Commentary: Weakening Position and Diminishing Role of the Malay Language in Islamic Education and Development in Singapore. Is that the case?

Weakening Position and Diminishing Role of the Malay Language in Islamic Education and Development in Singapore. Is that the case?
– A Personal Reflection

“Dosa besar” or ‘A Major Sin’ – that’s how I’ve been made to feel whenever the Malay Language has allegedly been said to be the cause for non-Malay speaking Muslim to be alienated from learning Islam within the local context. And that’s how distasteful the Malay Language has been viewed by some Muslims. It’s been accused of creating social distance among Muslims, and of alienating non-Malay speaking Muslims. Perhaps, some Muslims here may not know how Islam came to Nusantara and how the Malay Language was the primary medium of instruction in the spread of Islam in this region. The Malay Language was THE UNIFYING LANGUAGE for Muslims in the Nusantara. But now, it has been flamed, blamed and shamed as the language that’s preventing non-Malay-speaking Muslims from learning Islam.

It is indeed a reflection of changes within the Muslim Community in Singapore. Slowly but surely it seems, the significant role that the Malay Language used to play in Islamic learning is now becoming more diminished. It is said that the younger generation of Malays are more comfortable using the English Language than their Mother Tongue Language. It is said that more and more parents are reporting that English has replaced Malay as the preferred medium of communication at home. We are not sure though if such changes, if indeed true, have resulted in better scores in English Language by Malay students during exams. Are Malay students performing better in English language and less so in their Mother Tongue language?

Personally, I see that the Islamic Education scene in Singapore is undergoing a transition from a predominantly Malay language based shifting more and more towards the English language as the medium of instruction in class, especially for the younger audience.

Most, if not all, of the asatizahs teaching at such programmes come from our local Madrasahs where English has not been the main and primary medium of instruction. Arabic still feature highly in the local Madrasah scene. Despite that, we have witnessed more and more younger asatizah demonstrate better command of the English language. To many of them, English is a second or even third language, after Arabic and Malay. Granted that some of them started education at mainstream schools before joining the full-time madrasahs. Asatizah from such background may demonstrate better grasp and command of the English language.

Generally, for centuries, Muslims in Singapore, as those living in Nusantara, have been attuned to using the Malay language in religious instruction and discourse. It is not about placing the Malay language on a pedestal and to sanctify its position as sacred.

No. None of such things.

Simply, the Malay language used to be the lingua franca of the region and perhaps for still many Malays in Singapore. And the Malay language has indeed been the medium for religious instruction since Islam came to the region. And for many of asatizah, it’s not surprising that they too received their own religious instructions early in their lives through the use of Malay language. The Arabic language become a must when they dwell deeper into the religion. To transfer that past Malay-Arabic dominated learning experience right away into the current English-dominated learning environment is no mean feat

It is not easy. Not many can do the switch easily. It will take time.
We are in a transition. Probably the current batch of students in the madrasahs would perform better in creating a 100% English language driven learning environment when they teach later in their lives.

Demand for Malay language to be replaced by English as the main medium of instruction for Islamic Education for the younger generation seems to be getting louder. More and more Mosques and Private Centres are creating classes in Islamic learning in English to cater to the growing demand.

Perhaps that demand for change from Malay to English language seems louder within the Malay community because it forms the bulk of Muslims here in Singapore.

I still come across the Indian Muslim community here conducting their religious classes in their Mother Tongue language, despite some classes being conducted in the English language. In fact, religious instructions in many parts of the region are still being delivered mainly in the mother tongue. Regionally, there is yet a proliferation of religious instructions being conducted in the English language. Where there are, the speed is not as fast and furious as that found locally.

With changing demography, with the growing presence of non-Malay speaking Muslims and a decline on the use of the Mother Tongue language among younger Malays, there is no denying the fact that there is certainly a need to have Islamic Learning delivered in English.

Nevertheless, it would be a monumental task to expect and place delivery of such Islamic Learning classes in the same light and standard as lessons taught in English at mainstream schools. There are already loud voices demanding the same standard of delivery by Asatizah at Mosque as that at mainstream school. In fact, such voices have been around for quite some time now.

And it’s not the case that nothing has been done about such demands. Asatizahs have indeed been sent for training at NIE to attain national level teaching competencies and accreditations.
But it will certainly take time to see standards of delivery of religious classes using English as the main medium of instructions on par with those classes conducted in mainstream schools. It will take a bit more time. As of now, seeing the use of English language being toggled with Malay is only to be expected.

Some have already expressed their angst that such toggling shouldn’t happen in the first place, and should not be tolerated.
But to expect a generational learning experience to change suddenly from one language to another is something that don’t usually happen overnight in a social environment.

Not many can do the switch in record time. Not many are as eloquent as Ust Noor Deros or Ust Mizi Wahid or Al Marhum Ustaz Zhulkeflee Bin Haji Ismail who have delivered religious instructions in the English Language almost effortlessly. To expect every Asatizah to be able to deliver lessons in English with such poise will definitely take time. The change will eventually happen insyaaALlah, but over time and not over night.

Delivering religious instructions well in any language at all involves not only the transference of information or facts. It is also about resorting to the teacher’s own socio-religious experience in growing up, learning about and experiencing the religion itself. Not many can simply switch to an alternative mode, ie from the current predominantly Malay-Arabic socio-religious experience to the expected English-Arabic socio-religious milieu.

This is not about buying insurance for the asatizah.

Work is in progress (WIP). Many efforts have been done and will continue to be done to raise the standards of delivery of religious instructions across the board. And as in any WIP, there are hiccups along the way that need to be addressed.

This brief write-up is also by means as attempt to sanctify the position of Malay language in Islam and its development locally. Instead, it is a witness to the possibly dying use of the Malay language in the socio-religious life, environment, experiences and learning of Muslims in Singapore, especially among the younger generations of Malays. (Could this be a research topic for anyone doing Masters or Phd?)

And the ensuing online altercation of a recent outburst on the non-use of English language in a religious class (it was supposed to be a religious class conducted in English), it is also interesting to note that Malays are expected, subtly or otherwise, to abandon the use of their Mother Tongue language in their interaction with other Muslims in favour of the English language. That appears to be the line of argument taken by both Malay and non-Malay speaking Muslims online.

This seems not to be the case for Muslims in the region, at least not among Muslims in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and even China and Japan. (In fact, Islam came to China even earlier than it did to Nusantara, and the Chinese became Muslims earlier than the Malays.) The Mother Tongue languages in those countries still play an important role in the socio-religious life and learning among Muslims there.

In summary, is it really true that we are witnessing a weakening of the position and diminishing role of the Malay language in socio-religious life of and leaning of Islam among Muslims in Singapore, unlike decades ago? Is it also true that the Malay language has become a cause for concern as far as local Islamic development is concerned, as it is being alleged to have created barriers for non-Malay-speaking Muslims to learn Islam and hence has alienated them from Muslims in Singapore?

Perhaps these are plausible research questions worthy of consideration for a post-graduate work.


Source: Mohd Khair

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