Parliament and Penang State Assembly should adopt resolutions at their next meetings to formally recognize and observe the International Mother Language Day from next February 21 onwards

- launching of the DAP 2003 International Mother Language Day celebrations
by Lim Kit Siang

(Penang,  Friday): Today is the first time that the International Mother Language Day (IMLD) on February 21 is celebrated in Malaysia, by the DAP with a modest mother-tongue education exhibition in Penang this morning followed by an IMLD Forum organized by the DAP IMLD National Committee at the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall in Kuala Lumpur tonight, and by Dong Jiao Zong with an IMLD Festival in Kajang this morning.

What is most disappointing is that the IMLD today is not being celebrated officially, both at the national and state levels, involving the Federal and state governments, with IMLD messages by the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr.Mahathir Mohamad and the Penang Chief Minister, Tan Sri Dr. Koh Su Koon, as well as by all communities and the entire civil society.

There are at least four reasons why Malaysians should speak up and voice their disappointment to the Federal and Penang State Governments at their failure to recognize and observe the IMLD, viz:

  • This is the fourth IMLD since the inaugural year of its annual world-wide celebration in 2000;

  • Malaysia is the home of several mother-tongues, making the country the most ideal place to lead the world in celebrating the IMLD with verve, vigour and imagination.

  • Malaysia was one of the 28 countries which supported the Bangladesh proposal at the 30th General Conference of the UNESCO resulting in the unanimous adoption of a Resolution declaring 21st February as ILMD.

  • My urgent email on Monday to all Cabinet Ministers, Penang State Exco members and all other state Chief Ministers and Mentris Besar urging the formal recognition and observance of the fourth IMLD by the national and state governments.

The DAP and Dong Jiao Zong celebrations today should have been two of a nation-wide series of IMLD celebrations in the country, involving the national and the various state governments - instead of the being the sole two fourth IMLD celebrations in the country today.

Although this is better than the previous three years, when there had been no IMLD celebration in Malaysia whatsoever, Malaysia's apathy and disinterest in the IMLD is unacceptable and against our unique national heritage of linguistic and cultural diversity as well as best future interests.

This is because in the era of globalization and information and communications technology, one essential prerequisite to position Malaysia at the cutting edge of international competitiveness is to promote and popularize trilingualism for all Malaysians, grounded on the mastery of the mother-tongue, the national language and English as the international language.

It is not that the Malaysian and state governments are not aware of the importance of promoting and popularizing multi-lingualism, but the national and state leaders lack the political will and foresight to do what is in the best interests of the country by officially recognizing and observing the IMLD.

Only on Tuesday, Sarawak Tourism Minister Datuk Sri Abang Johari Tun Openg said Sarawak needs to develop a competent multi-lingual manpower in order to become a leading Meeting, Incentive, Convention and Exhibition (MICE) centre in the region.

He said Sarawakians would need to be conversant in international languages like English, Japanese, Chinese, French, German and Arabic in efforts to promote Sarawak as an international tourist destination with MICE facilities.

To illustrate his argument, Abang Johari said interpreters would be in great demand when Miri, which has been "slotted" as the "Monte Carlo of Borneo" attains resort city status in a few years' time.

If the Sarawak state government is serious in wanting to develop competent multi-lingual manpower in the state, it should have promptly acted on my email proposal to the Sarawak state government on Monday that it officially recognizes and observes the fourth IMLD today.

I must confess surprise however at the Sarawak state government's tourism masterplan to turn Miri into the "Monte Carlo of Borneo" as Monte Carlo is famed as a resort centre not only for its convention and exhibition facilities but its world-class casinos - but this will the subject of comment for another occasion.

Although the Cabinet, the Penang State Government and the other state governments have not officially recognized and observed the IMLD in the fourth year running, it is nonetheless heartening that there is greater national awareness of the IMLD after the DAP decided last year to disseminate information about it - and we see several newspapers carrying articles and even editorials on the occasion of fourth IMLD today.

The next step is for Parliament and the Penang State Assembly to adopt resolutions at their next meetings to formally recognize and observe the IMLD from next February 21 onwards.

DAP will move a resolution in the next meeting of Parliament and the Penang State Assembly to officially recognize and observe the IMLD every Feb. 21, and all Members of Parliament and Penang State Assembly members, whether ruling or opposition, should stand united on a common platform to adopt such a resolution as Malaysia had officially endorsed the IMLD at the UNESCO General Conference in 1999 to proclaim 21st February as IMLD.

There is no reason why the next Parliamentary meeting from March 10 to April 8, 2003, should not make history in according recognition to the IMLD to pave the way for major nation-wide celebrations of the fifth IMLD on February 21, 2004.

All educational, cultural, community and civil society organizations and groups in the country, and in particular in Penang, should make a special point to prepare for a major celebration of the fifth IMLD next year - and ideally, a national umbrella organization should be established to plan and co-ordinate such activities so that Malaysia's IMLD celebrations could be a model for the rest of the world. Dong Jiao Zong would be a very suitable candidate to initiate such an effort.

The DAP National IMLD Committee under the chairmship of Ronnie Liu, DAP National Publicity Secretary, will meet after the IMLD celebrations today to prepare a programme to promote national and state government recognition of IMLD and nation-wide celebrations of the fifth IMLD next year.

There is insufficient awareness, whether in Malaysia or worldwide, that the threat to multilingualism is similar to the threat to biodiversity. Multilingualism is the most accurate reflection of multiculturalism. The destruction of the first will inevitably lead to the loss of the second.

In June 1996, the World Conference of Linguistic Rights in Barcelona proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights which states:

"All languages are the expression of a collective identity and of a distinct way of perceiving and describing reality. Education must always be at the service of linguistic and cultural diversity and of harmonious relations between different language communities throughout the world."

The proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights 1996, which has been endorsed by world NGOs, linguistic experts and distinguished personalities like Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nelson Mandela and Nobel Literature Prize laureate Seamus Heany, should set the stage for the formulation and proclamation of an International Convention on Linguistic Rights binding on all governments and nations of the world.

There is no better way for Malaysia to mark the fourth IMLD today than for the Malaysian and Penang State Governments to declare their support for the preparation of an International Convention on Linguistic Rights for adoption and ratification by the international community and all nations.

Such an International Convention is urgent and necessary to save the great majority of the 6,000 languages spoken in the world today from dying out at unprecedented speed and in full recognition that linguistic diversity is an important part of human heritage and the cornerstone of cultural diversity, which is in turn a mainstay in the preservation of biodiversity.


* Lim Kit Siang, DAP National Chairman