The Straits Times
Published on Jul 29, 2012
When Chinese learnt Malay with verve
By Teo Han Wue
When news broke early this month that two Malay language experts in Singapore were donating their entire collection of 10,000 books to a Malaysian research institution, I was surprised.
Not so much because Mr Yang Qwee Yee, 81, and his wife, Madam Chan Maw Woh, 74, found the Centre for Malaysian Chinese Studies in Kuala Lumpur a better home for their gift than any institution in Singapore.
I was more struck by the cool reception here to the news carried on the front page of the Chinese language daily Lianhe Zaobao on July 2. It was neither widely reported nor discussed.
But then again, perhaps I should not have been surprised. Few Singaporeans, especially the young, know of a time when younger Chinese in Singapore learnt and spoke Malay.
Not many are aware that it was here that the Malay film industry began in the 1930s and thrived for decades after. Or that this was where the modern Malay literary movement Angkatan Sastrawan Lima Puluhan (Asas 50an) or Writers’ Movement of the 50s was launched in 1950.
Times have changed.
‘Compared to Singapore, there are more people in Malaysia doing research in Malay. I’d like to see our collection put to good use rather than be locked away like some treasure. It should contribute to the understanding between the Malays and the Chinese, which is pressing in Malaysia,’ says Mr Yang.
His wife adds: ‘We were convinced that the research centre in Kuala Lumpur was the best choice because they promised to digitise the entire collection to make it available online and organise activities around it regularly.’
Mr Yang taught himself Malay in the early 1950s in his home town of Pontian, Johor. As a student at the former Nanyang University (Nantah) in Singapore between 1956 and 1959, he actively promoted Malay on campus.
After he graduated, he went to Jakarta’s Universitas Indonesia to study Bahasa Indonesia for two years before returning to teach Malay at Nantah from 1962 to 1964. He has continued with his research work in the language since.
He was conferred an honorary doctorate of letters by the National University of Malaysia in 2007 for his contribution to Malay language research.
His wife learnt Malay on her own and has assisted him in all his projects. She worked first as a Malay language journal editor and later as a Chinese newspaper journalist.
The couple has published dozens of books, particularly Malay dictionaries, some of which are widely used in universities in China where Mr Yang has been invited often to teach. Madam Chan has also translated Malay novels such as Cultural Medallion winner Isa Kamari’s Satu Bumi (One Earth) into Chinese.
Both are from that generation of Chinese-educated who studied Malay diligently when Malaya became independent in 1957. They and several others actively promoted the learning of Malay in Malaya and Singapore, driven by strong anti-colonial and nationalistic sentiments.
Their enthusiasm is seen in the numerous books and periodicals on Malay language and culture published during the 50s and 60s. Produced mainly by Chinese bookshops in Singapore, these books had a big following throughout Malaya, especially among those literate in Chinese.
One senses the spirit of that time in Chua Mia Tee’s 1959 oil painting National Language Class, depicting a group of young men and women seated at a round table. It is evening, and they are having a Malay language lesson.
Although the cosy room lit by a warm electric light seems a casual setting, the students look earnest and determined.
The two short sentences on the blackboard - ‘Siapa nama kamu?’ (What is your name?) and ‘Di mana awak tinggal?’ (Where do you live?) - tell you that this is a beginners’ class, perhaps even the very first lesson.
Artist Chua, now 81, was himself a student in the class. The work reflects how young Chinese Malayans were keen to learn the national language then.
It reminds me of my own national language experience from the same period in a Malayan village. Besides regular lessons in school, my schoolmates and I joined working adults who organised evening classes and engaged Malay teachers to teach us in the classrooms of a village Malay school.
As the school had no electricity, we used a kerosene pressure lantern for lighting. It attracted all sorts of insects from a nearby swamp, so we had to light mosquito coils to let us concentrate in class.
Some of us became good enough in Malay to win debating and oratorical competitions against students from other villages.
All these memories came back to me when I read someone lament in The Straits Times that most Singaporeans do not know Malay and cannot understand the words of Majulah Singapura, our National Anthem.
It made me glad that I made a special effort all those years ago, and continued to study Malay while in university.
Throughout my years working in Singapore I found my knowledge of Malay extremely useful. There have been occasions when I had to read reports in Malay and sometimes, translate them.
At some social gatherings my Malay comes in handy when I meet Malaysians and Indonesians. The mood readily turns warmer when we start conversing in Malay instead of English.
It remains useful even now, as I am following an online controversy in the Indonesian art scene and can discuss it with my Indonesian friends.
Perhaps all is not lost for the younger generation in Singapore.
My granddaughter who is in Primary 3 tells me proudly what she has learnt during her school’s conversational Malay programme. She can say what time she returned from school, and name the parts of her body in Malay.
Conversational Malay was introduced at her school to strengthen bonds among pupils of different races and hopefully enable them to move about more comfortably in our region.
Listening to her describe her Malay lessons so animatedly is immensely reassuring.
The writer is the former executive director of Art Retreat incorporating the Wu Guanzhong Gallery, and a former journalist.