If only we spoke three or four languages

2 August 1998

The former Lord President and a one-time chairman of the National Higher Education Advisory Council, Tun Mohamed Suffian Hashim, stated, not 'Once but many times, that it would be a national tragedy if Malaysian universities produced graduates who were proficient only in Bahasa Malaysia or Malay.

The importance of English
in the business world...
If I may add, or proficient only in English!

Though Suffian was a Queen's scholar from Kota Lama Kiri, a kampung on the left bank of Sungai Perak, five miles south of Kuala Kangsar, who studied in Cambridge (Conville and Caius College) in the thirties, a small college compared with St. Johns or Trinity, he remains bilingual: proficient both in English and Malay like Professor Ahmad Ibrahim (St. John's), Royal Professor Ungku Aziz, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, Musa Hitam, Tengku Razaleigh, Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, Hishamuddin Hussein and a number of other young politicians.

I ask you: wouldn't you be embarrassed if a senior Malaysian minister, politician or bureaucrat cannot deliver a prepared speech - let alone, make an impromptu one - in English or Malay for that matter? Worse, of course, if he failed a simple English or Malay test!

Imagine Mahathir, Anwar, Najib, Liong Sik, Samy Vellu, our ambassadors, diplomats, managers and businessmen speaking only Malay!

I personally know from experience both in the government and private sectors of the difficulty I encounter to help find jobs for sons and daughters of friends and constituents W ho only know Malay. Employment opportunities for monolinguists, be they Chinese, Thais or Japanese were and are limited and becoming even more scarce as we march towards globalisation.

Work opportunities today and in future belong to those who are proficient in at least two languages one of which must be English besides knowing how to use and navigate computers and possessing other communication skills.

Ever since I began learning English, aged 10 in 1948, 1 knew all along the country would one day be truly bilingual; with everyone speaking at least, two languages properly: Malay and English besides his mother tongue. We still have a long way to go before achieving it.

My dream, in spite of the government's effort in actively promoting Bahasa Malaysia, the lingua franca not only of our nation but of Asean, is still far away from being fulfilled.

I am aware that my dream is not shared by all Malaysians. A section of our -people will continue to stubbornly prefer to study seriously only one language. I am, quite aware,that the super nationalists want to make Malaysia monolingual nation if it were possible.

But these people are mistaken if they think that it is sufficient for bumiputra to be proficient only in Bahasa Malaysia. The Israelis and Jews would not be where and what they are today on Hebrew or Yiddish only or nearer home, the Singaporeans, if Lee Kuan Yew had not insisted on proficiency in English, and, finally, the Japanese would not have been who they are, on Japanese only.

All this I am absolutely certain. So, if the bumiputra want to be part of the new millennium they have no alternative but to be bi(or tri)lingual.

The Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Tuanku Ja'afar, Tun Razak, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra, Datuk Onn, Dr Mahathir, Ishak Mohamed (Pak- Sako), Samad Ismail, Adibah, Amin and many others first went to Malay schools and then to English schools. Neither their Malay nor English seemed to have suffered.

I am a strong supporter, if the government has the political will, for a bilingual method of education. In spite of what detractors claim, bilingual education does not "imprison" a child in his or her native language.

What is wrong for science, technology, math and English, literature and drama to be taught in English and the rest of the subjects in Bahasa?

In a bilingual system, a language bridge is built between English and BM. I am the last person to want a Malaysian of any origin to cut his ties to syllables of his mother tongue or culture. I want our people to be bilingual if not bicultural.