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International Opinion on Multi Lingualism

Press statement by Lim Fong Seng in response to attacks made by the Malay-language press over the Joint Memorandum on National Culture Submitted to the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports by the Major Chinese Organisations in Malaysia, on the 9th April 1983.

(Translated by How Xian Neng, 2014.)

The Malaysian Chinese associations recently submitted a lengthy memorandum to the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports regarding the national culture. The local Chinese-language press provided substantial coverage of the event, but the English-language press did not deem it necessary to do so. This may be a consequence of the dominant official view on the national cultural policy.

As for the Malay-language press, Utusan Malaysia only briefly mentioned the contents of the memorandum while the op-ed piece entitled, “Cultural Congress showed disturbing signs”[ Title translated from Chinese translation.] in Berita Harian indicated that it is not inclined to offer understanding   or reconciliation. It sang the old tune of accusing the proposition of cultural pluralism in the memorandum to be “impractical in the current situation”. It also adopted the usual strategy of threat, warning that “… promoting such thoughts might create sensitive atmosphere”. Finally, the op-ed tried to remind the Chinese community of the national cultural policy which the Prime Minister had announced at  the “Meeting of the Malay World”[ Pertemuan Dunia Melayu, held in Melaka,   1982] , in an attempt to deter relevant discussions on the issue.

In fact, the memorandum was submitted by the Chinese community in response to a request made by the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports. In democratic Malaysia, the belief that national cultural policy can be developed without consultation with all the people is without any basis. Furthermore, the claim that a pluralistic policy is “impractical” was never clearly substantiated. The Malaysian Chinese community in general has always been in support of using the Malay language as the national and common language. This is a point which must not be misstated.

Chairman of UMNO Youth Bureau of Arts and Culture, in response of the memorandum, urged the government to take a firm position on the national cultural policy as formulated on the 1971 Cultural Congress and called for its thorough implementation (Berita Harian, 6-4-83). Furthermore, he made disparaging remarks regarding “the sincerity and loyalty of Chinese community in submitting the memorandum”. Johore UMNO youth chief and Deputy Minister of Federal Territories also urged UMNO Youth to object to “groups which questioned the execution of a Bumiputra-based national cultural policy”, which he claimed to have “an adverse effect on the unity of the people”.

As the memorandum mentioned, the Cultural Congress in 1971 was not representative of the different ethnic groups in our nation, because only a handful of unrepresentative Chinese and Indian scholars took part in the congress, and their views could not be representative of the views of the Chinese and Indian communities. The Cultural Congress in 1971 proposed three principles which were adopted by the Minister of Culture, Youth and Sports in “shaping” the national culture:

1.The  National Culture must be  based on  the  indigenous[Malay] culture;
2.Suitable elements from the other cultures may be  accepted  as part of the national culture; and
3.Islam is an important component in the moulding of the National Culture.

The memorandum, in essence, was an appeal to the government to adopt a liberal cultural policy, so that the cultures of different origins may be preserved in the process of building a national culture.

Before more hysterical attacks emerge (something which frequently occurs during rational discourse regarding issues of national culture), let us consider international opinions on cultural policies objectively. By reviewing international opinions on the topics of culture and cultural policies, we hope to show that our position was not born out of a narrow and racially bound perspective. Undeniably, the tragedy of this country, up to today, is the frequent spectacle of opportunist politicians exploiting the issues of culture. But why must the people of all ethnic groups pay the price? How could this important issue related solely to the democratic rights of peoples be hijacked by such politicians?

The memorandum submitted by the Chinese organisations has referred to the international Declaration of Human Rights to support their plea for a pluralistic approach to cultural policies. In fact, many UNESCO resolutions may be used to further support our claim, for example, the Convention against discrimination in Education (1960), Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (1972), Recommendation on Participation by the People at Large in Cultural Life and their Contribution to It (1976) and Declaration on Race and Racial Prejudice (1978).

The World Conference on Cultural Policies held in Mexico City between July and August 1982 was of greater relevance. It was    a ministerial-level conference convened by the Director-General of UNESCO, where all member states and associate member of UN were invited to send delegates. For unknown reasons, Malaysia was absent from the conference. A total of 126 nations (including the Holy See and the Palestine Liberation Organisation), 4 organisations of the United Nations System, 14 Intergovernmental Organisations, 62 International Non-governmental Organisations, and 11 Foundations. A total of 960 participants attended the conference.

The objective of the conference was to review the cultural polices and their implementation of participants since the Venice Conference convened by UNESO in 1971. The conference considered the various concepts of culture, the right to culture, cultural democracy, cultural development as an essential dimension of development, and the relationship between culture and the other areas of the life of society. The conclusion, declaration and recommendation of the conference may help to broaden the views of our people.

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