Imagine a scenario in Malaysian classrooms where primary school children learn the meaning of the word ‘peace’ and muhibbah in many different languages and dialects: Bahasa Malaysia, Bahasa Jawa, Siamese, Bugis, Bawean, Bangladeshi, Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka, Tamil, Urdu, Tagalog, Hebrew, Arabic, Senoi, Jakun, Iban, and Kadazan-dusun.

Imagine the children, in weekly language word-study circles, explaining to each other the meaning of the word in their own language.

Imagine the children learning Language Arts and Social Studies exploring the interdisciplinary theme of the language they use at home.

Imagine them translating proverbs from their native language into English, and next illustrating them and next doing class presentations.

Imagine at the end of the year, the children and their parents proudly dressed up in their cultural outfits, singing songs in their native language without being laughed at, sharing food - in a cultural celebration night.

Imagine secondary school students doing their final school project on the meaning of their cultural practices and the relationship to their ethical belief system and how each may teach them to profess universal values of peace and social justice among different races.

Imagine all of them doing a project that analyses the themes of famous cross-cultural movies and using this vehicle to learn the concepts of cultural preservation and continuity.

Imagine, at the community college and university level, when theyhave had enough exposure and appreciation to linguistic and cultural diversity, Malaysians forming cross-cultural dialogue clubs, engaging in multiple literacies and multiple voices fora, interfaith circles of learning, transcultural network of friends and other innovations in multi-cultural social imaginations - so that we may not need communalism anymore as a basis for our national political design.

Imagine, we then have graduate students forming something called ‘Malaysian Transcultural Social Democratic Futuristics’ political study groups to dismantle all existing parties that have served their time.

What an exploration in a newer human design we may embark upon to create a society based on a transcultural radical-multiculturalist utopianism. It would be a good experiment we may embark upon for the next 50 years so that we may redefine the meaning of ‘progress and development’, rethink the solution to corruption, and reconfigure the existing and incoming newer Malaysians.

But let us go back to the present Malaysian classroom.

azlanImagine how the classroom, although confined by the four walls, is a world in itself in which children learn to construct the meaning of the world they live in. Imagine, like the ex-Beatle John Lennon once said, “... a brotherhood of Man”.

Like Lennon, I do not think we are all dreamers. I do not think we’re the only ones. This is the day we ought to start joining this dialogue to start thinking of the enabling dimensions of our culture.

We have been waiting at the crossroad of this debate too long that we have not been able to do the ‘border-crossing’.

Our politicians have been giving us the wrong interpretation of what language, culture, and human liberation actually means. Even our most progressive educators have fallen prey to these shackling arguments that have chained us to the ‘stop’ sign of the crossing that will bring us to this world of imagination and possibilities. Our politicians are not linguists.

We must learn to explore and develop our interest in other languages to make our world a more creative and more enriched place, culturally and linguistically. Malaysia is the such fertile area of such exploration.

Cultural trap

Our current squabble over what official language to use in primary schools has philosophical solutions. We think it is a political problem with political solutions. We are wrong. We are looking at it the wrong way.

Albert Einstein once said the problem cannot be solved if it originates from the same plane from which it arises. We have to find the light at the end of the tunnel. We have to rethink what cultural dominance mean.

Can one value be allowed to define other values? Can one culture be allowed to dominate?

There is no dominance of one value over others; if one feels that there ought to be, then the definition must be an arrogant and outdated one.

Cultural absolutism itself is subjective; all cultures want to define their culture as the absolute - the absolute truth.

This has been the problem of humanity since time immemorial; sejak zaman purba kala.

To acknowledge one’s culture as being superior to others is like acknowledging that one’s race is superior to others. There is no biological basis to racial superiority. Race/culture is a construct; it exists in the mind. Race can translate into social domination.

Cultural relativism is currently being rigorously explored the world over through disciplines such as Ethnic and Multi-cultural Studies. This is a promising field that might reduce bigotry based on race, religion or skin colour.

Relativism simply means there is no absolute. It is time we embrace this notion that things are relative. We may even open up minds to exploring transcultural philosophies and have less fights over which race is more intelligent that the other.

Let me propose the following notion of language and culture.

Language is culture is philosophy is reality is the totality of one’s existence shaped by the economic conditions that are shaped by dominant others. As makers of our own history and masters of our own destiny, with the aid of divine intervention, we ought to learn how to explore the inter-relationship between power and language.

As existential beings we are going through, as stated by Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan, stages of “evolving selfs”. We ought to ask: in what way is language used to indoctrinate and oppress us and in what way must we continue to be aware of this and remain conscious and free?

As thinking, feeling, and dignified beings in this sea of humanity, how do we recognise whose language is trying to colonise and oppress ours? How is structural, or unseen violence, defining the way we communicate?

As ‘novice linguistic archaeologists’, how do we excavate language in its cultural field so that we may then discover the ‘ethics of authenticity’ and ultimately stand in awe facing the core of its philosophy? These are tough questions.

Stop making statements that will hurt the children of Malaysia.

DR AZLY RAHMAN, born in Singapore and who grew up in Johor Baru, holds a Columbia University (New York) doctorate in International Education Development and Master’s degrees in four areas: Education, International Affairs, Peace Studies and Communication. He has taught more than 40 courses in six different departments and has written more than 300 analyses on Malaysia. His teaching experience in Malaysia and the United States spans over a wide range of subjects, from elementary to graduate education. He has edited and authored four books; Multiethnic Malaysia: Past, Present, Future (2009), Thesis on Cyberjaya: Hegemony and Utopianism in a Southeast Asian State (2012), and the latest two The Allah Controversy and Other Essays on Malaysian Hypermodernity (2013), and Dark Spring: Ideological Roots of Malaysia's General Elections-13 (2013). He currently resides in the United States.