Language Policy And Planning In Higher Education In Malaysia:

A Nation In Linguistic Transition


Saran Kaur Gill

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia

43600 Bangi, Selangor





1.         Introduction


This paper draws a picture of the linguistic journey of a post-colonial nation with a focus on the higher education sector.  This will highlight the language planning and policy issues arising from the post-independence period to the twenty-first century.  Inevitably, for a post-colonial nation that was once under British rule, this brings to the fore the role and status of English and the changing dynamics of its relationship with the national language – Bahasa Melayu (which is also known as Bahasa Malaysia /Malay but which will be referred to as Bahasa Melayu in this paper).  The changes in the role and status of the two languages will be explicated via factors of politics and nationalism, economics and science and technology (Kaplan & Baldauf, 1997: 154 and Martel, 2001: 35) which have exerted varying degrees of influence at different points in time of the nation’s linguistic journey.  It culminates in a reversal of language policy in the 21st century – a change which has reinstated the position of English as the dominant language of knowledge and intellect in the field of science and technology.

The focus on Bahasa Melayu and English does not mean that there was/is no space for other languages, like Mandarin and Tamil and a host of other minority languages in this multiethnic nation.  Article 152 of the constitution “guaranteed that the languages and cultures of all other races would be given equal opportunity to develop and grow.”  (Asmah, 1979:11)  This paints a kaleidoscope of colourful multilingualism, which, though valuable and interesting, will not be dealt with in this paper.


2.         Post-Independence Period:  Drastic Change In Language Policy


Post-colonial countries took diverse, sometimes contradictory routes in drawing up language policies for the establishment of national identity during the post-independence period.  These ranged from retaining the language of the former colonial powers in an official capacity, to ensuring limited space for it to minimize its impact on the establishment and development of the native language as the official and national language of the nation.


The African nations provide a concrete example of the former process.  Bamgbose describes the contradiction in the African context by stressing that:

“Attention has been drawn to the fact that the logic of postcolonial policy is maintenance rather than change.  While post-independence governments appear to be making language policy, most of the time they are only perpetuating colonial language policy (Bamgbose, 1991, 2000) This inheritance situation has meant a futile struggle between change and continuity, with the latter usually gaining the upper hand.  In almost all African countries colonized by Britain, English remains an official or co-official language.  (Bamgbose, 2003:  422)


In contrast, Malaysia, focused, like a number of other countries, on the essential “educational agendas of nation-building, national identity and unity ….”  (Tollefson and Tsui, 2004: viii) through a drastic change in language policy.  This was done by instituting Bahasa Melayu as the national and the official language of the nation.  (Gill, 2002: 37)   In turn, the role and status of English was radically reduced.  From being the sole medium of instruction in the education system, English was relegated to being a subject taught in schools as a second language, in fact in the rural areas where there was almost non-existent environmental exposure to the language, the role and status of English was as good as that of a foreign language.

The question that often arises is “Why in this multi-ethnic nation, with the existence and use of a variety of other languages was Bahasa Melayu selected as the national language?”  This takes us then to the next section which explicates the strong influence of political and nationalistic concerns on the decision of language policy change.


3.         Reasons for Selection of Bahasa Melayu as the National and Official

Language in a Multi-Ethnic Context


Influence of political and nationalistic factors

Malaysia was and still is a multi-ethnic nation and at the time of independence (1957) was made up of the Malays, who were the dominant ethnic group and made up 49.78% of the total population, the Chinese who made up 37.1% and the Indians, who made up 11.0% of the population.  Even though in demographic terms, the percentage of Malays was only minimally larger than the other ethnic groups, it was their political clout and the fact that they considered themselves as “sons of the soil” in contrast with the other ethnic groups who were of immigrant ancestry, largely from China and India, that gave them not only the symbolic but also the concrete power to influence decision-making on language and nation.

Asmah (1987: 65) one of Malaysia’s eminent sociolinguists describes the ethnic and nationalistic reasons for the selection of the national language lucidly.  As one belonging to the dominant ethnic group, the Malays, she says that,

“To the Malays and the bumiputera people, that the choice fell on Malay was the most natural thing.  It is the language of the soil.  Of all the bumiputeras or indigenous languages, Malay is the most advanced in terms of its function as language of administration, high culture, literary knowledge and religion.” 


There was another factor that provided the impetus for the change in language policy to Bahasa Melayu.  This was the strong link between medium of instruction in schools and that of economic and social opportunities.  In the former colonial system, English schools were located in urban areas and were mainly attended by the non-Malays and those Malays who came from the elite.  In contrast, many Malays in the rural areas attended the Malay medium schools (at least for the primary levels).  English was already then the language of economic opportunity and social mobility and this situation resulted in “an identification of a racial group with a particular type of vocation or industry and hence its identification with wealth or poverty ...”  (Asmah, 1987:  63) 

This led to a high degree of frustration amongst the powerful Malay nationalist group.  They felt aggrieved by “the fact that political and economic power are concentrated in the hands of those who speak the more favoured language.”  (Kelman, 1971: 35)  Those who speak the favoured language (English) were non-Malays – largely the Chinese and the Indians who had professional mobility in the urban areas as well as a lesser number of elite Malays, who also attended the English-medium schools.  To rectify this social and economic imbalance, the Malays felt strongly that the institution of Bahasa Melayu as the national language, its legislation as official language to provide it with educational and administrative capital would lead to its development as a language of higher status.  Therefore having mastery of this language would provide the Malays with linguistic capital with greater value for economic opportunity which would lead to social and professional mobility.

The non-Malays, comprising the Chinese and the Indians did not pose much resistance to this decision.  This was because the Malays used the issue of citizenship as their bargaining tool.   Where before citizenship was granted to the non-Malays only by right of birth, in the post-independence period, the non-Malays could apply for citizenship “provided he or she met with the three stipulated requirements:  residential, good conduct and language.”  (Asmah, 1979:  10)  As Asmah frankly elaborates, “To put it crudely, the institution of Malay as the national and official language …. was a barter for the acquisition and equality of citizenship for the non-Malays.”    (Asmah, 1979:  11)

Having won the battle and legislated Bahasa as the national and official language for the domains of education and administration, over time, the Malays started to feel frustrated to see their language, which was such a strong symbol of national and ethnic identity, progressing at a very slow pace with regards its implementation in the education sector, particularly in the field of higher education.

This was reflected in the conversion of the oldest university in Malaysia – the University of Malaya.  The conversion began in 1965 and as an interim measure a bilingual system was adopted – Bahasa Melayu for the Arts subjects and the English-medium for the science and technology subjects.  Gradually, the bilingual system became a completely monolingual system, using only Bahasa Melayu.  It was only in 1983, after eighteen years, were all subjects including the sciences conducted in Bahasa Melayu in all public universities.  (Gill, 2004: 142)

During the early period of these eighteen years of the slow implementation of Bahasa Melayu as language of education, the language issue became an explosive one in this multilingual society.  This culminated in a black mark in Malaysia’s history on May 13, 1969, the one and only time when racial riots took place.   After the racial riots in 1969, “there was a strict and rapid implementation of a national language policy, based on the belief that, if the status of the Malay language was not upgraded, the political and economic status of Malays would never improve and national cohesion would not be achieved.”  (Gaudart, Omar and Ozog cited in Kaplan and Baldauff, 1997:  197)  One of the main outcomes of this frustration, post 1969, was a memorandum that was sent to the government re: the establishment of a public university that solely uses Bahasa Melayu as the medium of instruction.


The Birth of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia

This led to the birth of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia in 1970.  The name of the university translates as the “National University of Malaysia.”  Of the numerous public universities in Malaysia, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia has a history steeped in political and nationalistic concerns.  After this, all other universities set up were required to use Bahasa Melayu as the medium of instruction, in keeping with the National Education Policy. 

            The mission statement of the university forcefully states that,

“The need and demand for this University is borne out of Malay awareness and sensitivity to ennoble/emplace Bahasa Melayu in the country as well as to enhance its economic value/prestige.”  (Translated version of the Strategic Plan, 2003: 17) 


An analysis of the semantics of the mission statement reveals the nationalistic strength with which the linguistic aspirations were held by the Malay intellectuals. The verb associated with Bahasa Melayu is “mendaulatkan Bahasa Melayu.”   The verb “mendaulatkan” is normally only used in relation to royalty.   In Malay culture, and in the nation, the King is held with the highest regard.  In the hierarchy, at the pinnacle of the highest order is God, followed by the Prophet and then followed by the King.  Therefore the use of the verb “mendaulatkan” which is usually only associated with the king, has been used to regalise and stress the sacredness with which the language is viewed.  This portrays the strength of the feelings the Malay intellectuals had towards the language and the mission of the university.

A crucial element in the success factor of the implementation of the language policy was the need for published / translated materials in the native language.  Gonzalez depicts this by arguing in the Philippine context that until a language has been intellectualized or cultivated, which is best done at the tertiary level in universities, school based programmes can only reach a limited plateau.  (Gonzalez cited in Kaplan and Baldauf, 1997: 200)  Therefore, in the same light, for Bahasa Melayu to be taken seriously as an intellectual language and to truly gain educational capital, it needed to be modernized as well as academics needed to be encouraged to write / translate specialized knowledge in the native language.   

Therefore, given the various challenges, the first thing that needed to be done was to modernize the language.


6.         The Modernisation of Malay 

To appreciate the challenges Bahasa Melayu faced in this process of modernization, it will be appropriate to refer to the history of the language to assess the spheres in which it most commonly developed and grew.  Like so many other languages in Asia, it had up to the nineteenth century, a “cognitive system … associated with a traditional culture, substantially agrarian based, resting on feudal foundations.  (Tham, 1990:  xvi) 

Therefore for language development to progress, in 1959, two years after independence was achieved, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (henceforth referred to as DBP) was developed as a statutory body vested with the authority to carry out the following functions:

a.                   to develop and enrich the national language

b.                  to promote literary growth and creative talents

c.                   to publish books in the national language

(Hassan Ahmad, 1988: 33)


In line with linguistic modernization, two major language development activities were carried out by DBP:  corpus planning and promotion of the social status or role of Bahasa Melayu.  (Hassan Ahmad, 1988: 32&33)  One of the more well-known activities was “The General Formula for the Coining of Terminology in Bahasa Malaysia.”  The authorities responsible for the development of the national language had to come up with the difficult task of forming scientific and technological terms in Malay because such terms were not existent in the Malay language.  The government appointed a team of Malaysian and Indonesian language planners and academicians, including scientists who held a total of 6 joint meetings over a period of 16 years from 1972 to 1988 to pursue this activity.  (Hassan Ahmad, 1988: 38)  This was considered one of the most significant achievements in language planning in the region.

This provides a picture of the strength of government support in modernizing the language in the post-independence period.  This was a phase, which not only Malaysia experienced, but that many other post-colonial nations went through.  It was very much more challenging for nations which did not have a scientific tradition.  In Asia, these incorporate countries that have had a post-colonial history like Sri Lanka, which used Singhalese and the Philippines which used Tagalog.  For these countries to attempt to begin with the process of modernization and to maintain it required crucial political support because it required tremendous resources for the various measures to be implemented.  To provide you with an idea of the resources that were used in Malaysia, the following figures were taken from the Malaysian Educational Statistics 2000.  What was available from the statistics were figures from the years 1991- 2000.  In these nine years, RM 38 million was spent on Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka to modernize and enhance the role and status of Bahasa Melayu, and we do not have the budget figures for the other 34 years of its existence, from 1959 to 1990 and 2001 – 2003.  (Gill, 2004)

I shall now fast forward the scenario to the 21st century.  After forty years of the legislation and implementation of Bahasa Melayu in the education system, and all the efforts at modernizing it, in contrast, 2002, signals a drastic shift again in the language policy. 


7.         40 Years Later:  Drastic Reversal In Language Policy

In 2002, the former Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, made the shocking announcement that science and mathematics subjects will be taught in English not only at tertiary levels but also during the first year of schooling (Mahathir, 2002: 1). The Ministry of Education recommended to the Cabinet that the teaching of science and mathematics in English be confined, in 2003, to primary year one (which is the first year at primary level), secondary form one (which is the first year at secondary level) and lower six (which is equivalent to the first year of the ‘O-levels’), and eventually implemented at all other levels.


This then raised questions which have concerned many of us:  Why after all these efforts all these years for Bahasa Melayu has there been such a drastic change in language policy?  Why has there been a top-down decision made with no discussions with the universities at large?  To answer this, we need to unravel the influence of the age of internationalization on language planning and policy.  This is an age where the factors of economic considerations and the knowledge economy and science and technology ideology / policy impact strongly on the nation and override traditional factors of politics and nationalism in influencing language policy. 


8.         Reasons for Change

Influence of globalization and the knowledge economy on selection of English in the domain of science and technology


In the late 80’s and early 90’s there were emerging changes in the developmental phases of the world brought on by globalisation.  Alvin Toffler (1980) delineates the changes that civilization faces in the form of waves – the First Wave, the Second Wave and the Third Wave.  He says,

The dawn of the new civilization is the single most explosive fact of our lifetimes.  It is the central event – the key to understanding the years immediately ahead.  It is an event as profound as the First Wave of change unleashed ten thousand years ago by the invention of agriculture, or the earthshaking Second Wave of change touched off by the industrial revolution.  We are the children of the next transformation, the Third Wave.  (Toffler, 1980: 25)


The third wave is here and it is the age of information, the knowledge age.  In this age of the knowledge economy there are two main challenges that Malaysia faces.    The first is the challenge of ensuring the nation possesses the necessary human resource capability and whether the existing quality of human resource meets with the needs of the nation.  The second challenge arises out of the knowledge and information explosion and its implications on language policy.


Knowledge Economy:  Implications for Human Resource Capability


For the first challenge, it would be relevant to refer to the report by the National Brains Trust on Education.   The National Brains Trust is a committee made up of established and experienced members of Malaysian society from the fields of education, politics, economics and non-governmental organizations. 

In the report, it refers to Vision 2020, (which is Malaysia’s blueprint for the achievement of industrialization status in the year 2020), which states that:

Malaysia has one of the best education systems in the Third World.  But for the journey that we must make over our second generation (to 2020), new standards have to be set and new results achieved.


The report goes on to explain the many reasons why new standards have to be urgently set and new results expeditiously achieved:

The P-economy demands a brawn-intensive, disciplined workforce.  The K-economy demands a brain-intensive, thinking, creative, innovative and disciplined workforce.  Malaysia today has a world-class workforce for the P-economy.  But we have a poor workforce for the K-economy.  Unfortunately, with the rise of the K-economy, a global transformation that cannot but gather pace, there has been a fundamental structural shift whereby economic value will increasingly come from knowledge-intensive work and increasingly less from physical production (although this will remain important).  The shift from a poor K-economy workforce to a world-class K-economy workforce has to be rapid and dramatic.  There is little time to lose. 

(A Report on the National Brains Trust on Education, 2002: 1)


Knowledge and Information Explosion:  Implications for Language Policy


For the nation to achieve industrialized status and for it to develop knowledge workers who are able to innovate in the field of science and technology, access to knowledge and information in the field of science and technology is crucial.  “It is an established fact that the progress in science depends on the accumulation of a written record of all previous science; that is, science requires great information storage and retrieval systems. (Kaplan: 11)  It is these storage and information retrieval systems that we need to access and therein lies one of our major challenges.

This has become one of our major present challenges because of the successful implementation of a nationalistic language policy over a period of two decades.   As a result of this nationalistic policy, we have a generation of human resource educated and fluent in the national language. The converse side of this equation is that we have also developed a generation who are not equally competent in the English language.  Therefore it was imperative during this period for information to be accessed in a language that was their strength and that the nation’s human resource understood, which is Bahasa Melayu. 

What has the nation been doing all these years, especially in the 80’s & 90’s, to provide access to information in English?  Translation and publications in Bahasa Melayu were two activities that were carried out.  This then raises the next question, which is, why was this not sufficient for the nation to be able to access information and knowledge in the field of science and technology? 

To answer this question, we need to go back a little in Malaysian history.  Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka and later the National Translation Agency (ITNM) were actively involved in these activities of translation and publication of original works in Bahasa.  But unfortunately, the translation process progressed at a slow pace.  According to Hj. Hamidah Baba, executive officer of the National Translation Agency (ITNM), a full time translator can only translate 5-8 pages a day, while a part-time translator can manage to translate a maximum of 3 pages a day.  (Hj. Hamidah Baba, 2001: 7)  Despite the efforts taken to develop translation methods and to speed up the translation process, we still cannot keep up with the number of books that need to be translated. 


Crucial access to information in the field of science and technology: 

the slow pace of Publications/Translations in Bahasa

The following figures reflect the slow pace of translation and publications in Bahasa Melayu.  Since the setting up of the Translation Section of Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (a government supported agency set up to promote the use of Bahasa Melayu) in 1956 up to 1995, a total of 39 years, it has translated and published 374 books.  From this, 191 are books from the pure science, applied science and social science field.  As for public universities, up to 1995, UTM, USM, UPM, UM, UKM and ITM have published a total of 168 translated books amongst them.  (Mohd. Noor Hj. Salleh, 1995: 3 & 4) UKM the university whose aim was to encourage publications in the national language, published a total of 106 books in Bahasa in the field of science and technology from 1971 to 2003.  (Katalog Buku Penerbit UKM: 2002)

How do these numbers of translated and written works in Bahasa Melayu compare with the output of scientific publications in English?  The iron grip of English is clearly reflected by the following:  “there are over 100,000 scientific journals in the world and this number is increasing at the rate of 5000 articles per day adding to the 30 million existing.”  (Bilan cited in Martel, 2001: 51)

It is very clear then that the translation activities did help the Malaysian society to source a small percentage of knowledge books in Bahasa Melayu but the proliferation of knowledge in English increases at such an explosive rate so much so that translation was and is not able to keep up with this knowledge explosion in English. 


The contrast in the Japanese context

In Malaysia, many Malay intellectuals often look to Japan as a nation which has managed very successfully with the process of industrialization via its own national and dominant ethnic language – Japanese.  It is often referred to as an example of success achieved without needing the English language and therefore along parallel lines, the Malay intellectuals exhort for the maintenance of the national language, Bahasa Melayu, in Malaysia’s own aspirations towards industrialized status.  This is done without realizing that Japan had a massive headstart, as far back as the postwar period, (whilst Malaysia was still in the throes of colonial power) in its plans for accessing and advancing information in the field of science and technology.  Kaplan (1997: 246) delineates the various reasons for Japan’s success in accessing knowledge and information in Japanese. He begins with Japan’s strong advantage of “a strong industrial tradition; after all, Japan had waged successful modern war against the major industrialized nations.”  (Kaplan, 1997: 246)  In addition to its industrial tradition, Kaplan explains the aggressive planning and processes that Japan undertook that gave it the early competitive global edge.  In the post-war period, it “created the Japanese Institute for Science and Technology (JIST).  This Institute bought the first computers from the West.  It sent bibliographic specialists to the West to learn how to access and use the information systems.  It created a remarkable translation facility to make technical information readily available in Japanese.  It developed university-industrial links, defining research projects and assuring the emergence of research communities to work on those projects the government deemed vital.  This latter exercise culminated ultimately in the building of Tsukuba Science City.”   (Kaplan, 1997:  246)  The pace and extent of the achievements of the Japanese in accessing knowledge and information in English are incomparable to the efforts of many other Asian countries.


Lack of Legislation for the Role of Bahasa Melayu in the Domain of Business and Industry

A language gains genuine power and strength from its use in a wide variety of domains, especially the powerful domain of business and industry.  English has been, since the post-independence era, predominantly the language of communication in the domain of business and industry. This is one of the most important domains for a nation as reflected by the concerns of Mahathir Mohamad, the former Prime Minister of Malaysia, who stressed the importance of providing the business domain with independence, flexibility and stability.  He says,

“The main concern for everyone now is economic development and the well-being of our people.  For this we need stability and a legal framework as well as practices which are conducive to business and trade.”  (Mahathir, 2003:  5)


Practices conducive to business and trade were enhanced by the Central Bank when it announced “liberalization and simplification of several major foreign exchange administration rules from April 1 to enhance the environment and competitiveness of business operations in Malaysia.”  (cited in Mustapha, March 27, 2004: B1)   In contrast with clear stipulation of reforms for foreign exchange activities, there is no mention of legislation for language use.  The exclusion of mention of language policy in the domain of business and industry contrasts starkly with that of the firm legislation on language use for the field of education and administration.

This clearly depicts a scenario where economic considerations override nationalistic factors and play a predominant role in providing flexibility of choice with regards language use in the private sector.  There was no legislation on language use instituted in this sector as it was necessary to provide and encourage investment via a flexible and free system of market enterprise.   Any restriction particularly in the crucial language of communication in the field of business which needs to be quick and easily understood by colleagues, bosses and clients around the world, would have discouraged foreign investors from investing their monies in Malaysia.  Malaysia, like many other countries around the globe, competes aggressively for foreign investments needed for the economic growth and development of the nation.  The implementation of this integral task for the nation, which used to be largely undertaken by the government now rests on the shoulders of the private sector, which, “assumes the lead role as the engine of growth” as stated in the Central Bank’s annual report for 2003. (cited in Moses, March 27, 2004: 1)  Therefore there was a crucial need to provide this domain with independence and flexibility with regards choice of communicative capital.

The result of not fully participating in the national language across all domains was that the situation hindered “the development of indigenous language programmes,   …… leaving the high status domains for exogamous languages.”  (Kaplan and Baldauf, 1997:  201)   In this case, it was English which continued to possess linguistic power and capital with the support of the domain of business and industry. 


Weakened employment base for graduates from public universities

Another factor that caused the government to relook the policy with regards Bahasa was the employment base for graduates of public universities.  In the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, the civil service was the largest employer of the graduates.  This in fact resulted in Malaysia having one of the largest civil service workforce in Asia.  But this was a situation that could not go on forever and was resulting in an economic hemorrhage of the nation because of the large numbers of workers that existed for the nature of the work required – it was not cost effective and burdened the government.  Therefore, in contrast, in the 90’s, the nation turned to and depended on the private sector as the main employment base for graduates.  This unearthed and emphasized the linguistic choices and competencies required of graduates wishing to be employed in the private sector. 

At the same time as these changes were taking place with regards employment patterns, Malaysia liberalized its educational policies in its aspirations to become a regional center of education.  This was to provide for a transnational mode of education and to allow foreign and established universities from other countries to set up branch campuses in Malaysia.  We now have branch campuses of the Nottingham University (UK) and Monash University (Australia) as well as Curtin University of Technology (Australia).  Through a repeal of its education act, higher education in the private sector was conducted in English.  This resulted in a bifurcation of higher education – with public universities based on a Bahasa Melayu medium of instruction and private universities using English.  Graduates from the private universities provided strong competition to those from the public universities and were more favourably sought after by the companies in the private sector.  This was largely because of their competency in the English language.  This situation, if allowed to progress with no change to the medium of instruction in public universities would have led to serious social and economic problems for the nation (See Gill, 2004 for further discussion) The problem peaked in the year 2002 when 40,000 graduates from public universities were unemployed, and they constituted largely the dominant ethnic group, the Malays.  (Mustapha, 2002, March 14: 1&2)

Thompson explicates the value of linguistic competency in terms of linguistic capital.  He stresses that, “Each speaker in a linguistic community possesses a certain quantity of linguistic capital which allows him to produce expressions which are highly valued on a particular market.  The more linguistic capital a speaker possesses, the more he is able to exert symbolic power.”  (Thompson cited in Loos, 2000:  38)  The above situation meant that the Malays largely lost out in terms of linguistic capital which would give them the power to gain employment and thus maintain the economic balance and social and professional mobility which had taken years to build up on the back of the national language.

Therefore, it can be seen that the changes in language policy are largely influenced by the two domains which are important in the growth and status of any language – the domain of business and the domain of science and technology.  A distinct parallel can be drawn in the rationale for the change in language policy during the post-independence years and these present times, which is driven by the economic inequity factor.  This was the one of the dominant reasons factored into the change of medium in the post-independence period from the post-colonial language of English to that of the official language of Bahasa Melayu.  In 2003, the same factor of economic inequity rears its head again to stimulate a reversal of the language policy.  This time around there has been muted resistance from the dominant ethnic group – the Malays because they realize that they themselves are being impacted by the inability to access information and knowledge in English and to communicate in the language.  This is articulated strongly by Lowe and Umi Khatab in a paper on ‘Malaysian Language Planning and Cultural Rights in the Face of a Global World’ when they say,

“Globalization was to pose a dilemma for policy planners.  The success in having a national language resulted in the Malays – the race it was designed to help – being disadvantaged.  The current policy, therefore, had to be substituted with one which, in fact, was directly opposed to the earlier policy.   English now has to be propagated amongst a population schooled only in Malay and with a vested interest in its continued dominance.”  (Lowe and Khattab, 2003: 219)


The crucial issue that arises as a result of all these turbulent changes is the ability to maintain the balance between the role and the status of Bahasa Melayu for the nation and that of the international dominant role of English.  The government is firm with top-down directives on language policy underpinned by the science and technology and economics ideology.  At the same time there is this pull in the opposite direction of ensuring a place for Bahasa Melayu in this linguistic ecology of higher education.   

How will Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia – the university set up to promote the role of Bahasa as an intellectual and educational language – manage this new challenge?  As we seek to explore this dimension, it will be appropriate to look at the strategic plan drawn up by the university for the next twenty years of the twentieth century.


Strategic Plan for Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, 2000 - 2020

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, spearheaded by the Centre for Academic Advancement saw it essential to draw up a Strategic Plan for future direction for the period 2000 to 2020.  There are ten strategies altogether and underpinning all these strategies is the mission statement.  It states that:


“The essence of the UKM Strategic Plan lies in its Mission to be a premier university which promotes Bahasa Melayu and disseminates knowledge encapsulated in the national culture.  The main agenda remains faithful to the generation of knowledge in the context of a global economy as well as the nurturing of Bahasa Melayu as an intellectual language at the national and international level.  (Executive Summary of the Strategic Plan:  13)


It can be observed that in terms of policy rhetoric in the area of language choice and selection there is no change from the concerns of the 60’s and 70’s.  It is still Bahasa Melayu which is promoted and the aim now is to further nurture it to be an intellectual language at both the national and international levels.  This is despite the turbulent changes that the nation is facing re: challenges of the knowledge economy and the need to compete globally.

This contrasts with the implementation procedures which have not been documented in terms of policy but which have been discussed and minuted at management level meetings and verbally filtered down to the various levels of the university.    The initial decision made is that, “50-70% of the total number of first year science courses will be in English and conducted by Professors who are fluent in the language; for the social sciences, 30% of the total number of first year courses will be in English.”  (personal communication).


9.         Conclusion


As we work through these potentially contentious issues, we should be reminded of the critical need to frame the concerns within a symbiotic context – to examine how these issues could co-exist and enrich each other so that there is strengthening of space for concerns of both national identity as well as global competitiveness in the context of education, community and the nation.    This echoes what Atal says in the context of the radical transformation of societies when he says, “what is needed is effective management of such a transformation, rather than futile attempts to halt it.”  (Atal, 2003:  188)

In this context, it would be beneficial to work at developing and implementing a model that encapsulates opportunities and methods for language empowerment at varying levels – the international, national and sub-national community levels.  This will be a model that can function as a reference point for various nations confronting similar challenges of globalisation and indigenization.  We will be working on this as part of our two year research project on “Language Planning and Policy in Higher Education:  Responding to the Needs of the Knowledge Economy.”  This project was awarded a significant grant by the government recently and signals their seriousness in considering issues of language planning and policy essential for the nation.  This will enable effective management of universities in linguistic transition to progress more confidently into uncharted linguistic challenges of the future.


This paper is part of an on-going two-year project on “Language Planning and Policy in Higher Education in Malaysia:  Responding to the Needs of the Knowledge Economy.”  The research team comprises Saran Kaur Gill (head), Hazita Azman, Norizan Razak and Fadhil Mansor.




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