Language and Cultural Identity: Balancing National and International Needs in Public Universities in Malaysia

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LANGUAGE AND CULTURAL IDENTITY:
Balancing National and International Needs in Public Universities in Malaysia

INTRODUCTION

At the turn of the century, many Asian countries are faced with tensions arising from the linguistic shift in language policies stemming from pressures of globalization. Very often, these pressures arise as a result of the shift in domain use from that of the national language to the establishment of English as medium of instruction at varying levels of the education system, ranging from the primary to higher education. This increasing hegemony of English elicits reactions of varying degrees of anxiety over its impact on national cultural identities.

In this complex situation, Tsui and Tollefson (2007: 17&19) in their book, “Language policy, culture and identity in Asian Contexts” appropriately remind us that “the relationship between language policy and national cultural identity is dialectical.” It requires systematic reasoning to unravel the opposition between two interacting forces or elements of both the national and international needs of the nation. Therefore in this paper, it will be essential to unravel the opposing forces to understand the dynamics of changes in language policy and how the decisions impact on national cultural identities.

We will begin by going back to history – an appreciation of the past always helps us understand responses and reactions to decisions made in the present.

LANGUAGE CONCERNS IN PRE AND IMMEDIATE POST-INDEPENDENCE HISTORY OF MALAYSIA

Malaysia, due to the exigencies of history, is a post-colonial nation with a diverse ethnic population possessing great social and cultural complexity. Malaysia has not just one but many significant languages, largely as a result of the immigrant ancestry of its multi-ethnic population. In this context, it is essential to examine the language policy decisions made in Malaysia in the pre and immediate post-independence period, a period rooted in traditional nationalism. What were the social and political concerns of the dominant ethnic group as it went about selecting and instituting the national language? Why was there a need to implement the traditional nationalism approach of a one-nation one-language policy for national needs?

The Growth of Nationalism and the Selection and Institution of Bahasa Melayu as the National and Official Language

After the British had given independence to Malaya in 1957, the dominant ethnic group, the Malay community, was plagued with the following questions: “who are the owners of the country? What are the symbols of national identity? What is the meaning of the nation’s history?” (Crouch, 1996: 155) The Malays during the pre-independence period of history felt insecure and threatened by the numerical and economic strength of the immigrant population. (cited in Crouch, 1996: 157)

These feelings of potential marginalisation coupled with enforced imperialism resulted in an acute need amongst the indigenous ethnic group for “their own cultures and histories be restored to a place of honour.” (Emerson, 1960: 152) They reinforced legitimization through symbolic categories like language, religion and the national anthem, which became very strong signs of identification. Recognition and acceptance of these symbols by other ethnic groups provided the dominant group with a feeling of collective worth and legitimacy. This was what Horowitz in his extensive discussion of ethnic group conflicts refers to as the need for groups, and especially dominant ethnic groups, to establish “relative group worth” and “relative group legitimacy” through political domination and the high symbolic content of politics of ethnic entitlement. (1985: 185)

Therefore, one of the strong symbolic claims that was asserted during this period was that of the institution of Bahasa Malaysia as the national language and official language - the language of education and...
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