*This entry is the unedited version of my rebuttal to Datuk S. S Subramaniam's letter Language of Science (StarEducate, 20 November 2011) which appears today in Sunday Star of StarEducate (page 5).
By Wan Ahmad Fayhsal Wan Ahmad Kamal, Research Fellow of Assembly of Intellectual Muslim (HAKIM)
I would like to clarify on few contentions raised by Datuk. S.S. Subramaniam in his letter “Language of the science” (StarEducate, Nov 20).
In that letter he lamented that Bahasa Malaysia as a “new language” is very slow in coming to terms with modern scientific discourse. This premise is utterly false because there is no such a thing as Bahasa Malaysia. The correct name that he supposes to refer is Bahasa Melayu where the root of its development begins more than 600-years ago especially in the advent of Islam in Malay Archipelago. If he meant Bahasa Melayu lacks the weight in supporting scientific discourse, in which this point currently becoming the staple argument for proponent of PPSMI (The Teaching and Learning of Science and Maths in English), this is also another red herring.
The richness and prowess of Bahasa Melayu in subsisting subrcientific discourse can be proven in the long history of Malay civilization. Bahasa Melayu for the past 600-years has able to carry and produce plethora of original and indigenous scientific works ranging from medicine, astronomy, mathematics, botany, craftsmanship, chemistry, and physics that has been utilized and appropriated to the condition of the livelihood of the Malays in this region not just at the level of small settlements but most importantly at the level of civilizational where Malay sultanates were once reign supreme in this region conducting trades and economic transactions with world super-power of those days. These achievements could never be possible unless the Malays through their language Bahasa Melayu, able to convey and develop their own knowledge system for their civilizational advancement as portrayed in the history. The proof of their succesess and contributions had been showcased from February to June this year by Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia in the exhibition entitled “Al-‘Ilm: Science and Innovation in the Islamic World”.
Further more, Bahasa Melayu as rightly deliberated by Tan Sri. Professor Dr. Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas, is also a member of vast network of Islamic languages such as Arabic, Persian, Urdu, and Turkish where many scientific key terms are being shared across among each of them. All these great Islamic languages have churned out numerous accounts of scientific works that made Scientific Revolution possible in the West during the Renaissance and Enlightenment era. Contemporary academic discourses especially in the West have already acknowledge how indebted they were to the Islamic civilizations in bringing forth their scientific knowledge via the translations of the works from its original language bearer which mainly were Arabic and Persian into Western languages. By altering Bahasa Melayu to Bahasa Malaysia we have done great injustice to the language itself by cutting its original root and authority in which it has hinged upon the successes and potentials exemplified by the Malay civilization in the world history.
On the account of the biasness of policy-makers against English as a colonial and foreign language, this is not unfounded and unacademic assumption. Our early policy-makers understood well that Malaysia being a post-colonial country needs a solid foundation for its national education with its own identity rather than co-opting the largesse of Colonial British. The formulation of our national education system is a two-pronged effort not just about attaining advancement and prosperity in material sense but also in forging the national unity. This can be further testified through the formulation of National Culture Policy of 1971. From that policy ensued more robust development plan that suites our local socio-cultural milieu that has stood the test of time in extending prosperity and avoiding calamity of the 1969 though there are still more room for improvements. Bahasa Melayu definitely is the language where knowledge transactions should occur especially with regard to scientific and any form of intellectual discourses in Malaysia because it befits and compatible to local values within the backdrop of our socio-cultural milieu as agreed through the formulation of National Culture Policy 1971.
In contrast, modern western science, which transpired through Western languages notably English, is indeed by nature, exhibiting colonialist tendency. This can be understood by closer reading of a work written by the father of modern science, Francis Bacon in his Novum Organum. Max Weber the great German sociologist has also confirmed how modern science that emerged after Renaissance and Enlightenment has disenchanted the realm of nature that currently lead to serious problems in the realm of science and extending them further into the life of modern man. Climate change, environmental destruction, extinction of species, and series of other global problems have been attributed to the dominant and imperialistic tendency of modern science has upon humanity as testified by western physicist and thinker such as Fritjof Capra in his seminal work The Turning Point: Science, Society, and the Rising Culture.
Colonialism in the Malay Archipelago has indeed to certain extend, stunted the development of Bahasa Melayu in becoming the main language of scientific discourse. Indigenous knowledge that came into fruition under the aegis of Bahasa Melayu were systematically being displaced by colonial language especially English, resulting the dominant of Western science over traditional and indigenous knowledge.
Modern sciences that currently persist in our education system are mainly drawn from the Western scientific corpus that arose from the experience of Scientific Revolution in the West in the era of Enlightenment. Though there are universal benefits and values that we can shared and utilized from the Western scientific achievements, yet still there are many things that deem incompatible to our world-view for example on the teaching of Darwinian evolutionary theory that has been subsumed into various knowledge disciplines such as sociology and economic. If incompatibility arises, it is due to the incongruence and unfounded basis that Western science has upon our indigenous sciences, for example theory of evolution has never been integral to the Easterners especially among the Muslim whereas the feud between Evolutionist and Creationist is never-ending in the West.
Currently Western world is in deep intellectual, cultural and spiritual crisis as manifested through series of unfortunate events in Europe and United States of America. It is an intellectual and cultural suicide for us to improve our livelihood by just using their knowledge system without critically engaging upon their scientific discourse via our indigenous intellectual lenses. It is such a waste for us not to think on reviving our very own knowledge system that hinged upon our socio-cultural milieu where language is one of the main intrinsic foundations in the development of those indigenous sciences.
Since Bahasa Melayu is the national language of Malaysia, it is our duty as Malaysians to spearhead the development of the language in acclimatizing it to contemporary scientific challenges. We cannot just short-change ourselves on the basis of utilitarianism and short-termism especially with regard to education, which by default is a value-laden pursuit for excellence. Malaysia can show to the world the diversity that we have can be galvanized further not only at level of socio-cultural richness but also reviving civilizational glory in scientific discourse that fits into the real needs and purposes of our people rather than blindly following the dictation of faceless multinational corporations. For that to be realized, one must be aware upon our national identity that was forged by our forefathers for us to strengthen and refine in standing against another test of time.