Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who pushed to teach students mathematics and science in English, today defended the decision that raised protests last week, saying education is not about popularising a language but to acquire knowledge in various fields.
He also reserved his bitter criticism against those protesting the use of English, saying national policies should not be dictated by protesters as that would be detrimental to race and nation.
“It will get worse if those who demonstrated are orchestrated by opposition politics,” Dr Mahathir wrote, using Bahasa Melayu, in his popular http://www.chedet.cc weblog.
He pointed out that acquiring knowledge was important for everyone’s future no matter the language used.
“Let’s not gamble their future because we are nationalists who love our mother tongue. Loving the mother tongue cannot exceed loving one’s race. Those who love their race would like it to progress, have knowledge and be respected by the world.
“Only speaking in our own mother tongue won’t make us a race that is respected and admired by people,” said Dr Mahathir, who still wields influence in the country he led for 22 years before retiring in October 2003.
The former prime minister left office a year after his Cabinet agreed to implement the language switch for primary students despite protests from Malay and Chinese educationists. Things came to a boil this year and culminated with a protest outside the National Palace on March 7 by educationists and opposition politicians.
In his latest post, Dr Mahathir expressed sadness reading about last week’s protests led by the Malay literati for allegedly claiming it curtailed Bahasa Melayu as a medium of instruction and reduce its growth as the national language.
The veteran politician said the only way to raise the status and progress of a language is learning the language and its literature, pointing out that science and mathematics cannot possibly help a language’s progress particularly Bahasa Melayu as most of its words are in Latin which have been anglicised.
“Yes, we can turn make the words Malay as we have done with words from other languages but scientific terms are hundreds and are the base for more words with different meanings,” he wrote, giving the word oxygen as an example and its many derivatives in science.
Saying that oxygen is just one of 118 elements, he noted that if every term is made into a Malay word, then the language will switch to be English with the same pronunciation but different spelling.
“Then it is not Bahasa Melayu anymore,” he wrote, adding both science and mathematics were not static subjects but expanded through time with numerous research, inventions made through hundreds of research papers that would need translators for Bahasa Melayu.
He said those who understood the subjects and could translate them would not be interested to be translators their entire life, adding science would still progress after their deaths and newer works would need translation.
“Without the ability to translate all these new knowledge, the Malays will be left behind in some of the most important fields,” Dr Mahathir said, asking the detractors to count how many doctorate holders have learnt science only in Bahasa Melayu or medical specialists who learnt only in the national language without referring to English text books.
He also rubbished the idea that rural students cannot understand English, saying many of those from the villages holding high posts in the public and private sectors have passed the language and are capable of speaking well.
“Those against the language switch are also from the villages but have passed English tests. In fact, they regularly speak English,” he said, adding diplomats, officials, scientists who represent the country have to speak English as Bahasa Melayu would not be an effective language.
“I am not looking down on my own mother tongue. But I have to accept the reality,” Dr Mahathir said.
He felt that a language is only learnt by foreigners if those from that race have progressed and are known for their knowledge and research, saying th Europeans in the 15th century had to learn Arabic as the Muslim civilisation then was great and well respected.
“But after the Muslims set aside science, medicine and mathematics, the Europeans did not learn Arabic anymore and instead, the Arabs and Muslims had to learn European languages,” he said, adding Malays had to progress in all fields before Bahasa Melayu can be used widely.
He concluded by writing that science and mathematics must be learned to develop the race until it becomes famous for its research and innovations that would entice others to learn the national language to acquire Malaysian knowledge.
Education is about acquiring knowledge, not popularising a language