Friday, June 20, 2008

Vernacular Education System and the Left (Part 1)

Lee Ban Chen Sep 14, 05 5:51pm

"...That is why Russian Marxists say that there must be no compulsory official language, that the population must be provided with schools where teaching will be carried on in all the local languages, that a fundamental law must be introduced in the constitution declaring invalid all privileges of any one nation and all violations of the rights of national minorities...".
Is a compulsory official language needed? By Lenin


One fundamental and yet unresolved agenda of the left is language. Beyond being a tool of communication languages had developed to become icons of identity and culture. This paper addresses on language as the unresolved national question and attempts to explain a case for vernacular languages.

Kamus Dewan defines vernacular as "relating to or a language or dialect commonly spoken by the members of a particular group or a community in a society. (yang berkaitan dengan atau yang menggunakan bahasa atau dialek yang dipertuturkan oleh sesuatu golongan atau kaum dalam masyarakat)

Oxford Fajar Advanced Learner's English-Malay Dictionary defines vernacular as: "language or dialect spoken in a particular country or region, as compared with a formal or written language. (bahasa atau dialek yang dituturkan di negara atau kawasan tertentu berbanding dengan bahasa yang formal atau bahasa bertulis).

The term vernacular therefore refers to a non-formal language (commonly spoken) used by a particular group or a community in a society. During the British occupation, the language system (involving language, school and education system) for the Malays, Chinese, Indians and other minorities were considered to be vernacular whereas the formal language was English. After independence, Bahasa Melayu became the national and official language of the country forming the official language system. The language system (involving language, school and education system) of the Chinese, Indians and other minorities became vernacular.

A simple analogy from the above is that language system is function of power. The one in control of power imposes the choice of his language over the others. Therefore whether a language is treated as formal or vernacular is dependant on the choice of dominant power ruling the country.

During the British occupation, the anti-colonialist left-movement had no problem in supporting the vernacular language/school/education. The multiracial left stood against the English language system alleging it to be discriminatory and oppressive against other languages. Similarly, during the Japanese occupation, the use of Japanese language system (involving language, school and education system) was opposed by the Left, based on the same reasoning.

The Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) issued a Nine Point anti-Japanese Manifesto in 1943. Item 6 of the manifesto stated that the development of a national culture should be through a multilingual system of free education. (p.77, alias Chin Peng: My Side of History, Chinese version) The CPM announced an Eight Point Programme in August 15, 1945. Item 6 of this programme stated that a democratic education system must be placed in lieu of the existing system and the development of national culture shall encompass multi languages. (p.105, alias Chin Peng: My Side of History, Chinese version)

The left view, on the equality of the languages and culture as contained in their Anti-Japanese Nine Point Manifesto in 1943 and the Eight Point Programme in 1945, was surprisingly dropped.

In 1947, through the combine effort of two progressive forces comprising Malay nationalist group Pusat Tenaga Rakyat (Putera) and the All-Malayan Council of Joint Action (AMCJA) a document called The People's Constitutional Proposals for Malaya was formulated. In this document the earlier left views on equality of languages and culture were compromised and replaced with the Malay nationalist views advocated by Putera. Thereafter, the post independent Malaya saw the replacement of the Malay language as the national and official language replacing English. The Chinese, Tamil and other languages of the minorities took a back stage.

The Alliance and Barisan Nasional governments claiming to be racially representing the races did not promote the growth of other languages. In fact the Chinese, Tamil and other minority languages faced official discrimination hampering its development in the post-independent Malaysia. Arguably the left movements can be said to have failed in its role to reach a consensus on this sensitive and controversial issue of language. Perhaps it is time for the left movements to review its position and make a firm stand through democratic debates and discussions with relevant groups. The ensuing perspective is an outline for an open discussion on this issue.

People's constitution and Malay nationalism

The People's Constitutional Proposals for Malaya was drafted jointly by Putera and AMCJA. The AMCJA was formed in Dec 22, 1946. It then had about 400,000 members representing political parties, workers unions, women organisations and youth groups from all races and all classes. Its formation was based on six principles.

1. Consolidate Singapore with Malaya
2. Election of a central government and state councils
3. Malay rulers shall have vested power and responsibility to the people through the Council Meetings.
4. A new constitution for Malaya with special provisions for the development of Malays in politics and economy.
5. Malay traditions and Islam fully protected by Malays through a special council.
6. Citizenship for all who adopts Malaya as the land of permanent residence and declares undivided loyalty.

On the other side, Putera, which was formed on Feb 22, 1947, was made up of about 150,000 members. Its membership was represented by Parti Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya (PKMM), Angkatan Pemuda Insaf (API), Kesatuan Tani, Angkatan Wanita Sedar (Awas) and some 80 other smaller organisations. It had 10 principles, in addition to the six form the above and the following four were added.

- Bahasa Melayu shall be made the national language.
- Defence and the state affairs shall be the joint responsibility of the government of Malaysia and the British government. -
The citizens of Malaya shall be named as Malays.
- The national flag for Malaya shall have red and white colours as the background.

Undeniably the four principles of Putera represented Malay nationalism. With an open mind AMCJA compromised and accepted these, which had the support of the CPM, the influential partner of both teams.

The attack on the vernacular system

Often it is stated that the vernacular system is a ‘divide and rule' policy of the British. Not denying the British intent to divide and rule, one report of the British on education in 1951, i.e. Barnes Report failed to affirm that it had such intention with regard to vernacular education
"… Chinese and Indians are being asked to give up gradually their own vernacular schools, and to send their children … to schools where Malay is the only oriental language taught…"

There were objections raised by the Chinese and Indians. This prompted the tabling of the Fenn-Wu Report in the same year. It defended the vernacular system: "… any restrictive imposition of a language or two languages upon the people of Malaya would not provide a healthy atmosphere for community understanding and national unity".

Somehow this put a stop to any effort to implement the proposal contained in the Barnes Report.

The minister of education of the Alliance government, Abdul Razak headed a committee and formulated the education policy for the soon to be free country. The Razak Report 1956 stated: ".. the ultimate objective of educational policy in this country must be to bring the children of all races under a national education system in which the national language is the main medium of interaction."

The ‘ultimate objective' policy faced tremendous opposition from Chinese educationalist movements, in particular the Dong Jiao Zong. The policy intended to close down Chinese and Tamil schools was temporarily disbanded. The lesser controversial Education Ordinance 1957 was well received by all races. But, it was not too long before the controversy erupted in the form of the Rahman Talib Report in 1960.

The ‘ultimate objective' tune was replayed again and this time it was to close down secondary schools which used mother tongue languages. The reason given was to promote national unity. The mono-language and monoculture policies became very evident in the Alliance government when the Education Act 1961 was introduced. The Act gave vested power to the minister to convert mother-tongue based secondary schools to national secondary schools and to convert in suitable time any SJKC or SJKM to national schools. The ‘ultimate objective' policy continued its existence in the Education Act 1996. The Act exempted the application of the policy to schools existing prior to 1996 or that established under the direction of the minister.

In addition to that, the 1971 National Cultural Policy was based on a mono-cultural concept of assimilation. For example, it states:
a. National culture must be based on the Malay culture
b. Suitable elements of other cultures may be incorporated
c. Islam shall be an important component in the National culture Principle of equality of races

"….Whoever does not recognise and champion the equality of nations and languages, and does not fight against all national oppression or inequality, is not a Marxist; he is not even a democrat. That is beyond doubt…" In theory, this statement of Lenin on equality of nations and languages i.e. races is readily acceptable in any rational and fair debate. But reality in a multicultural society is different.

A ruling race seldom accommodates the interests of other races for equality without discrimination in their society. This is true for even in certain socialist countries. Often the situation is that of a chauvinist or a narrow nationalist goal to oppress others in the name of assimilation. On the basis of equality of all races, Malaysia being a multicultural society should have embraced a language system of all races on equal footing. There should not have been a classification of official and unofficial languages or formal and vernacular systems. All languages have a right to exist and developed to the needs of the relevant races.

The main characteristic of a multiracial society is its plural identity. Unity in diversity is the strength that should be harnessed to forge a distinct national unity and not by an assimilated uniformity through forced integration. Confronting oppression is the most important principle to defend a race.

In this context recalling Lenin; "…What we do not want is the element of coercion. We do not want to have people driven into paradise with a cudgel, for no matter how many fine phrases about "culture" you may utter, a compulsory official language involves coercion, the use of the cudgel…"

Therefore if national unity becomes a pretext to deny rights of affected races and their vernacular system, then what is achieved cannot be termed as unity. It is fragmenting the socio-cultural fabric, which is oppressive and unfair. In a multicultural society, the characteristics of diversity must be promoted and valued as the strength of the society. Any compelling action to unify the natural diversity judicially or administratively will tantamount to racial oppression, however noble is the intention.

In short, the principles of equality of races need to be the leading principle in dealing with the relationship between races and its vernacular language system. Every race has a right to develop and promote its mother language and culture freely.

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