To speak English or cakap Melayu?*

*cakap Melayu = speak Malay

(Image credit)

“I feel disgusted with these types of people,” the Malay pakcik (uncle) lashed out. “Especially the girls… Those girls from universities. What, just because they’re in universities, they can’t speak Malay?”

I was in a cab, and the conversation was naturally in Malay. Amidst his tirade, the driver may have a point when he implied that higher-educated Malays are getting more alien to their native language (I’m not sure about the female comment). His concern is not isolated; for quite some time now in the Malay news, there have been debates over the decline of Malay usage among Malays, and the general perception is that the higher-educated Malays are the main culprit. It comes to no surprise though, as the same issue is also faced by the Chinese community in Singapore.

Initially, I’ve never thought that of language to be that much of an issue. I’ve always regarded language as a mere medium of expression; so whichever one you choose, as long as the intended objective is achieved it doesn’t matter. To me what mattered most is how a person acts. So in our Malay-Muslim society, religion is more of a priority than language.

To me, a good Muslim is better than anything, no matter what the language spoken. It’s a no-brainer if you have to choose, for instance, between Malay gangsters who know their language, or pious Malay doctors who don’t know Malay.

So I didn’t really care about the “great Malay language debate”, until more recently. I had an encounter with two young tertiary-educated Malay ladies near a restaurant. They were complaining about something in English – boys, I think. I cannot recall the exact conversation, but weirdly enough, from the way they are dressed and they way they talk, the imagery that immediately comes to mind is that of American college girls that you often see negatively depicted on TV. Only this time it’s the Malay version.

At that very moment, I actually felt disgusted.

Proud to sound and act like ang moh

The thing about language is that one does not only learn how to say/read/write only, but the associated culture as well. Understandably when learning English, one has access to English movies, music, news, information, and many more. Unfortunately, most of these are popularized by the media through pure sensationalism.

What bugs me is when Malays – or Asians for that matter – subsume negative Western culture as their own. If it’s positive, I’m all for it. But the negative ones, such as immodest attires and uninhibited social norms, are those which directly undermine our own cultural values.

In this respect, Malay language has provided a layer of protection against the barrage of foreign values. Of course in this day and age, it is impossible to survive solely on the Malay language, as English is the established medium for work and school. So a healthy balance needs to be struck. Malay language still play a vital role as a conduit of  good Malay/Asian culture, one that instills emphasis on respect and the traditional family structure, to temper against the overwhelming Western norms that most blindly adhere to.

Best of both worlds

Not only culture is under siege, but also religious principles. Here in Singapore, English is used the very moment you step out of the house. Schools and workplaces are not exempt from this, though mosques and Islamic institutions generally still use Malay language in daily affairs. At the same time, while there are increasingly more sermons and religious lectures being delivered in English, here in Southeast Asia, Malay remains to be an indispensable language to study the religion. Structured religious education provided by major local Islamic institutions such as Pergas and Perdaus is still being delivered in Malay (correct me if I’m wrong). Even less structured lectures in mosques is generally delivered in Malay.

As religious values should be inculcated from a young and tender age, especially with the weekly dose of Friday sermons, it is worrying if our future generation cannot appreciate its content. And since Friday sermons provide the window of opportunity to ditch or bridge the connection with those who rarely step foot in the mosque, the understanding of Malay is – the way I see it – synonymous with the introduction of religious guidance.

As highlighted in a recent newspaper commentary, a writer at first thought that – based on facial expressions – the young participants in a religious talk were engrossed by the speaker who delivered in Malay. But later when he spoke to them, he found out that while they were indeed impressed by the speaker, they were also confused by the Malay terms being used.

This is something that deserves attention. On a larger scale, limited comprehension of the language may affect the understanding of religious instructions. If Malay language understanding continues to deteriorate, the impact in the future may not only be cultural, but also a religious one.

Why oh why?

Perhaps more pertinent to the discussion is the “why” behind it. Why do Malays not want to speak Malay? Based on my expertly-derived rocking-armchair analysis, it boils down to two factors. Firstly and bluntly, English-speaking Malays are intentionally suffering from post-colonialism inferiority complex, symptoms of which include the delusion that speaking English means that you are clever, and speaking Malay means that you are stupid and of some lower caste. This is further compounded with what the “new Malays” perceive as Malay being the exclusive language of the mats and minahs; by conversing in English, not only are they “proving” that they are “successful,” but that they have “broken out” of the “Malay stigma.”

In refutation of this, I have to say that “high education” compares zilch to good upbringing. Just because one speaks English peppered with six-syllable words doesn’t mean he’s “better” or “smarter”. They’ve quickly and conveniently forgotten the MBA holders who are responsible for the global finance calamity. Yet I must admit, our education system is one that we can be proud of. A system which, against all odds, has successfully produced minahs who spew English expletives amidst their Queen’s English over a cuppa. Seriously, go to Starbucks and you’ll know what I mean.

Malay at home ≠ Failure at school

The second one is more easily digestible: parents want their kids to excel in school. But in order to do so, they believe that their English must be honed at home. Initially I was supportive of this, as I thought the Malay student may have an advantage over his peers if his English is good. But then looking at many many examples around me, of those who manage to read, write, and speak English well, they were mostly brought up in Malay-speaking home environment. Yes, even those so-called “new Malays”, we all know they grew up in Malay-speaking households too.

Then I realize how many people that I personally see and know, who were brought up in Malay-speaking homes. They went to Malay-speaking schools, studied in foreign universities which doesn’t use English, and yet are proficiently fluent in English. Some are even – while admittedly verbose – established English orators. At the same time, they are also able to seamlessly switch between the two languages fluently.

So why the need to speak English at home?

Speaking Malay at home

Thus far, I have decided that my home will be a Malay-speaking one.

Our kids will speak English almost every second when he’s out of the house. So it’s unfounded to worry about him not learning English, the worry should be placed on him growing to be a person who’s not proud of his background.

We should aim for that balance to allow Malay to blossom in the house. Not through corny Malay TV dramas, but through conversations, newspapers, and good books. Doing so will protect our precious cultural, and as a bonus, religious values.

There’s nothing to lose; your kids will still do well in school, and when he’s all grown up, he’ll still remember to kiss the back of your hand.

Nota: Bagi mereka yang bertanya kenapa blog ini tidak ditulis dalam bahasa Melayu, ini adalah kerana blog ini ingin ditujukan kepada mereka yang tidak berbahasa Melayu.

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2 thoughts on “To speak English or cakap Melayu?*

  1. Hi, first of all, I think there is a typo error …..you wrote, “Why do Malays not want to speak English”, shouldn’t it be “Why do Malays not want to speak Malay”? Correct me if I am wrong.

    I think there is a hypocrisy about this mother tongue issue. I am indeed not against mother tongue being taken care of more seriously but in Singapore’s context, Mandarin is needed to get a job. In Singapore, anyone who wants a job will be asked if he/she knows or speak Mandarin. Why shouldn’t young Malays be encouraged to learn Mandarin instead? Isn’t it a waste of time for young Malays to learn Malay and then when they are out of school, they are asked whether they speak Mandarin when all the time they studied Malay. In other words, this is ‘bilingualism’ Singapore-version.

    Sorry to write like this, I know it is out of topic but this is just to highlight the difficulty of Malays getting a good job in Singapore. I should know as I went through it and the companies were internationally-based. Now, before I send in my resume, I call the companies and ask first. Sometimes I think it is weird as I am a Singaporean, born and bred in Singapore but job seekers of Chinese origin from China, Hong Kong and anywhere in the world etc can get jobs easily on the basis that they speak Chinese (even in internationally-based companies). Don’t believe me? Do check the Straits Times.

    1. Post amended. Thanks for pointing out the error. :)

      Regarding the point you raised, I concur with your experience. Parents themselves are free to guide which language they want their children to focus on. On one hand, we want to embrace our own language and study it is schools. For economic gains, it makes no sense not to learn Malay as we are located in a Malay-speaking region. At the same time, it means that we are inadvertently neglecting the opportunity to learn another language altogether, one that open even more opportunities than our own mother tongue.

      I feel that the dilemma only reflects our situation as the minority. Playwright Alfian Saat (though I do not agree with some of his views), stated it correctly recently:

      There is still a dominant Chinese majority in Singapore. When you are the majority, you form the bulk of your market. Your images in the media are everywhere, etc. So you need to do something a little extra for the minorities who are not going to have this kind of resources simply because they form a smaller number. But I think a lot of people in Singapore especially the Chinese don’t realize what they are enjoying is majority privilege. They think that just because everything is supposedly meritocratic, there is no such thing as market forces that will favour the majority. Why don’t I see Malay faces in magazines and advertisements? The reason is simple. Because you want to sell to the majority. The buyers want to see faces they can identify with. The question is what should the state do to prevent minorities from feeling alienated by all these market forces?

      Still, it doesn’t mean we can’t excel in multiple languages; some Chinese Malaysians I know are good in English, Malay, and Chinese. The select few Malays can do well under such circumstances. But what about the rest? Realistically, such cases are ominously exceptions instead of the norm. And we already know that government regulations are not something we can always rely on.

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