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Using foreign teaching methods to teach Malay?

Dr Wong Wee Nam

I was rather shocked to read that Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs, had suggested that one way to halt the decline in fluency in Malay could be to teach it as a foreign language, rather than as a mother tongue.

However, it has been clarified that what Dr Yaacob had meant was the use of foreign teaching methods to teach the Malay language.

Whether it is to teach it as a foreign language or the use of foreign teaching methods to teach the Malay language (I really couldn’t see the difference), the stature of the Malay language is not going to be the same anymore.

What is the significance of the National Language? In the old days, Malay was the communication link between the races in Singapore. It was the common language in the markets and shops. When a Malay customer buys something from a Chinese shopkeeper, they transact in Malay. When a Malay man speaks with an Indian man, they, too, speak with each other in Malay.

Similarly when a Sikh speaks with his Chinese vegetable seller, he uses Malay. He uses the same language when he speaks with his other Indian countrymen and his Malay neighbours.

This was how a country with diverse races and languages and various dialects managed to integrate and communicate with one another.

It was one of the reasons that Malay became the National Language, and rightly so. It became one of the symbols and pillars of identity for a newly-forged nation.

Thus I was shocked to hear what Dr Yaacob had been quoted to say. Malay is our national language and how can a national language be taught like we teach other foreign languages? When it is taught by those methods, wouldn’t it naturally become a foreign language in the end?

All this while, I have been afraid that with the sudden huge influx of foreigners, Singapore is slowly becoming another country. I am afraid that with time, using the methods suggested, people who speak Malay will be deemed to be speaking a foreign language in their own country. How ironic!

I had learned Malay as a national language. When it was made a national language, I was motivated to learn it when I was in Primary 4. It was not taught in school and I learned it at some union’s premise because at that time there was this fervour to learn the national language. Later, I attended classes at Lembaga (adult night class) and finally got my National Standard One certificate, which certified me to have reached a basic literate standard in the national language. I do not know what teaching method was used but I suspect the che’gu used his own method and we just learned.

I do not regret spending a little bit of time then learning the language. Now I can communicate with my patients without an interpreter and travel around Malaysia and Indonesia without feeling like an alien.

The solution to arrest the declining interest in Malay is not to use the method of teaching foreign languages. This is the surest way to kill it and destroy it as a national symbol. Just teach it as a national language. The important thing is the willingness of the student to learn. The most important is to instill a sense of pride in being able to know the language.

Thus, there must be a conscious attempt to promote it as a national language. People must be reminded that there is a national language and this could be done through an annual National Language Month where free classes can be organized for those who want to learn the language. I am quite sure that many young Singaporeans would also want to learn. Such a campaign will give pride to the Malay community and motivate them to keep their language alive. Only they can arrest the decline. Maybe we can bring back the Lembaga classes.

So, please Dr Yaacob, don’t forget that Malay is our national language and don’t let it end up as a foreign language. There is a historical reason for keeping it a national language - just as it is good for us to know that Singaporeans celebrated their First National Day on 3rd June 1960. It is good to know history because historical root is the buttress of an enduring nation.