When I was much younger and too innocent to know that a hard-on didn’t necessarily mean I needed to pee (circa 1970, when I was 8), we went to school and were taught everything in English. Yes, this included a very confused but much younger Bangkai (i.e. me); Thiru, the ebullient son of the kacang putih man; Chee Keong, the affable hardware merchant’s son; Rashid the obnoxious offspring of a diplomat; Jamilah, the Standard Two heart-throb; and even Rozario, the son of a prominent Eurasian lawyer. In short, everybody was taught everything in English. Of course, at the time, English was not yet a bad word.
As a result, everybody spoke English. So, what’s the problem?
As I recall, an up-and-coming political star at the time, a former-UM student leader, no less – who looked curiously to me (even then) like the Devil himself with his goatee and thick eyebrows – went about creating a big fuss about using the national language as the yard-stick of our patriotism. Or some such rot. As a result, English got to be relegated pretty quickly to the backwaters of academia. Schools soon began teaching everything in the national language.
And so it began.
The good news (depending on your point of view) is that people who were born in 1962 (that’s people like me), or earlier, would still be taught everything in English. Now, if using the national language is the measure of a person’s patriotism, does that make me and my contemporaries any less of a patriot? I should think not!
Ok, I don’t walk around wearing a tanjak, a pair of capals and a keris tucked into my samping. But this has hardly anything to do with me being taught in English when I was at school. My blood would still spill as red as Chee Kiong’s or Thiru’s if we were ever to be called upon to defend our country’s sovereignty – even if we do speak English a bit more fluently than we do the national language.
Then, in the late 80s, came the hue and cry about our graduates being less than proficient in the English language. Hey, we reap what we sow, don’t we? Why the surprise? And why lament the poor English of only our graduates? Was everybody else’s English at the time really that good? I don’t think so!
And how did this come to be? Slowly at first; but then it sort of snow-balled. Consider the following scenario. Does it sound familiar?
Whenever we hear people (Malaysians) speaking English, out came the self-righteous and indignant “Gunakanlah bahasa kebangsaan!”, the more colloquial “Hey, cakap Melayulah!”, or the downright malicious “Kau ingat kau Mat Salleh ke?”
The sad fact remains, most of the time, these retorts are not really motivated by a love for the national language at all. They really stem – and let us be frank about this – from an insidiously warped self-defence mechanism. We simply suck at English and we feel intimidated by those who don’t. Our coping-strategy? Relegate the sods who speak English to the position of pariahs. Simple, right?
Simple, yes! But is it constructive? Come on, we all know the answer to this.
This is why I don’t pretty much care whether or not science and mathematics will now be taught in Bahasa Malaysia (or is it Bahasa Melayu? I’ve lost track). How can I be so apathetic you ask? Simple: it doesn’t matter. If the standard of English is our concern, then teaching science and mathematics in English is not going to solve the problem. Doing this will have very little impact on our mastery of the language.
The key to this will be our attitude. For as long as we treat those who speak English (or try to speak it) as mavericks – or worse as pariahs – we will stay where we are. Instead of putting down the sods who speak English proficiently, can’t we consider trying to improve our own mastery of the English language? Cutting the other guy down isn’t going to make us any taller.
The real non-patriot is not the ones who prefer English to the national language. Instead, the true non-patriot is the person who is not willing to improve himself – the coward who hides behind the tired excuse of “memartabatkan bahasa kebangsaan” so that he can keep his self-esteem intact. These are the people who should be shot.
Mastery of the English language does not start in our schools; it starts in our hearts.