ONWUBIKO EMEKA CYPRIAN
INSTITUTIONAL AFFILIATION: UNIVERSITI PUTRA MALAYSIA
This paper explores the language policy in Malaysia vis-à-vis its diversity preserves those expectation which indicates
the national attitudes about how linguistic diversity should be handled.
Malaysia as presently constituted is made up of 3 major ethnic groups- the
dominant Malay, Chinese and Indians. The migration of Indians to Malaysia started
in the second half of the 19th century, primarily as laborers who
were brought by the British to work on plantations, roads, railway lines and
ports. On their part the Chinese community has increased before political
independence in Malaysia. However, Malay was adopted as the national language
and medium of instruction in schools. Be that as it may, the Chinese and Indian
communities were allowed by the government to run schools which medium of
instruction is in Chinese and Tamil languages. From the foregoing, one thing is
obvious. These immigrants who have adopted Malaysia as their country still see
themselves as people from one culture. They speak their language and maintain
their cultural heritage and traditions and ensure that their identities are preserved
even as they try to integrate in their host country.
Keywords: Language policy, diversity, culture
In any multicultural and multiethnic society the issue of language policy has been a serious concern for policy
makers. In making the policy for such a pluralistic society a lot of
considerations have to be made to accommodate all the different groups that
make up such a society. The language policies in Malaysia are quite complex due
to the existence of three major ethnic groups: Malays, Chinese and Indians who
speak different languages and practice different cultures. David (2007). In his
views Hassan (1994) observed that Malaysia as presently constituted is a
diverse mixture of ethnic backgrounds, languages and subcultures. The Malays
are the dominant group of the three. However, there are other minority ethnic
groups that make up the country.
The Malaysian nation is based upon cultural differences and is evolving a political culture that takes account of
its plural culturalism (Cheah,2002). Be that as it may, the government has been
able to integrate the different races despite some misunderstandings.
This paper tries to examine the language policies in a diverse society such as Malaysia, its effect on the three
different ethnic groups, Malays, Chinese and Indias as speakers of their own
language and the Malay language. However, inspite of the differences efforts by
the government to integrate the various races into one united and indivisible
country even as the immigrants maintain their cultural heritage and tradition.
Sharing the same view, Cheah, (2002) said: …….the government policies have been
aimed at the accommodation of the non-Malays in the short term and at the
integration of them over a longer period, but not to the extent of making the
non-Malays drastically alter their way of life or abandon their cultural
Malaysia as a Plural Society
It should be noted that there are other minority ethnic groups aside the three major groups. This makes the country a
heterogeneous society. The Malays are regarded as the original inhabitants,
sons of the soil otherwise referred to as
the “bumiputras” in local parlance. The other two ethnic groups
emigrated from China and India. The migration of Indians to Malaysia started in
the second half of the 19th century, primarily as laborers who were
brought by the British to work on Plantations, roads, railway lines and ports. On
their part the Chinese community who came to Malaysia to trade have increased
before political independence in Malaysia. During this period political parties
were formed to liberate the country from British rule.
The main political party is known as the United Malays National organization (U.M.N.O). It also has the responsibility
to defend the rights and privileges of the Malay. The other two races have
their own political parties-the Malayan Chinese Association(M.C.A.) for the
Chinese and the Malayan Indian Congress (M.I.C.) for the Indians. These two
political parties were racial in composition but national(in terms of the
Malayan nation) in aspiration. Asmah,(1979). They later joined together to form
an alliance to fight for independence.
The then prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman had this to say about the Chinese community:
The early Chinese settlers have been in this country for many hundreds of years.
In the early days they came here to trade and later to like the country and decided
To settle down, and they were absorbed by the country and followed local customs
And speak the Malay language while at the same time retaining some of their own
Culture and traditions…………
On the Indians he said: those Indians who had come to realize that Malaya was not just a temporary haven but a home had shown their ready acceptance of the national language.
The two races did not object to the issue of the national language. This was because the Malays used the issue of
citizenship as a bargaining tool, where before citizenship was granted to
non-Malays by right of birth in the post independence period, a non-Malay could
apply for citizenship ‘provided’ he or she met with the three stipulated
requirements: residential, good conduct and language. Asmah, (1979).
Language Policies in Malaysia
Bearing in mind the linguistic diversity of the Malaysian cultural landscape policy makers came up with a language
policy that reflects the heterogeneous nature of the society.Holmes,(2001)
supports this view when he said, in making the language policies it requires
certain process which starts from selection, codification, elaboration and
securing acceptance of the language. The Reid commission among other things
recommended the use of Malay as the national and official language. English is
the second language. The language policies in Malaysia are quite complex due to
the existence of the three major ethnic groups: Malay, Chinese and Indians who
speak different languages and practice different cultures. It was felt a
national language would help to create national unity notwithstanding cultural
and linguistic diversity, David, (2007).Similarly, supporting the adoption of
Malay as the national language. Asmah, (1979) said, “an immigrant language
would not be able to give the nation the characteristics that it required to
justify an identity which it could call its own.”
The education review committee headed by Abdul Rahman Talib in 1960 recommended the use of the national language as the
medium of instruction in secondary schools which hitherto had used English as
the medium of instruction. However, two types of school were established at the
primary level and these are the national schools which uses Malay as the medium
of instruction and national type schools which uses either English,Chinese or
Tamil but Malay was made compulsory subject.However, it was recommended that
public secondary schools should use English or Malay as the medium of
instruction. Even the Chinese medium secondary schools was phased out. Asmah,
(1979) argued that the policy to terminate Chinese medium secondary schools was
taken in the interest of national unity in the sense that this category of
schools would henceforth admit children of other races. At the tertiary level,
English and the national language was used as medium of instruction.
Be that as it may, in 2002 there was another change in policy in the teaching of Science and Mathematics.The
government announced that henceforth Mathematics and Science will be taught in
English instead of the national language. However, there has been resistance to
this policy by those in the rural areas. The controversy still rages on.
Language and Identity
Language and identity to some extent can be said to be interrelated because when a native speaker speaks we can easily
identify him or her. This is also the case when a second language learner of
the language, especially adult learners speak the same language. Arguing in the
same direction, Spolsky, (1999) said language is a central feature of human
identity when. When we hear someone speak, we immediately make guesses about
gender, education level, age, profession and place of origin. We can also
identify a person’s nationality by the way he or she speaks. In
addition,Crystal,(2000) argued that the disappearance of the language of a
group has immense repercussions for healthy self regard
Similarly, Wright, (2004) believes that language is a robust marker of group membership and one that is not easily
changed. It is one the strongest markers of identity because there are
cognitive as well as psychological barriers to be overcome when individuals
Be that as it may, Wright, (2004) asked one fundamental question thus: Can immigrants who assimilate linguistically in
the host country maintain their identity?. In the case of Malaysia Chinese for
instance, though they speak the national and official language which is bahasa Melayu or Malay, they speak
their own language be it Mandarin, Cantonese or Hokkien and also have their own
traditional and religious belief intact. For instance the Chinese in Malaysia
also celebrate the Chinese new year at the same time their Kith and kin all
over the world are also celebrating. Reasoning along the same view
Wright,(2004) said identification with the land of origin may continue to be
very strong and maintained through religious practices or cultural maintenance
in diet, and dress, even where given the need to survive and the hope of
prospering in the new environment, there is linguistic accommodation.
This paper outlines the efforts of the authorities in fashioning a language policy that would suit its diversity. A
policy that would foster unity in spite of race, religion and culture. However,
it is worthy of note the effort by the government to accommodate the
immigrants. As Hassan(2004) puts it Malaysia has achieved some respectable
measure of success. Status (role) planning has certainly transformed Malay into
a viable language used in education, administration and regional communication
(between four south east Asian countries.). In addition, all other immigrant
languages were accorded recognition they deserve. Asmah,(1979) argues that the
government has given a great deal of attention to the welfare of the Chinese
and Tamil schools. More and more of such schools have been built since the
beginning of independence, and the training of teachers for these schools has
been taken over by the government. However, it should be noted that the
implementation of the national language policy has some adverse effects on the
populace as the emphasis is on the national language to the detriment of more
globalised second language-English. An effort by the government to wield all
the different ethnic groups together is commendable. It is a mean of
integrating the immigrants.
But however, from the foregoing one thing is obvious. These immigrants who have adopted Malaysia as their country
still see themselves as people from one culture.They can speak their language
and maintain their cultural heritage and traditions and ensure that their
identities are preserved even as they try to integrate into their host country.
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Cheah, B.K. (2002),Malaysia: The Making of a nation, ISEAS Singapore.
Crystal, D. (2000) Language Death Cambridge: University Press.
David,M.K. (2007) Changing Language Policies in Malaysia Ramifications and Implications. Paper
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Hassan, A. (1994) Language Planning in South East Asia, Kuala Lumpur:Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.
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To August 1957. Government Printer, Kuala Lumpur, 1958.
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