The Limits of Malay Educational and Language Hegemony

Article excerpt

hi Malaysia, the implementation of official policies to entrench Malay educational and language hegemony has prevented the growth of an inclusive multicultural educational system. The New Economic Policy (NEP) period, 1971-90, was characterized by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) dominated state aggressively pursuing its educational and linguistic hegemonic objectives. In the 1990s, however, several developments forced the state to take a more conciliatory stance towards the educational and linguistic needs of the minority groups. The state claims that critical aspects of multiculturalism have been incorporated into the 1996 Education Act. But, in practice, it appears that official policies have not fully abandoned the hegemonic project, and minority languages and educational needs are still discriminated against in the national education system.

Malay Educational and Language Hegemony

During British rule, the colonial state's use of racial categories to classify and control the local population contributed to the emergence of a racially segmented society. Race-based discrimination policies set the British colonizers apart from the colonized, and, significantly, indigenous Malays from the immigrant Chinese and Indians. Race thus was constitutive of the state in colonial Malaya. Indirect rule, attained through various treaty agreements, recognized Malay States as sovereign states and treated Malays as the native group with a "special position". For this reason, the British positioned Malays at the top of the political hierarchy of ethnic groups in the colony. Selected Malays, then, were educated and recruited for high administrative positions in the colonial bureaucracy, which were denied to Chinese and Indians because of their immigrant status.

Partly to maintain the Malay character of the Malay States, the colonial state felt morally obliged to provide Malays with a Malay-medium education that would enable them to preserve and reproduce their culture and tradition. Colonial policies gave preferential treatment to the education of Malays and this resulted in the formation of a separate and unequal colonial educational system. For ideological and economic reasons, the colonial state funded a limited number of public English schools and financially assisted Christian missionary English schools. Enrolment in English schools was largely multi-ethnic as admission was open to students of all races. In contrast, the British refused to build mother tongue schools for Chinese and Indian students because of their immigrant status.1 While Chinese medium schools were funded, established, and administered by the Chinese community, the plantation owners were tasked by the state to provide Tamil education for the Indians, most of whom were Tamils. In brief, in colonial Malaya, Malay and English schools were regarded as state educational institutions, while Chinese and Indian schools were treated as not just private - but in fact "foreign" - institutions in the colony.

The primacy of mother tongue schooling in colonial Malaya naturally reinforced the ethnic groups' primordial attachment to their languages such that language became an essential ethnic marker. Because Malay feelings of insecurity were intertwined with their attachment to their language, defending Malay as the national language of Tanah Melayu (Land of the Malays) appealed to most Malay individuals and nationalist groups. Malay emotive attachment to their language also coalesced with a nationalism that imagines a nation as a community of people sharing a common culture and language. However, although a majority of Malay nationalists clamoured to recreate multi-ethnic colonial Malaya into a linguistically homogenous nation, UMNO elites, in order to win the support of their Chinese and Indian political partners and the British, agreed to constitutionally define Malay(si)a as a monolingual polity where Malay is the sole national and official language, while also recognizing minority language rights. …