Speech by M.Kula Segaran, MP Ipoh Barat and DAP National Vice Chairman in Penang, on 8th November 2014
Why is the Tamil language languishing in Malaysia?
Before we can talk about the plight of the Tamils, we must talk about their language. Perhaps, there is no ethnic group in the world that is as bound up with their language as the Tamils. The internet will confirm what many don't know – that Tamil is the oldest completed language in the world. More ancient that Sanskrit and Latin, which have gone out of vogue, and more durable than English ,which by comparison is of fairly recent vintage.
If like Robinson Crusoe, a Tamil lands adrift on an isolated and uninhabited island, he will remain Tamil provided he does not forget his language. But if he does forget his language, he will be bereft and will lose the essence of his humanity.
For the Tamil, his language is not just a 'means of expression' or an 'instrument of communication'. Instead, his language is a vehicle of collective wisdom and basic assumptions, a currency of criteria and valuations. One has merely to leaf through the Thirukural, that stupendous repository of Tamil wisdom, to get a sense of what is meant when it is said that the Tamil language is a vehicle of collective wisdom. Not for nothing has the Thirukural become the most translated work after the Christian bible.
With such an inheritance, why is the Tamil language languishing in Malaysia?
Tamil schools have always been at the core of the development of Tamil language in Malaysia. The first Tamil school was founded in 1816 in Penang, as part of Penang Free School which was the first English language secondary school to be set up in the country.
Many Tamil schools have been established by certain parties which were non-political and by religious movements, on their own volition. Currently, there are 523 Tamil schools, the vast majority set up during the colonial rule of the British before they granted independence to Malaya in 1957.
Tamil schools were predominant in the estates while Chinese language schools were established in the urban areas. The middle class Tamils, especially government servants from the Jaffna (Sri Lanka) community, preferred to send their children to English medium schools in the urban areas while the Tamil schools in the estates were dedicated to the children of parents who worked in the rubber plantations set up and controlled by the British.
Being pushed to the rural interior from the beginning, the poor Tamil rubber tappers were confined to the estates and were only exposed to the Tamil medium of instruction schools for their early education. Their lives were marked by lack of upward mobility and marginalization from the more well paid economic activities of the urban centers during the time of British rule and even after independence.
Most Tamil schools in Malaysia are compounded of old buildings and poor infrastructure. This dilapidation made many Indians feel neglected because the ruling government did not show much consideration to those who studied in Tamil schools.
Negligible recognition caused students to have low self esteem. Despite the richness of the language, it was not considered as a qualifying standard for admission to university. The hard work put in by students to score grades in the SPM Tamil examination is not rewarded when applying for higher education as Tamil is not considered to be a core subject, like English or Malay, for assessment for university admissions.
In other words, Tamil students are systematically discouraged from learning their mother tongue,with the nefarious hope perhaps that one day the language will suffer natural expiry. This has political implications in Malaysia where the government is not sincere in promoting mother tongue education and hopes eventually to have a monolingual education with Malay as the only medium of instruction.
The neglect of Tamil can be inferred from the fact that while languages like Spanish and French are hardly spoken in the country, the two are counted as subjects for the SPM examination which is equivalent to 'O' levels.
As you know the Eelam Tamils in Malaysia are well to do when compared to Indian Tamils. The need of the hour is a 'single' Tamil identity if the Tamils are to survive, not just in Malaysia but the entire world.
Tamil education has produced lots of professionals in Malaysia and it continues do so, especially after 2008 where lots of pressure have been put on the ruling government by the increased number of Indian Malaysian parliamentarians who continuously highlight issues related to Tamil education and Tamil schools in the Lower House and in public forums.
The result is that the government is slowly conceding to the demands of the Indian community by allocating special funds, though in piecemeal fashion, for Tamil schools. It has even set up a special unit for Tamil schools under Profesoor N. S. Rajendran, to look into the management of Tamil schools and education in Malaysia . The performance of the children from Tamil schools is also encouraging, the latest testimony being the recognition given to students from Tamil schools in England for their innovation which has been widely reported in the Tamil press but conveniently neglected by the mainstream media.
The Tamil identity should be stressed and the Eelam Tamils too should come forward to strengthen the school system and contribute to the development of education, especially mother tongue education. The Tamils who have continued to suffer under the present government for decades should think ahead and decide to do something which would surprise the world and prove that we are pioneers, not just in talking but also in thinking and action.
In fact, Malaysia is in a position to be the center of Tamil education outside Tamil Nadu as it has the capacity with a good learning and teaching environment and this can contribute to raise Malaysia's profile in international education, which is presently at its lowest in terms of world rankings. Tamil must be made one of the mainstream languages in this country, to preserve its relevance and continuous presence. Parents must make Tamil education as the first choice of their children.
Only about 60% of the Indian community send their children to Tamil schools, a statistic that is not good enough, compared to 90% of Chinese who send their children to Chinese medium schools. The community must commit to increasing their presence in Tamil schools. Without the community’s support, the Tamil language will loose its significance and is headed for oblivion in this country.
I am grateful the Penang Government has announced the offer of a piece of land for the construction of a Secondary Tamil School. Before this offer of the land, the stand by political parties of the the Federal coalition(BN) was the need for a secondary Tamil school. But after this open offer the parties who we're supporting the construction of a secondary school had died down. Now the Federal Government has officially announced it will not finance the construction of a secondary Tamil school. Why the discrimination?
If this eventuates, it would be a tragedy. Tamils were pioneers in the exploration of the country. Our forefather, Rajendra Cholan, was the first to colonize this land, yet we did not make it a colony. But we are looking out for an “elusive Tamil land”. There are scores of uninhabited islands in this region. As an ethnic group owning what is considered a classical language, the oldest spoken one in the world, why can’t we as a people pool all our resources and buy an island?
Though we have thousands of our brethren who are doing extremely well in economic spheres and have the right political connections, the urge to do something for our great language is sorely wanting. These influential Tamils can help us in preserving and fostering our Tamil identity if they can help us in this quest to acquire a unique homeland, which could be a model to other ethnic groups in the world, fighting to create a homeland.
We can develop a place like the Auroville in Pondicherry where different communities from around the world come together and live. If that experiment with such differences in race, culture, religion, languages etc. can succeed, we as Tamils can take it up as an experiment. All that it requires is for people to be open to innovative ideas and a resolve to make the impossible possible.