THE pre-eminence and official position of the Malay language is deeply entrenched in our Constitution. Article 152(1) prescribes that the national language shall be the Malay language and shall be used for all official purposes.
Official purpose is defined in Article 152(6) as any purpose of the federal or state governments or a public authority.
The official position of the Malay language is further reiterated in the National Language Act 1963/67, the Education Act 1996 and the Private Higher Educational Institutions Act 1996.
The Education Act, for example, states succinctly in Section 17(1) that “the national language shall be the main medium of instruction in all educational institutions in the National Education System”.
Despite the firm resolve to promote Bahasa Malaysia, one notes that the drafters of the Constitution were also desirous of maintaining some flexibility and open-endedness to empower Parliament, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (acting on advice), the Minister of Education and the states of Sabah and Sarawak to preserve and promote, for specific as well as broad purposes, any other language, especially English, the native languages in Sabah and Sarawak and the languages of other communities.
The exceptions from compulsory use of Bahasa Malaysia are many and the discretion of the government is wide. Its use or non-use is a matter of political judgement and educational vision.
Constitutional exceptions: Despite Article 152, the country’s multilingual character is safeguarded by the law. The Constitution permits linguistic diversity and places special emphasis on familiarity with and use of English in several sectors.
No person shall be prohibited or prevented from using (other than for official purposes), teaching or learning, any other language: Article 152(1)(a). Federal and state governments have the right to preserve and sustain the use and study of the languages of any other community: Article 152(1)(b).
Article 152(2) provides that for a period of 10 years after Merdeka and thereafter until Parliament
provides, English may be used in Parliament, state assemblies and for all other official purposes.
The National Language Act in Section 5 provides that with the permission of the presiding officer, English may be used in Parliament or any state assembly.
Article 152(3) and Sections 6-7 of the National Language Act provide that all post-September 1967 laws
at the federal and state levels must be in two languages: Malay and English, the former being authoritative.
Article 152(4) and (5), when read with Section 8 of the National Language Act, provide that all court proceedings shall be in Malay. However, the presiding judge may permit the use of English.
Article 161(3) and (4) state that any restrictions on the use of English in judicial proceedings relating to Sabah and Sarawak cases cannot become law without the consent of the legislatures of these states.
Article 161(5) allows the use of native languages in Sabah and Sarawak for purposes of native courts, native codes and native customs.
Exceptions under the NLA: The National Language Act (NLA) in Section 2 commands the use of Malay for all official purposes. However, it contains a number of significant exceptions.
Section 4 provides that “the Yang di-Pertuan Agong may permit the continued use of the English language for such official purposes as may be deemed fit”.
It is noteworthy that this provision has no time limit and is not confined to any particular sphere.
However, a gazette notification has outlined the areas where English may be used.
This notification can be added to and expanded at the government’s discretion.
Such a discretion is indeed exercised in relation to the International Islamic University Malaysia, Universiti Teknologi Mara, many public and private universities and colleges as well as the 69 fully residential schools.
In tertiary institutions, all twinning programmes and external courses use English. Many continuing education programmes in government departments also employ English.
National television and radio use the whole spectrum of languages spoken in the country.
The application of the NLA in Sabah and Sarawak is not automatic. The NLA applies in Sabah and Sarawak only if the state legislatures adopt it: NLA Section 1(2).
The federal and state governments have a very wide power “to use any translation of official documents or communications in any other language for such purposes as may be deemed necessary in the public interest”: Section 3, NLA.
Education Act 1996: The national language need not be the main medium of instruction in national type (vernacular) schools established under Section 28.
In addition, Section 17(1) authorises the Minister to exempt any other educational institution from using Malay as the main medium of instruction.
The power of the Minister is broad enough to extend to all types of primary and secondary schools. The permutations of law and policy are immense.
Section 143 exemption: The Minister of Education has discretion to exempt any educational institution or any class or classes of institutions from the Act except as to registration.
English as a compulsory subject: In all national primary and secondary schools, the English language is a compulsory subject of instruction.
No statutory guidelines are given as to how many hours per week English may be taught; therefore, the Minister’s discretion is very wide to enhance the teaching and learning of the language and the level of competence that must be attained and whether a pass or credit in English is a prerequisite to obtaining the necessary certificate or accreditation.
Private educational institutions: Under Sections 73(3) and 75, private higher educational institutions are provided much latitude and autonomy.
Section 75(1)(a) implies that Malay need not be the main medium of instruction, but in such a case it shall be a compulsory subject in the curriculum.
Mandarin and Tamil: In the broad spirit of Article 152, the Education Act 1996 in Section 2 provides that the Chinese or Tamil language shall be made available in national primary and national secondary schools if the parents of at least 15 pupils in the school make such a request.
Indigenous languages: Likewise, indigenous languages, Arabic, Japanese, German or French or any other foreign language may be made available if it is reasonable and practisable so to do.
Act 555: The Private Higher Educational Institutions Act 1996 permits private universities to flourish and gives them considerable autonomy in the matter of language of instructions, but with the requirement that the Malay language shall be taught as a subject and shall be a prerequisite to the award.
In sum, the Constitution and the laws require us to honour and promote the national language, but also to keep the windows of our mind open to the world by learning and using English and other foreign languages.
With the permission of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong or the Minister, the use of English and other languages in our schools and universities is neither illegal nor against national policy.
The following types of schools can be exempted from the national Malay language policy:
> Government schools that are national primary, national-type primary and national secondary
> Government-aided schools that are national primary, national-type primary and national secondary
> Private schools
The Minister’s discretion is very wide to enhance the teaching and learning of the English language and the level of competence that must be attained as a prerequisite to obtaining the necessary certificate or accreditation.
The law permits considerable flexibility and many permutations of the law and policy are possible. Any changes are a matter of courage and imagination.
To paraphrase Jesse Jackson: Leaders of substance do not follow opinion polls; they mould opinion, not with guns or dollars or positions but with the power of their souls.
This article was first appeared in The Star on 10 October 2019