The Problem about Languages: Observations in Sabah


Thoughts about languages while travelling in Sabah:


1) It is regrettable that I could not speak Malay at all.  In fact, most Singaporeans (who are not ethnically Malay) born post-independence cannot speak Malay.  It is only in the last decade that the government has realised the importance of Bahasa Melayu or Bahasa Indonesia.  I heard that it was specifically during the Tsunami rescue efforts in 2004/2005 that our linguistic deficiency became an obvious disadvantage.  Now, young Singaporeans are encouraged to pick up Malay in the schools.  It is not too late.  We must never forget we live in Southeast Asia, and our survival and prosperity depends on the goodwill and cooperation of our neighbours.


2) Many people in Sabah – or indeed Malaysia as a whole – either do not speak English, or speak poor English.  There is absolutely no problem at all for the tourists, because many people in Sabah can actually speak English, but as a former British colony with a middle income standard of living, one would have expected most people to be able to speak English.  Given the increased emphasis on Bahasa in the past 2 decades, the English language seems to have been neglected.  Current government attempts to introduce English as the medium of instruction for math and sciences have met with enormous resistance from Malay nationalists.  Whereas more non-English speaking countries are encouraging their citizens to speak more English, Malaysia, which is supposed to be traditionally English speaking in some ways, have actually gone in the opposite direction.  Why do they fear that English would weaken Malay when so many countries have succeeded in speaking more than one tongue?  It remains to be seen if globalisation or insular nationalism would triumph in this country.