Language Policy And
Planning In Higher Education In
A Nation In Linguistic Transition
Saran Kaur Gill
43600 Bangi, Selangor
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
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
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
Asmah (1987: 65) one of
“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
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
The Birth of Universiti Kebangsaan
This led to the birth of Universiti Kebangsaan
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
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
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
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
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.
report, it refers to Vision 2020, (which is
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.
(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
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
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.
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
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
At the same time as these changes were taking place with
regards employment patterns,
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
Strategic Plan for Universiti Kebangsaan
“The essence of the UKM Strategic Plan lies in its
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).
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
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