(Un)Popular Opinion

Yes, BM Is Important But Let’s Not Forget English Is Just As Vital Too

A personal take on a long-debated topic.
(Un)Popular Opinion | In Malaysia, language has long been used as a measurement of one’s loyalty to the country, where if you were unable to converse in Bahasa Melayu (BM) fluently, you’re not worthy of your citizenship.

This contentious topic brought back into the limelight towards the end of last year due to a viral post by a woman who claimed she was berated by an Immigration officer over her poor Malay proficiency.

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After a huge hoo-ha online, Home Minister Saifuddin Nasution came to the officer’s defense, where he said that those who “cannot understand the local language cannot be eligible (for citizenship).”

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While I fully understand that BM is the official language of Malaysia as stated in the Constitution, I’m of the view that it cannot be used as a threat against those who happen to be stronger in other languages such as English.

In fact, I’m going to go a step further in arguing that English is just as important as BM, as I’ve personally witnessed during a shopping outing weeks ago.

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Of shoes and English

With CNY coming all the closer, my mum decided it was time to take me and my sister to buy some new shoes instead of wearing those that looked as though it had been through periods worse than war.

Author's sister buying shoes
Photo courtesy of the author

After close to an hour of picking our shoes, I took the shoes to the counter and waited for the receipt to be issued, where I was attended to by two staff members.

From the get-go, it was obvious that the male staff was new at the job and was clearly cracking under the “pressure” of me watching his every move while he was issuing the receipt.

Afraid that I would be annoyed by his speed (or lack thereof), the female staff gave me an apologetic glance, to which I responded with a smile.

However, I noticed that the male staff had great trouble understanding the instructions given to him by his colleague in English. At one point, his face was filled with confusion when he heard RM89 being said to him in English, forcing the female staff to switch to BM instead before the “lights” were finally turned on.

Man issuing a paper receipt
For illustration purposes only. Photo via Canva

I initially thought this was probably the nerves getting to him but boy was I wrong.

After getting the receipt, I saw a foreign couple approaching the male staff and began asking him questions in English. Unfortunately, the female staff was attending to another customer, leaving him bewildered and at a loss over what to do.

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In the end, he had to gingerly walk towards his colleague and tell her that he needed her help as he couldn’t understand a single word of English, which made me all the more shocked over what I was witnessing.

M’sian pwn M’sian?

Among Singaporeans, there is this popular Internet phrase called “Sinkie pawn (pwn) Sinkie”, which is often used whenever there are instances of Singaporeans bitterly mocking or disparaging their own countrymen who do exceptionally well.

One netizen on Reddit explained the phrase brilliantly as such:

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“It is well known that a community of Singaporeans are like crabs in a bucket. No individual crab can get out, because all the other crabs keep pulling any that try back in. The whole lot of them are doomed by their own design, a tragedy of the commons. That is what Sinkie pawn Sinkie is.”
Crabs inside a basket
For illustration purposes only. Photo via Freepik

The whole idea behind the phrase is largely rooted in human tendencies to be jealous of other person’s success, leading them to have the “if I can’t have it, neither can you” mentality.

While Malaysians haven’t invented a similar phrase among its online community, it’s very obvious that we’re terribly prejudiced against those who are more fluent in English than BM.

Just look around on Facebook and you’ll be sure to see comments from netizens accusing one of “hanging on to the colonial past” or calling for the person’s citizenship to be stripped as they’re deemed to be disloyal to the country by not being fluent in BM.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that one should totally abandon learning BM, but what I want to convey is that English is just as important and none of us should be tearing down those who find it more comfortable to converse in English.

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M'sian students sitting for an exam
Photo via Malay Mail

Malaysians often like to boast that foreigners are in awe of how tourist-friendly the country is. But how can we expect more tourists to come when we can’t even master the basics of a language that’s considered a must in an increasingly globalised society?

According to statistics gathered last year, it was found that 52,000 students failed their SPM English paper in 2022, which constitutes to 14.3% of 373,974 candidates. This is honestly a cause for concern.

By all means, learn and be fluent in BM. But at the same time, let us also be more understanding and compassionate towards those who are stronger in English. After all, we are living in the same world that treats all languages as equals and bears no prejudice against any.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and does not purport to reflect the opinions or views of WeirdKaya.


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