Tan Sri Adenan Satem, the Chief Minister of Sarawak, one of two Malaysian states on the island of Borneo, is stirring up controversy by giving the English language equal status to Bahasa Malaysia as the preferred official language of the Sarawak state administration. “We are not living on the moon and I am being practical,” Adenan said of his decision. “It is not only the language of the Anglo-Saxons. It is the language of the world, not Bahasa Malaysia.” Chong Chieng Jen, a Kuching Member of Parliament of the Democratic Action Party, defended Adenan by speaking entirely in English to debate the 2016 Supply Bill. Extreme critics of this move said this was an “insult to the Federal Constitution.”
When the state of Sarawak joined the Federation of Malaysia in 1963, its founding fathers made plans for the use of English as the official language. One of Sarawak’s founding fathers, Datuk Amar James Wong, later wrote a book on Sarawak’s path to forming Malaysia, The Birth of Malaysia, and said there was “agreement among many (racial) groups that English should be retained either indefinitely or at least for another 15 years as the official language, not only in Sarawak, but in the new federation as well.” In 1967, the Malaysian government passed the National Language Act, making Bahasa Malaysia the official language of the country, but the state of Sarawak did not adopt the law.
“(We) are already left behind in the whole world because we don’t master English anymore. Nearly everybody in Malaysia is fluent in Malay, especially the younger generation, but they are not fluent in English. And English is a required language in global trade,” said Universiti Malaysia Sarawak social scientist Dr Andrew Aeria. There is understanding that Sarawak’s history has cultivated divergent views on the use of English, but there still exists the fear of losing touch with Bahasa Malaysia and the political implications of leniency on this issue in the federal government.
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