Side Views

What every Malaysian needs to know about ‘race’ (Part 5): ‘Race’ and the reform of public language in Malaysia — Clive Kessler

February 28, 2012

FEB 28 — The term bangsa — so this extended commentary has argued from the outset — is sorely in need of clarification, “disaggregation” and so-called deconstruction.

Perhaps the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka will oblige.

The Dewan has done much — it has undertaken so many nationally significant projects of “linguistic engineering” and “semantic” or “lexical innovation” (the invention of new words, especially technical terms) — in the course of its long history of service to the nation.

Yet somehow it has overlooked this crucial and nationally fateful task of providing the lexical means — or “suite” of words — for differentiating among the various referents of the term bangsa, and in that way to make possible some necessary clarification of its several related yet distinctly different uses.

How could this omission or neglect ever have happened?

There are only two possibilities.

One is that it was a matter of choice, of officially decided political strategy and longstanding language policy.

The other is that this omission, the failure to address this essential task, has simply been a matter of momentary “oversight” and inattention.

Perhaps. But if so, it has been a constantly repeated “momentary inattention” that has now continued for half a century and more.

It’s still not too late to do what is necessary

Even so, and either way, it is still not too late for the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka to address this central linguistic problem.

It must do so. Why? Because this is a fundamental political problem. It is the key component of the challenge of national cohesion, integration and solidarity.

Nothing less.

Not only is it still possible to face that task.

The interests of the Malaysian people and state, the future survivability of “the Malaysian project”, require and depend upon it.

They depend, centrally and fatefully, upon the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka responding to the evident need and resolving to do what it must, by adequately addressing this problem “for the sake of the nation itself”.

Yet the challenge is that not just that of the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka but of all Malaysia’s citizens.

It is yours, not mine.

Over to you all .. ..

And, in particular, to the Malaysian scholarly community, especially those in the several fields of study that touch upon these fundamentally important questions of “race”, ethnicity, nationhood and national identity.

What is involved here is not simply the production of a series of endorsed Daftar Istilah: of authorised and officially approved wordlists, especially in such fields as anthopology, sociology, social psychology, economics and management.

That has often been done in the past.

I have in my time acquired any number of such wordlists, all handsomely produced by the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.

The task is not just that of carefully coining precise new terms.

That is only the beginning.

With that the real task, the great challenge commences.

That is the task of getting people — first the experts and specialists, then the journalists and broadcasters, and eventually, following them, everybody else, including the politicians — to make those words, together with the distinctions that they make possible, part of their own innermost thinking and public speech habits.

On that basis they may yet become integral to public consciousness, to how people think, to functioning and operative everyday public “culture” and to the kinds of “mentality” (to use the French idea) that it sustains.

The challenge is there.

Addressing it squarely and with determination is long overdue.

The Malaysian scholarly community: “watchdogs” and “copy-editors”

The role in all this of experts from the scholarly community of Malaysian social scientists (including those from the National Professors’ Council, the Social Science Association and the various “purpose-built” institutes of ethnic studies and the like) is not simply to proffer their expertise to the Dewan, as specialist consultants, and then retreat into old patterns and habits of thought and action.

They must make it their business to practise what, as expert consultants, they recommend and preach; to “stay on the job” night and day; to provide good example and leadership concerning precise and responsible thinking  and use of language in this area.

The must be “watchdogs” of public discourse and debate.

They must become the insistent and adamant “copy-editors” of all public usage, official and unofficial, in this nationally fateful area of understanding — and all too frequent, often wilful, misunderstanding.

It is up to the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka to provide those necessary conceptual “tools”, or words, for the long-overdue Malay “disaggregation” of bangsa and its various current meanings and uses.

Only then will those words and the necessary distinctions that they make possible become readily and widely understood.

They must.

But for that to happen, Malaysian historians and social scientists will have to do their part, even take the lead.

Only in that way, following their lead, will political and social commentators, both “official” and independent, also come to understand these matters and correct their ways.

Above all, all these prominent “standard-setting” Malaysian citizens must henceforth be fastidious in respecting the distinctions that, replacing the old all-purpose and multivocal term bangsa, the newly developed terminology — by “disaggregating” the various related and overlapping but distinctly different and divergent meanings of that familiar but all-too-vague and general term — will draw.

Hugely important things “hang upon” whether such a sustained and principled effort will succeed.

It is nothing less, in fact, than the choice between verbal clarity and national strife, even disintegration.

That is why all “leading Malaysians” will have to learn to be precise and clear in their thinking and speaking about all these matters of what is now termed bangsa.

Showing them the way, responsible scholars, in their contributions to the “national debate” or “conversation”, will have to be constantly mindful of, and unfailingly attentive to, all those important distinctions that must be terminologically and conceptually drawn, observed and respected in this fraught area.

The worst nightmare of “social contract theory”

If they are not, then Malaysia will be faced — not as some remote prospect, but as an ominously enclosing reality — with the terrible nightmare of the classical “contract theorists” and their long intellectual tradition.

That is the eruption of nothing other — once the basic or primary social contract that those theorists see lying at the heart of all modern forms of “political society” has collapsed — than a terrifying “war of all against all”, where life is “nasty, brutish and short”.

Where all social trust has collapsed, where people trust only in the weapons that they can wield, in the deviousness and treachery of which they may be capable, and in the naked force that they can deploy.

Where nobody, not even those who are well-armed, are safe, where not even the toughest may be confident of their personal security.

Between them, it is up to the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka and the Malaysian national scholarly community, especially the historians and social scientists, to provide the means, and hope, that this will not happen.

It is, above all others, up to them to ensure in this way that the worst nightmare of the social contract theorists and their entire intellectual tradition — their envisioning of a grim, brutal and most “un-Malaysian-sounding” state of affairs — does not come to pass.

That it does not become the hope-destroying and life-consuming reality in Malaysia.

In sum

The Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka must play its part with some urgently necessary “linguistic engineering”, in the form of fastidious terminological creativity, to provide and promote the use of the new repertoire of clear, precise terms that any such constructive “national conversation” will require.

And the Malaysian scholarly community will have to ensure that that kind of fruitful, nationally necessary conversation is generated and responsibly sustained — not just amongst themselves but by the Malaysian public at large and, crucially, by the nation’s politicians.

Should they fail to do so, Malaysia will continue to flounder, as it now does, in this sea of conceptual, intellectual, historical and political confusion — or far worse.

Malaysia deserves far better than that.

All of us who care about Malaysia, and have done so over the years, want to see that grim worst prospect avoided and the nation’s best hopes realised.

* Clive Kessler is Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the School of Social Sciences, University of New South Wales, Sydney.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication. The Malaysian Insider does not endorse the view unless specified.