Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Language, Power and the Malaysian Christian

English language of the land?One of the most stimulating blogs I’ve read lately is by local writer Chuah Guat Eng. Her passion mainly revolves around Malaysian literature in English, and she’s obviously very conversant with all the related issues surrounding the topic.

She has a particularly fascinating post asking "Is there a future for Malaysian literature in English?" Now I realise that litblogs and so-called “literary” topics isn’t really many of my readers’ cup of tea, but bear with me for a second, especially as I think it has bearings on issues beyond the merely “literary”. Beginning with the story of the founding of Rhino Press in 1997, a small Malaysian press dedicated to publishing “young Malaysian writers”, Chuah finds herself asking the question: “But why did they all write in English?” True, English is the linguistic fountainhead one must draw from to survive in today’s global city, yet paradoxically, in the borough of Malaysia this wellspring is not located at the centre but on the margins. She then proceeds to explore the biographies and histories of these various writers, all of whom were among the first few generations of fairly well-off Malaysians to have had their entire school education in the Malay medium. The answers these writers gave were varied, but Chuah thinks the crux of the matter boils down to moving beyond the straitjacket of a uniform national identity and the tired binary oppositions of us versus them (in this case, Asian/Eastern versus the Mat Sallehs*). These are writers who no longer feel the need to address this identity crisis (which is perceived as an illusion anyhow) but to get on with engaging with current socio-political realities: democracy, human rights, social justice. The post ends on a sobering note – Rhino Press, far from being further along the road to fulfilling its vision, now publishes cookery books. The hand of the free market was probably just too strong.

During my brief time struggling with the arcane subject of postcolonial studies at university, I was for the first time really asked to consider what it meant for me, a Malaysian Chinese, to speak, write, and think in English. Of course, I had already experienced some discomfiture whenever I communicated with my mainly Chinese-speaking relatives since I don’t speak Chinese very well. Such a question, of course, also throws up a host of other questions and assumptions, including seeing language as political, as having power. One of the results of colonialism is that aspects of the colonial culture are superimposed on that of the colonised, the obvious example here being the English language. Frantz Fanon, who is one of the early major figures in postcolonial studies, provocatively says: "Colonialism forces the people it dominates to ask themselves the questions constantly: ‘In reality, who am I?’". The language we speak influences the way we view reality. Fanon takes the rather radical position that to take up the language of the colonizer is to accept the world and standards of the colonizer, and I suppose, he implicitly presupposes some semblance of oppression. This is a form of what is commonly known as the "hermeneutics of suspicion".

To illustrate this, imagine writing a story which uses Manglish, with all the lahs and so on in it. Is the writer, then, breaking some sort of grammatical rule by not adhering to "standard" English? Should the writer even adhere to this standard? How will this translate to English-speaking cultures? This also helpfully shows that there are always aspects of culture that don’t translate well. I know for example, that many Malaysians find it difficult to find the appropriate English word for perasaan or manja. Similarly, a British friend of mine who has been learning Mandarin mentioned what a great phrase ma fan is – saying that although it could reasonably be translated as “annoying”, it doesn’t quite capture the full semantic range/ connotations of the word. Of course, this is also what often happens in Bible translation as well, sometimes it can be extremely hard to fully capture all the foibles or nuances of what was originally written in Hebrew or Greek.

I’m not bright enough to constructively engage with all of the above. Nonetheless, all these complex issues regarding the politics of language are interesting and I would say, important, in light of today’s political situation in Malaysia. Political scientist Farish Noor talks about "the other Malaysia", that is, the many elements that make up Malaysian society that is denied a voice in the official apparatus or machinery, but that is increasingly hard to contain, hence the appearance of Hindraf, to take one obvious recent example. Similarly, the brand of rhetoric practiced in Malaysia is too often couched in racial and communitarian terms. The government-controlled English media in Malaysia, for instance, plays up the Islamisation bogeyman whereas the Malay media spins the very same issue in a much more populist fashion. Of note is the recent controversy over "Allah", while seemingly trivial on one level, is also symptomatic of deeper cracks in Malaysian society.

Is there a sense, then, that Malaysian Christians can redeem the language, learning not to use terminology inappropriately? Not to capitulate to ways of speaking which inflames, and to lend a voice to the voiceless? Language is a gift from God. One might say it is an essential part of our humanness, what separates us from animals. Also, I would say that God himself models how we should use language since he is a trustworthy God who speaks truly. He also speaks humbly, since the words he gives to us contained in Scripture is both divine and human. At the same time, unlike us, God speaks with complete authority, but not in an oppressive manner as the colonizers do, but as the omniscient God who sees knows all languages, all cultures and all reality. (I haven’t been able to work out the implications of this to the immediate matter at hand but I’m sure there's something there). I know my friend Wai Nyan has not been at all impressed with some of the language used by the Malaysian "underground" (sorry, felt the need to be cool there), and while I think he has been a little too quick and harsh to question motives and a little over-generous to the government, I understand the thrust of his concerns. Language and culture are closely linked, and we surely must seek to use language in a redemptive sense if we want to have any impact on culture.

Just as importantly, I think, are the missiological implications. I remember once how a Western missionary observed that he found mission work in Singapore, a country where English is widely spoken, more difficult than in a non-English speaking country. A language spoken in common can actually serve to conceal cultural and worldview differences rather than reveal them. A word could have different connotations to different people. The word "Asian" here in Britain for instance, primarily denotes those who come from the Indian subcontinent; I suspect the same word used in America or Australia tends to denote a person of Chinese, Japanese or Korean origin. That is the impetus behind Bible translations, for having the Word in your own language can be massively empowering. As I’ve mentioned earlier, there are some words which are difficult to translate and to have it in your own language could be quite a gift and allow them to function and reflect better on their own contexts and cultures. I think Westerners (and to be fair, not just Westerners) may overlook this factor. Although perhaps not for me, so thoroughly embedded am I in the English language! Yet it is precisely that the English I speak is dual, both a "standard" English and Manglish, which illustrates the need for further reflection.

This post has taken a life of its own – I’m sorry that I’ve rambled on a bit. It certainly took on directions I didn’t expect! Hope it made some sort of sense. In any case, please feel free to comment and correct any unintended heresies I might have spouted.

*white men; generic term for Caucasians. Could be taken as slightly pejorative! Which in itself illustrates the point of this post really.

P/S In case I get misinterpreted, I should of course say that the hermeneutics of suspicion and those who see oppresive power discourses in everything have taken things too far for a Christian to accept.

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