Tunku’s birthday anniversary on Feb. 8 and International Mother Language Day on Feb. 21 should be celebrated nationally and meaningfully under the Ninth Malaysia Plan beginning next year

at the opening of the DAP forum “Future of Tamil Education in Malaysia” to commemorate the 2005 International Mother Language Day
by Lim Kit Siang

(Bukit Mertajam, Sunday): Two important dates  in this month of February have been  allowed to pass, virtually unnoticed – the birthday anniversary of Tunku Abdul Rahman, Bapa Malaysia and the first Prime Minister of Malaysia on February 8, 1903  and the sixth International Mother Language Day on February 21. 

I am not suggesting that both these dates should be declared public holidays, but they should be celebrated nationally and meaningfully – beginning with the Ninth Malaysia Plan next year. 

It has been said that “The further backward you look, the further forward you can see”.  If Malaysians today are more mindful of the Merdeka “social contract” reached by the forefathers of the major communities on the fundamentals of this nation created on August 31, 1957, and which represents Tunku’s legacy, that Malaysia is a democratic, secular and multi-religious nation with Islam as the official religion, but not an Islamic State, the country and people would have been spared many of the present-day agonies of nation-building. 

The Tunku, for instance, would have given his full support to the establishment of a Inter-Faith Commission, which had attracted so much flak, opposition and negative responses, to the extent that the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has to come out  with a most disappointing stand against the Inter-Faith Commission. 

In the first quarter-century of nationhood from 1957-1982, it would be unthinkable that the idea of an Inter-Faith Commission would have created any  strong opposition as it would have been fully in line with the Merdeka “social contract” reached by the forefathers of the major communities and written into the 1957  Merdeka Constitution that Malaysia is a democratic, secular and multi-religious nation with Islam as the official religion but not an Islamic State.  

In fact, under his premiership,  Tunku took  the initiative to form an Inter-Religious Council headed by a Cabinet Minister, but which was allowed to go defunct in the eighties and its very concept has come to be regarded as “anathema” in many powerful and influential quarters.

The second important date in February,  the International Mother Language Day (IMLD) on February 21, has passed unnoticed for the sixth  time and the sixth  year by both the national and state governments despite repeated reminders by the DAP. 

It is important that the IMLD should be celebrated by Malaysians not only because Malaysia had been one of the 28 countries which seconded the UNESCO resolution in 1999 to proclaim February 21 as an International Mother Language Day, but also because Malaysia's unique multi-lingual and multi-cultural heritage should make it an ideal candidate as a model to the rest of the world on the promotion and protection of linguistic rights, diversity and tolerance.

The  UNESCO resolution and declaration proclaiming the IMLD should be  a guide and standard for both Malaysia's nation-building policy and national education policy, serving as a reference point for all deliberations and debates on these two important subjects - including the formulation of the Ninth Malaysia Plan 2006-2010 pertaining to education, from primary, secondary to tertiary.  It should inform, for instance,  discussions like today’s topic “The Future of Tamil Education in Malaysia”.

The start of the Ninth Malaysia Plan next year not only marks the mid-point of the 30-year Vision 2020 to become a fully developed nation but represents the eve of Malaysia’s half-a-century of nationhood. It is most distressing that coming to the mid-century of Malaysia’s nationhood, the status of Tamil schools have not improved materially, continuing to be the “Cinderella of Malaysian Education”.

Mother-tongue education, including Tamil education, has not received the proper place in the mainstream of the national education policy and system in the past five decades of nationhood, and it is time to rectify this historical injustice by asking for fair and equitable treatment for Tamil primary   schools in all aspects, whether financial, physical or other educational infrastructure support.

The comparative educational backwardness of the Indian Malaysians in the Tamil and national schools is a reflection of the marginalisation and socio-economic and political  powerlessness of the Indian  Malaysian community which has become  the new underclass in the country.

As a poor working-class  minority community, the Tamils have been pushed from rural to urban poverty, from plantation worker to factory hand and  from living in an estate environment to living in a squatter area to the extent that poverty has become an inter-generational problem with poverty reproducing poverty.

Strong political will is needed to overcome  the grave problem of socio-economic marginalisation and powerlessness and to make the  Tamil education stream sufficiently productive by upgrading the schools and its facilities, such as improving the standards of its teachers and their performance.

Malaysians in general and the Indian community in particular should canvas for a New Deal for Tamil Education in the Ninth  Malaysia Plan.  However, I do not see much hope for such a New Deal for Tamil Education in the Ninth Malaysia Plan if the government is not even prepared to officially recognize and celebrate the annual International Mother Language Day, and this is why Malaysians committed to mother-tongue education, linguistic and cultural diversity should not let up in their campaign for an official recognition and celebration  of IMLD every year.


* Lim Kit Siang, Parliamentary Opposition Leader, MP for Ipoh Timur & DAP Central Policy and Strategic Planning Commission Chairman