The Malaysian Concord (Part 2) – The National Language

IN part one (The Malaysian concord (Part 1) – the sanctity of Islam), I wrote about HRH The Sultan of Selangor’s displeasure of the challenge by a certain group against the sanctity of Islam, the National Language, the special rights of the Bumiputera, as well as the function and position of the Malay Rulers that are enshrined in the Federal Constitution.

I read the comments on the issue at the online page of a mainstream newspaper.  What I saw was blatant ignorance on the part of the readers. This ignorance, if gone unchecked, will be dangerous to the future of this nation.

Many commentators mentioned that the Reid Commission had recommended for certain special privileges to be reviewed after 15 years, but was never done.  

I need to put this record straight. In many of my writings, I mentioned that those party to the agreement of the independence of Malaya were the British government, the Malay Rulers, and the Alliance party as the government of the day.

Lord William Reid was tasked to form an independent commission to draft the new constitution for a post-independence Malaya.  

The idea to have an independent, non-Malayan constitutional commission came from Tunku Abdul Rahman himself.

The Malay Rulers were for a commission that consist of local politicians, lawyers and other professionals, just as India and Burma (later Myanmar) had. Ghana, Pakistan and Ceylon (later Sri Lanka) opted for a mix of local and foreign constitutional experts.

Tunku felt that it was important to have a non-Malayan independent commission to draft the Malayan post-independence Constitution as it would be able to avoid local prejudices and perform its task with complete impartiality (PH/A/008/4, MCA Files, Memorandum by Tunku Abdul Rahman, 1 March 1955).

This he intimated to Sir Donald Charles MacGillivray, the last British High Commissioner in Malaya, and told the latter before leaving for the January 1956 Independence Conference in London that the commission should consist of legal experts with sufficient knowledge of constitutional developments in the Commonwealth (CO1030/132(3) MacGillivray to A.M. MacKintosh, Head of the Southeast Asia Department of the Colonial Office, 5 January 1956).

So again, I would like to reiterate that the function of the Reid Commission was only to draft the Constitution with input from all those party to the independence agreement, and make recommendations to those parties.  

The Commission itself was never a party to the discussion, let alone of the agreement.

Going back to the issue of the national language, it was in the Alliance’s manifesto for the 1955 federal elections to have a national language to foster a common nationhood, with plans to upgrade the Malay language as the national language.  

As safeguarding the interests and rights of the Malay and Chinese communities being the key features of its manifesto, protection for the languages of the other communities as well as their growth and development was also guaranteed.

The earlier version of the Alliance’s memorandum to the Reid Commission did state a 15-year time frame for the special position of the Malays and Malay as the national language.  

However, in view of the radicals in both Umno and MCA at the time where the former questioned the principle of jus soli while the latter questioned the need for Malay special rights and a national language, an inter-communal constitutional bargain was made and was conveyed to the Reid Commission orally that the time-frame be omitted (PH/A/008/4, Memorandum by Tunku Abdul Rahman, 1 March 1955).

This was the version that was accepted not just by those within the Alliance, but also by the Malay Rulers as well as the British government.

Five years later, this same subject was brought forth to all who would be affected by the formation of the Federation of Malaysia.

The Malaysia Solidarity Consultative Committee chaired by North Borneo’s Donald Stephens in its memorandum stated the it accepted the view that the Federation of Malaysia should have a national language and placed no objection to the adoption of the National Language of the Federation of Malaya, Singapore and Brunei which is also the lingua franca of the region (Malaysia Solidarity Consultative Committee Memorandum, 3 February 1962: pp. 122).

Even the Cobbold Commission, a Commission of Enquiry set up to gauge the support of the people of North Borneo and Sarawak for the creation of the Federation of Malaysia noted in its report that its Chairman (Lord Cameron Fromanteel Cobbold) felt in view that Malay is the closest to a lingua franca in Borneo than any other language, no derogation from the Federal provision was necessary (Report of the Commission of Enquiry, North Borneo and Sarawak, 21 June 1962: pp. 54).

The Inter-Governmental Committee (a committee that consists of the Federation of Malaya, and Great Britain – looking after the interests of its colonies of North Borneo and Sarawak)  reported that Malay should be the language of the Federation of Malaysia, but Article 152 of the proposed Federal Constitution (based on the Federal Constitution of Malaya) be modified in its application to the Borneo states so as to secure that the English language may be used in an official capacity for a period of ten years after Malaysia Day (Malaysia Report of the Inter-Governmental Committee, 1962: pp. 26).

A national language is an important tool for creating “national” consciousness.  

Hindi is the national language of India, as Mandarin, Thai and Bahasa Indonesia are respectively in the China, Thailand and Indonesia.  

It is difficult to understand why, after 61 years, are we still having this argument about what the national language should be.

What kind of national identity are we to have when we cannot even communicate with each other in one common language?

(This article was first published in The Mole)

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