Speaking English in trendy KL

by Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad

Last week, TAN SRI ABDULLAH AHMAD wrote on the colonials of old Malaya, and their favourite meeting places in Kuala Lumpur. In Part Two today, he talks about the modern KL and its people.

Since 1956 the Federal capital has been home for me and all my children who were born and educated in the city until they left for England. KL is their home and mine and Fauzah's, although our heritage is Kelantan and Kedah.

KL has come a long way from being a sleepy hollow known as the capital city somewhere between Bangkok and Singapore.

Today KL is one of the most modern cities in Asia, even of the world, with a reasonably hectic pace of life. Its political views and thoughts are sought, especially by Afro-Asian nations.

Imagine, it never had a university until 1959! Though having many modern shopping malls, stylish coffee bars and pubs, just a stone's throw away there are always the rather unseemly stalls selling tasty and delicious Malaysian food.

Two of the three Prime Ministers - Tun Razak, the statesman who restored democracy and Father of the NEP (New Economic Policy) and Tun Hussein Onn, Razak's successor - are buried at the Masjid Negara. Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra, the Founding Father of independent Malaysia, is buried at Langgar in Alor Star's royal burial grounds as requested in his will (wasiat).

Until well after Merdeka, "Britishness" was an integral part of the ethos of the Malaysian elite. Now it does seem Islam is about to replace it, though not quite yet.

Whatever, never at any time did anyone, not even the most ardent Malaysian Anglophile, stir Malaysian passions like the centenarian Indian Anglophile writer, Nirad Chaudhuri did.

He enraged his people when he argued that Britain had betrayed India by withdrawing from India in 1947, describing it as the most shameful act in history.

Chaudhuri claimed that "all that was good and living within us (India) was made, shaped and quickened by British rule". An Indian politician-friend said to me that he sometimes tended to agree with what was said by the Bengali writer that venality, corruption and inefficiency had made Indians unsuited to govern India!

When I was young and later working, the English language (and to some extent still true today) was the important path to opportunities. And these opportunities are not - within- easy grasp of monolingual bumiputras unless they learn fast and smart, which must include proficiency in English.

The non-bumiputra Malaysians are more experienced in dealing with Western people, their institutions and language.

Language and ideas are intimately connected. It is a fact that early acceptance of English as the language of international relations, business and commerce, industry and trade by the other Malaysians has given them the edge over bumiputras in the race for progress and wealth creation and accumulation.

Whether non-bumiputras have a greater capacity to learn and understand the English language is arguable. Whatever, all Malaysians must speak and write good English. We all have a duty to ensure future generations do not speak "Manglish".

We have to be competitive to survive. I suppose a Malaysian accent is acceptable but not "Manglish"!

What defines good English? Is it accent, grammar, pronunciation, vocabulary or coherence? Is British English better than American English which now dominates the world?

In spite of Putrajaya, the august and beautiful administrative centre, KL remains important. As the centre of government and politics moves to Putrajaya, I am not at all persuaded that KL will lose its unique attraction; it will continue to be the fun and cultural home for Malaysians.

KL is trendier than Singapore, certainly more relaxed and more interesting, and that is what makes KL-ites love their city.

KL-ites speak a hybrid of English and Malay (and Chinese dialects), many more pidgin English whilst a minority speak and write better English than most people in Asean. Singaporeans and KL-ites have one thing in common: they just hentam their English.

Perhaps, like our neighbours we, too, should start an annual speak and write good English campaign and contest. Lu visit KLlah masuk, millennium nanti! Over to youlah Singaporeans!