Monday, 23 May 2011

Another argument for a "Satu Sekolah Untuk Semua" system; "No bonding without common language" by Dr. Farish Noor

A superb article from the NST by Dr. Farish Noor which is a great argument  for a One School For All system:

No bonding without common language

I was once told a story by a friend of mine in Paris, who worked with the immigration authorities in France.

One day, while interviewing foreign couples who were applying for French citizenship, he came across the case of a South Asian man who was married to an East Asian woman. Both claimed to have been married in France, were deeply in love and wanted to settle in the country to start a new life there.

Though their papers were in order and there didn't seem to be anything wrong with either of them personally, the problem lay in their relationship with each other, which seemed hollow to some. For the problem was that neither of them spoke the language of the other: the man spoke only Hindi and the woman spoke only Mandarin.

When asked if they loved each other, both said yes; but when asked how they communicated, neither could answer. Needless to say, their application for citizenship did not get them very far.

That anecdote comes to mind in the light of a recent -- albeit modest -- survey done by one of the local papers to see how many Malaysians spoke the national language, Bahasa Malaysia. It was startling, though not quite, to discover that more than half a century after this nation's independence, there remain significant sections of Malaysian society where the national language is not spoken at all, or even deemed necessary.

The question also came to mind this week when I was asked about the nation-building process by some Western defence analysts while giving a video lecture to a college abroad. Again, the same observation had to be made, with some regret.

For it is regrettable indeed that a nation like this cannot get its act together when deciding on a national language policy or a national education policy; and even more baffling to consider that some in Malaysia believe that nation-building can come about via an educational system that is based on separate vernacular streams.

Nations are and will always be constructs; things that have to be artificially put together, and this process requires some understanding of statecraft but also some political will to do things that are not always easy.

Nobody said that building a nation was like putting together a Lego or Airfix kit, and it takes more than glue to hold a nation together.

Robert Bartlett, in his work The Making of Europe, has looked at how the nations of England, France and Germany were put together from the late medieval to the early modern period, and notes that in all three cases, the foregrounding of a singular, national language and education system was the key.

Bartlett notes that if France today speaks with one tongue, it was not always the case. Up to the days of pre-Revolutionary France, the country was a patchwork of different linguistic groupings with languages, sub-languages, dialects and local patois being common.

The French Revolution led to the rise of the republican state, and that state was unitary in its perception and ambitions. In order to build that republic, it requires a singular language and education system.

Unfortunately, not everyone accepted that they had to speak the French of Paris and in the process of linguistic streamlining, it has to be said that resistance was offered, and met, by the republican state.

Looking to our neighbour, Indonesia, we can also see how Bahasa Indonesia was one of the most important elements of the Indonesian nation-building process.

It cannot be denied that in the process of making it the national language, harsh measures were sometimes taken.

But in retrospect, one can only ask if things would be better had such a single-minded policy not been pursued. Where would Indonesia be today without one language and one national educational system to bind that vast archipelago together?

Addressing the challenge of nation-building in Malaysia will be an equally difficult task, but a necessary one.

The fact that there remain Malaysians who are nominal citizens, who don't even speak a word of the national language, is a glaring anomaly that would not be tolerated anywhere else.

Even in countries like Australia, New Zealand or Canada, migrants are expected to learn the language of the nation in order to be part of it. And as the linguist's joke goes: even if we hate and curse each other, let us curse each other in the same language at least!

The problem for Malaysia, however, is that for a long time linguistic diversity has been elevated to the status of a near-sacred taboo that cannot be touched.

To even question the need for vernacular education leads one to being accused of political incorrectness of the highest order.

Conversely, there are also those who insist that the national language ought to be claimed as the language of one, and only one community, and referred to as Bahasa Melayu instead.

But this denies the reality that it is the national language -- Bahasa Malaysia -- and ought to be claimed by all Malaysian citizens, regardless of their ethnic origins.

Unless and until the policy-makers have the political will to impress upon the nation the fact that Bahasa Malaysia is the language of all Malaysians, and that we need to have one education system that accommodates, represents and includes all communities, we will remain a nation divided into linguistic ghettos of our own making.

That path leads not to peace, but only mutual ignorance of each other; and the fact that we -- as a nation -- will sink or swim together, even if we cannot communicate with our neighbours next door.

Dr Farish A. Noor is senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

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