KUALA LUMPUR, May 14 — A The Malaysian Insider street poll of 107 Chinese adults has found that 28 of them, or 26.1 per cent of those surveyed, had almost no command or could not understand Bahasa Malaysia.
Of the 75 respondents who understood BM and took the survey, 16, or 21 per cent of them felt that knowing or using the national language was not as important in their lives as knowing Mandarin or other Chinese dialects.
About 37 per cent of those who took the survey (or 28 respondents) used BM less than five times a day. While 20 of them said they either did not have to use it all or only used it less than three times.
The results suggest that within the Chinese community, there is a significant class whose members only interact with those who speak Chinese.
Recently, a separate national study by a well-known teachers’ association showed that one in every three Chinese primary school pupil cannot understand BM or English when they prepare to enter national secondary school.
The school survey by the National Union of the Teaching Profession (NUTP) also found that one in every four Chinese child who enters national secondary school will drop out.
This has led to claims that the dropout rate and the low level of BM proficiency have created a group of Chinese adults who only interact with other Chinese, creating a barrier for greater inter-ethnic integration in plural Malaysia.
In another The Malaysian Insider article on the NUTP survey, educators, parents and former Chinese school students argued that it is not the vernacular education system that is at fault.
The street poll is a follow-up to both the NUTP survey and the contention that it’s not really the vernacular school system’s fault. The poll is to gauge how the Chinese community regards BM.
If the vernacular education is not at fault, are parents and the community creating an environment where Chinese kids feel that they can get by without knowing the national language?
The entire survey was conducted in Bahasa Malaysia among 107 Chinese individuals. They were asked four questions.
1) Do you understand BM?
2) How important is BM in your life?
3) Which is more important in your life, BM or English?
4) On a typical day, how many times do you use BM?
— Less than three times.
— Less than five times.
— Five times and more.
— More than 10 times.
(This includes occasions such as talking multiple times to one person or talking to multiple people.)
Those who were judged as not being able to “understand BM” were individuals who could not reply to the interview questions. They rejected the survey by gesturing silently when asked “if they could speak BM”.
This group differs from another group of four who understood but declined the survey as they said in BM that “they were busy”.
The survey was conducted in Sepang district, an evenly diverse part of suburban southern Selangor, and in the Chinese enclave of Jinjang Utara in Kuala Lumpur.
Part 2 economic success = social fragmentation
The dominance of Chinese in certain areas of the private sector explains why some in the community feel that BM is not necessary to get by.
The majority 68 per cent in the poll who found BM important were either shopkeepers, salespeople or those working in large corporations where they interacted with non-Chinese individuals on a daily basis.
This group also represents the 62 per cent who used BM more than five times a day. Sixteen per cent used it more than 10 times a day.
Many of those who found BM less important and who used it less than five times a day worked in technical fields such as small engine repair or small-scale construction.
Michael Tay, who works in the property industry, says there is a belief that because you could still get a job just by speaking Chinese, there is no motivation to learn other languages.
“They feel comfortable mixing with people from a similar culture and language, and they don’t have to depend on non-Chinese to survive. But this is not good for integration,” says Tay, a Bandar Baru Tampoi MCA branch leader in Johor Baru.
A majority of the 28 who could not speak the national language were in their 50s and older. Some of the BM speakers said this was a trend with the Merdeka generation who did not enter the formal education system.
But of the 28, 10 of them were individuals aged 40 and below. About five of them were young adults who worked in mobile phone shops and who politely declined and deferred to their friends when asked in BM.
According to their friends, these individuals had trouble understanding BM because they “dropped out of school”.
Part 3 Malaysia: A bowl or pot?
Low BM usage does not translate into feeling it is less important. For instance, a handful of Chinese shopkeepers who catered to a mainly Chinese clientele felt that BM was important. This is even though they said their command and use of it was low.
“Ini Malaysia maa. Semua kena cakap Melayu. Kalau tak cakap Melayu macam mana Melayu, Cina, India mau satu,” said a shopkeeper who sells joss sticks and Chinese prayer items and who said there were days he didn’t use BM at all.
A stationery shop owner refused to believe the survey’s findings that some Chinese could not speak BM.
“Mana ada? Mesti boleh cakap punya. Ini Malaysia maa,” said the 46-year-old. These same sentiments were expressed by 10 of the respondents.
When asked whether BM or English was more important, 33 per cent of respondents said BM while 20 per cent said both languages were important. Twenty-nine per cent chose English over BM, while 17 per cent did not know.
The proportion of those who don’t speak BM versus those who do reveals how the community views integration with the larger non-Chinese environment. But this is not unique just to the Chinese.
Arguably, there are proportions of Malays and Indians who also go days without meeting someone from a different ethnicity.
Historian Prof Tan Sri Khoo Kay Kim believes each ethnic community has evolved this way because they have been taught to think of the group first rather than the nation-state.
“We have always been a people who have lived apart from each other. Even the early Indonesian settlers, the Minangs, Banjars, Javanese lived in separate colonies first. They did not automatically become ‘Malays’.”
Malaysia’s model of integration then, which is more a “salad bowl” than a “melting pot”, makes it hard for individuals to adopt a common culture or language as the priority is always with what the group thinks.
“If you notice, Chinese and Indians are not comfortable at all speaking BM to one another. This is different from the Peranakan Chinese in the past who spoke BM to each other,” observes Khoo.
Though the bright side from survey shows a positive attitude among its Chinese respondents concerning BM, it is harder to gauge how deep their feelings of togetherness with Malaysia and other Malaysians as a whole.
And if the same trends are present in Malaysia’s other communities, it may well be that we are still a nation of separate peoples.