BM (i.e. “proper” BM) because cartoons are primarily cultural tools, rather than educational. In India, despite English as official language, Hollywood films are dubbed into Hindi, Tamil etc. I guess this is how Indians juggle their lingos.

ueeurjdsjjw February 27, 2011 at 1:02 am

That’s very difficult. I was born in Malaysia, And I’m here in Belgium since I was 8. And now I’m 16. We’re moving back to Malaysia and it would be extremely difficult for me to learn Bahasa Malaysia. I heard that last 2006 the Ministry of Education has a new policy, that all Malaysia Citizens needs to study a few subjects in Malaysia even if they’re in an International School. Couldn’t this problem be solved? I don’t even know a word of Bahasa Malaysia

multilingualmania February 28, 2011 at 9:53 am

I hope that it all works out for you!

tommy May 2, 2011 at 10:56 am

After reading such article, i couldnt agree more and i am a 27 year old malaysian chinese,having had the exposure of studies in S’pore and Aus previously for totally more than 5 years. i could go on and on about this topic about how i would totally and exclusively support the usage of English due to how i was brought up like the author and also my passion for it. However, i decided to cut it short cause i do not want to drag on due to the fact that people choose whatever they want to use and we can’t really do anything to change the political elements in this country’s education system. People,heed my advice and just use English or at least brush it up because it’s an international language and everything you need to do know is thru it. Plus,its so damn useful that you can converse it with anyone and also it connotes a higher class status in the society which another language can’t.

whatsaysyou October 4, 2011 at 4:37 am

Great post and as a blogger, I have been following with the whole issue of English language in Malaysia especially the PPSMI policy. When the PPSMI policy was implemented in 2003, it was a chance to give Malaysian youngsters the gloal edge their older siblings have been deprived of since English-medium schools were done away with by 1980. Sadly, they want to do away with it and again, rob children the right to have the global edge to enable them to compete at international level in the field of sciences and maths. Those people need to get real and accept the fact that English is now commonly used everywhere from medicine to international commerce. PPSMI needs to stay and national English-medium schools should be brought back for good. If a Malaysian child believes it is his or her right to learn maths and sciences in English as his mother tongue, that should be respected and encouraged.

WJ October 15, 2011 at 7:27 pm

Not only should PPSMI be brought back, and not only should English-medium schools be brought back, but the official language of Malaysia should be English. Look at Singapore – so much farther ahead than Malaysia, and I believe that a large part of that is due to the fact that their official language is the world-wide language, and not a language so insular that it is used in only TWO countries (Malaysia and Brunei. Yes, Indonesian and Malay are different languages.).

cl October 20, 2011 at 3:45 am

WJ: Tell that to the Thais (and Vietnamese too), man. We’re delving in a very sensitive topic.

The pro-English pack who use Singapore as an instance to to further their cause may have no idea what is really going on in Singapore’s language ecology. The imposing of English-medium-for-all-schools was controversial in the beginning, the mostly-Chinese population grew worried over the sanctity of their mother tongue. But what do you know? Possibly as a result of the stress over their cultural identity, most Singaporeans don’t speak proper English – thus Singlish was born! In the late 90s the govt tries to combat the use of ‘bad English’ but I guess it has proven futile by now.

Then in the 70s, the government appeared to regret the move by introducing a Speak Mandarin Campaign – but it wasn’t quite what the citizens wanted because it seeks to curtail the use of native Chinese dialects like Hokkien and Cantonese. Today, SMC has almost eliminated the use of dialects but barely succeeded in instilling Mandarin as most Chinese kids prefer to speak in English/Singlish. Now, the Malay language in the Lion City is showing signs of neglect as well!

I am not a Singaporean and I’ve never been to Singapore, but I guess I know about Singapore somewhat more than people who’ve been there.

I suppose this is among the root causes of concern when PPSMI was first introduced. Looks like it has ended up as a disaster just like Singapore’s language policies!

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