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Malaysian Tamils and Tamil Linguistic Culture

Harold F. Schiffman
University of Pennsylvania

The purpose of this paper is to examine the position of Tamil as an ethnic minority and language in Malaysia, and to make some predictions about the prognosis for survival of Tamil in the twenty-first century. Tamils are the largest of the language groups that form the `Indian' minority in Malaysia, which constitutes around 9% of the population, or 1.5 million. Within this number, people classified as Tamil-speaking are about 85%.Below I will deal with the subject of the increasing number of Tamils who are not actually Tamil speakers. In a fairly recent compendium of articles on South Asian immigrants in Southeast Asia (Sandhu and Mani, eds. 1993) over half of the articles are devoted to the question of Indian communities in Malaysia--nineteen out of a total of 37, the rest being devoted to Brunei, Indonesia, Myanmar (Burma), the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.

All of them see the situation of Indians in Malaysia as somehow problematical, whether it be the preferences given to Bumiputra Malaysians over immigrant Indians, the socio-economic conditions affecting plantation workers or the educational opportunities provided their children. I will try in this talk is to place the issue of Tamil language and language maintenance within the larger scheme of the future of the Indian community in Malaysia, and see whether we can predict a prognosis for the survival of Tamil, and indeed the survival of a Tamil-speaking minority, in Malaysia in the twenty-first century. Contrast this with the articles on Singapore, where the future of Indians in Singapore is described as ``not without promise." (Sandhu 1993:787, op. cit.) . In fact the future of Indians in Singapore may be more secure than the languages spoken by them; what would happen if all Singapore Indians were to become English speakers, and how this would fit the wishes of the Chinese majority is another question. In a sense, this paper will somewhat resemble a book review of that portion of the Sandhu and Mani volume devoted to Malaysia, for it provides the most up-to-date research on the general problems facing Tamils (and other Indian immigrant communities) in Malaysia. What it does not do is to discuss in very great detail the fate of the Tamil language in Malaysia, and here is where I must fill in with my own very inadequate observations.When the request to appear on this panel came, I had hopes to be doing research on the question by means of a Fulbright grant in Malaysia and Singapore; the research clearance for Malaysia came too late for me to do any but the most perfunctory kind of research into this issue, but many of the observations I made in Singapore are pertinent, though one must be careful to not overgeneralize.

Language policy in Malaysia is a topic that cannot be openly discussed without fear of being charged under the Sedition Act of 1948.The policy, as stated in the Constitution (Amendment) Act, 1971, is that the status of Malay as official and other languages as tolerated, ``may no longer be questioned, it being considered that such a sensitive issue should for ever be removed from the arena of public discussion." (Suffian bin Hashim, 1976:324) It is only one of those taboo issues (the place of Islam, the special status of Malays) that may not be discussed in Malaysia, for fear of disturbing certain ethnic sensibilities. Therefore the only writing one finds on the topic of language policy are filiopietistic articles extolling the virtue of the system, its natural fairness, its commitment to building up the national culture, and so forth. It can be described, but it cannot be criticized, so criticism of it will only be made outside the country.

Internal critics must therefore tread lightly. Recently the government of Malaysia itself made some moves that violated, in some people's views, its own policy toward Bahasa Malaysia. That was the proposal, made early in 1994, to allow some science teaching to go on in English, because of the generally low level of knowledge of English among Malaysians (code for: among Malays) which would jeopardize Malaysia's ability to modernize and become an industrialized nation any time soon. The Prime Minister himself defended this proposal, but he had to immediately contend with massive criticism from the association of Malay teachers, who vowed to ``not give an inch" to such a ``drastic" change in the language policy.

That this should cause such a furor must be viewed in terms of the issues it covertly raises. The problem is not that there is an inadequate knowledge of English among Malaysian citizens, such that would jeopardize Malaysia's ability to participate in scientific developments. The problem is that though Malaysians of Indian and Chinese background do quite well in English, and often must seek higher education abroad (though English medium) because they are denied access to Malaysian institutions of higher learning due to the ethnic quotas, the problem is that there are not Malays or Bumiputras whose knowledge of English is adequate. Thus if English-knowing non-Bumiputras are allowed to dominate the scientific fields, even if it would help Malaysia to modernize, this will not help the Malays, so it cannot be allowed to happen. What apparently would be the ideal solution would be a policy to help Malays learn enough English to study science, but not permit this for non-Bumiputras. Such a policy would be too blatantly unfair, and therefore impossible to implement and defend, so it cannot be formulated as such.

My original stated goal for this paper was to establish how the Tamils of Malaysia were maintaining their language in the face of a national language policy that emphasizes integration through Bahasa Malaysia and Islam. Since the Tamils are known for their intense language loyalty in India and Sri Lanka, I was expecting to find that their love of the language and intense language maintenance efforts, manifested in India and Sri Lanka with strong opposition to Hindi, Sanskrit and EnglishThe current antipathy is strongest against Hindi and is known as Hindi etirppu; the opposition to Sanskrit was stronger several decades ago, and the opposition to English is mainly to English loan words being borrowed into Tamil (angliak kalappu), not to English as an instrument or as a language per se. The opposition to Sanskrit has had the effect of ridding the written language of almost all traces of loan words from that language; in the spoken language, where no overt rules are prescribed, Hindi, Sanskrit, English, Portuguese and other loan words abound. would result in effective language maintenance within the Malaysian context. The approach taken by the Tamils is known as corpus planning or corpus treatment by sociologists of language; it is perceived by Tamils to be the most important kind of language maintenance, but in this day and age it may in fact have little relevance in contexts such as Malaysia and Singapore.

Language maintenance in Tamilnadu, and in contested Sri Lanka, also involves status management,I prefer the terms `corpus management' and `status management' to `planning' or `treatment'.and various measures have been undertaken to restrict the domains of Hindi, Sanskrit and English (in Tamilnadu), and Sinhala (in Sri Lanka) so that Tamil can recapture the domains of elementary and secondary education, the media, and so forth. This has been more successful in terms of keeping back Hindi and Sanskrit, but in the case of Sinhala, of course, things have degenerated into civil war. In the case of English, which is perceived in some ways as a buffer against Hindi (and Sinhala) efforts are ambivalent, and many of those who decry angilak kalappu use English and even send their children to English-medium schools. The result is that English is still the main language of higher education in Tamilnadu; in Sri Lanka the battle to replace English with Sinhala, even in higher education, has been much more intense. In India, of course, the central government has no control over local educational policies, so no attempt to impose Hindi as a medium of instruction in Tamilnadu universities and colleges has ever been, or will ever be, attempted.

In Malaysia (and in Singapore) language policy is not set by the Tamils, and Tamils are therefore in the position that Telugu speakers or Kannada speakers are in Tamilnadu: they are a tiny minority, have no say in overall policy formulation, and are suffered to maintain their languages only for elementary education, if there. One of the great weaknesses of Indian language policy is the very weak provisions for language groups who live in territories where they are in the minority. It is fine to be a Telugu speaker in Andhra Pradesh; it is not so fine to be one in Kerala, Karnataka or Tamilnadu, and the constitutional provisions to protect such groups are noticeably without teeth. Each linguistic state, having driven out the perceived oppressor and established its own linguistic regime, turns out to be an even more ferocious oppressor of its own linguistic minority groups.

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Harold Schiffman