The national language pulse check
The recent fuss about making it mandatory for potential civil servants to pass SPM Bahasa Melayu (BM), including housemen, who by right should be exempted from it under the Medical Act 1971 (Act 50), has again turned the spotlight on the national language, and Article 152 and its implications.
Article 152 of the Federal Constitution states that Malay is the national language. However, everyone is free to use other languages except for official government purposes.
In the case of medical practitioners, the Medical Act 1971 (Act 50) makes it compulsory for them to do a few years of public service. Housemen are fresh graduates with recognised medical degrees who have to serve the government for a specific number of years as a national service.
Doctors save lives, so to impose such a strict requirement of language proficiency on them could prove hazardous to the country’s health. Granted, doctors need to be proficient in BM to communicate with patients and other hospital staff. In fact, every Malaysian should be competent in the national language. But to entangle the issue in political theatrics, to the extent of forcing housemen to get an SPM BM certificate, is ludicrous.
SPM BM is not functional BM. It does not measure language proficiency and is not equivalent to such assessments as the Cambridge English Placement Test.
To prove their mastery of the language and impress their examiners, SPM students are expected to put together flowery prose and bombastic words, not to mention proverbs, idioms and quotes. This kind of pretentious writing and thinking only serves as a foundation for creative writing and is not at all suitable for professional purposes.
Perhaps, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, Lembaga Peperiksaan Negara and Cambridge could collaborate on developing assessments and common frameworks like the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages to properly evaluate the proficient use of the national language. This could also be beneficial for non-Malaysians who want to assess their proficiency in BM.
Such assessments would be more appropriate for the 23 medical graduates affected by the latest SPM BM requirement. For now, only 23 would-be housemen may be affected by the regulation, but what about the future? What about incoming medical graduates and other experts who need to be employed by the civil service but did not go through the Malaysian education system?
In 2006, the government relaxed its conditions on the intake in international schools so that up to 40% of their students could be Malaysians. At the time, locals accounted for 2,614 or 21.8% of 32 international schools.
By 2010, there were 66 international schools in the country, thanks to education becoming a National Key Economic Area with the objective of attracting international students and turning Malaysia into a global centre for learning. But things didn’t go according to plan — supply exceeded demand. This saw the government remove the quota on Malaysians entering international schools in 2012.
At present, Malaysians account for 39,161 or 64% of the 126 international schools in the country. However, it is mandatory for them to sit an examination in BM in order to graduate from high school. The most popular is the Cambridge IGCSE BM as a foreign language paper but it is very basic.
But BM should not be a foreign language to Malaysians. It is ironic that 11 years after the liberalisation of international schools in the country, BM is still offered as a foreign language.
There are three tiers of language papers in the Cambridge syllabus — first language, second language and foreign language. Malay is only offered as a foreign language when even Thai is offered as a first language. It is high time Malay was upgraded to first and/or second language in the Cambridge international examination.
A higher grade of BM in international schools will greatly improve the proficiency of the Malaysian students and should their services be required in the civil service in the future, they will be BM-ready.
We cannot afford to lose these students to such triviality as what is happening now. As it stands, Malaysia has a doctor to population ratio of 1:633 now and the aim is to achieve 1:400 by 2020. Really, we cannot let a meaningless matter stand in the way of hitting this target.