“Let them eat English!” Think about freedom and equality, not choice

I have so far refrained from making any comments or write any articles on the issue of PPSMI. Living up to the proud label of the typical Malaysian as someone who talks passionately and heatedly behind closed doors or in the mamak and keeping silent when in the company of others, many of my discussions have taken place at roadside warongs with close friends and anyone else who is willing to listen to a nobody like me. I decided to write this at last when I came across an article by Wan Saiful Wan Jan – ‘a slightly different take on PPSMI’ – on the Malaysian Insider. Like many other articles written before, it is indeed well-written and well-articulated by a person whom I have great respect for within circles of public discourse and debate. Unfortunately, the compliments stop there. In terms of substance and content, I cannot be convinced and find that certain propositions made are misleading and inadequate. To me this sums up, and is characteristic of precisely those who speak and advocate for the use of English – individuals who speak well and eloquent, but lacking in authentic, creative and critical thought and reflection.

Before giving the reasons for my brazen and naive allegation, let me first begin with an anecdote. There is a famous legend which goes like this: French society during the time of the early Bourbon dynasty was fraught with deep poverty and hardship.  The royal family and aristocracies were however blind and protected from these harsh realities. So much so that when it was related to the French Queen Marie Antoinette, that people on the street had no bread to eat, she uttered ‘let them eat cake!’ For me this is a profound reminder and expresses vividly our present predicament, and more importantly, ignorance. At the end of every discussion the oft-repeated statement is this: ‘We just want choice, let us choose. We want to use English. If others want to follow us, please do. If they don’t want to, please feel free to choose otherwise.’ I cannot help but think what these people are in fact saying to the others is this, ‘Let them eat English!’

First and foremost, I agree that many debates and policies here do take off from, or are based, on first principles. Our society would be much better off if we were to adopt and adapt such capabilities for reasoning. However first principles are not absolute, transcendent and immutable. First principles are most sensible and effective when derived from and based on existential and ontological conditions. One of the problematic features of the French Revolution was that it sought to create a new society based on abstract and general principles. It was felt that any links to the past had to be severed off completely. In terms of its Civil Law Code, not only did it fail to create a new system of law, it ended up adopting the principles of earlier Roman Law. Values do not exist in a vacuum. They are outcomes of specific events and contingencies necessary to and for the development of States and societies. To suggest that first principles – like individual liberty – can just be deduced and used owing to its divine or should-be-given status is dangerously misleading.

Secondly, I should mention that the right to choice is not fundamental, and perhaps even not a first principle. There is something that must come before that: the equality of conditions for the free exercise of choice, choices, or a choice. That is paramount. I find it very difficult to comprehend when advocates for the usage of English end the debate or discussion with a statement of ‘we just want choice’. It simplifies tremendously the points and premises of the debate and discussion. A profound and crucial debate in the public sphere then becomes trivial, when it is not. Unfortunately not everyone has the choice to make choices. Do students and parents in the interiors and rural less accessible areas have a choice, regardless of whatever that choice is? Should they be asked to eat English? I feel that the public secret, and the dreaded remark that many have chose not to say is this: ‘If you want to use Malay and continue to be stupid, by all means please do so. Just don’t bring us down with you, and please allow us the choice to use English so that those who learn English can be more clever and not stupid like those learning Malay’. This is the very point underlying the desire and preference of those wanting to use English. Sadly it again misses the point. When the ship is sinking, it doesn’t matter whether you’re in the room on a king sized bed sleeping, in the toilet smelling shit, in the casino gambling, or in the room having sex with J. Lo. Everyone is going to die. The only difference is this: one is going to die while trying to push shit out from his anus, while another is going to die while in the midst of having an orgasm!

And thirdly, related but not similar to the point above is this; it not just about the choice of language, but the choice of a different system. And this is where it is most complex, and contentious. The matter is not about a trivial issue of choice, but about a different system of thought and education altogether. It is not about the exercise of choice within an existing system, but the exercise of choice for a different and modified system for a selected and able few. These very same grounds are also the reasons why the debate on Hudud law is deeply difficult and deadlocked. For in addition to the respect for choice and the pre-existence of legitimacy, there are other considerations within a post-colonial, plural, developing society.

So far I have heard opinions that command of English in Science and Maths is crucial to survive in a competitive and globalised world. We need to be able to meet market demands and be marketable. This is the only point which I agree with and find to be true for PPSMI advocates. And it is because of this that I find it terribly difficult to accept the PPSMI policy, and the arguments for PPSMI. We conceptualised first principles and formulate policies based on philosophical foundations derived from existential and ontological conditions, not based on market demands and practicality. The strongest argument that the PPSMI group can conjure up so far is only the latter, besides the argument of choice, which I find deeply flawed. Steve Jobs was to have said this: ‘Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking’.

Why are we lazy?

2 Responses

  1. Siapa Nouri Farshad ni?. Gaya dan teknik penulisannya ala-ala Farish Noor la. I loike it.

  2. kalau tengok seruan ‘jgn malas’ tu rasanya tulisan aqil fithri

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