Malaysian language expert defends young Singaporeans' Malay proficiency after video

The debate surrounding the proficiency of Singaporean youth in Bahasa Melayu was fuelled by a video that recently surfaced on social media.

A Malay language linguistic expert in Malaysia, Awang Sariyan, at a press conference.
Professor Awang Sariyan is one of Malaysia's top language experts, being recently appointed as the Honorary Advisor of the Malay Chinese Studies Centre at Beijing Foreign Studies University. (Photo: Awang Sariyan/Facebook)

KUALA LUMPUR — A language expert from Malaysia, Professor Awang Sariyan, has debunked assertions made on the internet that Singaporean youths are not proficient in the Malay language.

The debate surrounding the proficiency of Singaporean youth in Bahasa Melayu was fuelled by a video that recently surfaced on social media.

The TikTok by BERITA Mediacorp depicted young Singaporeans being asked whether they preferred speaking English or Malay. Many responded that English was their preferred language, citing its prevalence in various aspects of their lives.

Some admitted that Malay was not their strongest language, though a few mentioned they made an effort to speak it at home.

The video quickly divided social media users from Malaysia. When the video was shared on Twitter/X, some condemned the Singaporean children for not mastering one of the country's national languages, asserting that preserving the Malay language was of utmost importance. Others mocked their English accents, noting how they sounded when speaking Malay.

"The thing is they are not even speaking proper English, they are speaking Singlish," @nrhnsharol tweeted.

Singlish is a term used for the way Singaporeans speak English in combination with the various other languages present in the country, much like Malaysia's Manglish.

"Funny how you claim to speak in Malay and sounding bad but don’t realise you sound the same when speaking English. Anyways, that was Manglish," tweeted @bawrosaurus.

Conversely, defenders of the Singaporean youth drew parallels to the language comprehension issues prevalent in Malaysia. They argued that Malaysians often faced difficulties in comprehending and communicating effectively in English, emphasising that language proficiency struggles existed in both countries.

"Someone mentioned that if we wanted to compare it to Malaysia, it would be like the English subject ," said @ainhsaifulnizam.

"Undeniably, it's just because of the focus their education has on English as the main language compared to ours here."

"This is why our education system is important, it shapes the next generation," she tweeted.

A language expert's take on the matter

Prof Awang's commentary sheds light on the complexities underlying this issue, urging a deeper exploration beyond surface assumptions.

"The issue of young Malays in Singapore being perceived as not proficient in the Malay language should be studied to avoid relying solely on assumptions," said Prof Awang.

"Generally, this issue arises because the primary language for administrative matters, education, business, media, and even communication is English. While it's true that Malay is the national language and one of the four official languages of Singapore, English is dominant in the main areas of life I mentioned. Given this context, the issue occurs somewhat naturally," he said.

However, the professor emphasised that efforts have been made by the Singaporean government to elevate the status and usage of the Malay language.

He said the establishment of the Singapore Malay Language Centre under the Ministry of Education, the presence of Members of Parliament who use Malay during parliamentary sessions, and the Prime Minister's fluency in Malay during national events were cited as examples of these endeavours.

Prof Awang also highlighted the pivotal role of parents and families in fostering a strong command of the Malay language among the younger generation.

The understanding of the sociocultural context is crucial when evaluating language proficiency among Singaporean youth, said Prof Awang.

"The efforts by the Singaporean government and the role of families in nurturing language skills must be acknowledged, even as debates continue to swirl around the interplay of language, identity, and education."

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