By: Prof. Dr. Mohammad Tariqur Rahman

Referring to Article 16 and Article 19 of the Federal Constitution, Deputy Home Minister Datuk Seri Dr. Shamsul Anuar Nasarah during a Q&A session in the Senate on Dec 12 said, “The level of mastery of Bahasa Malaysia (BM) for citizenship applicants is given priority because this condition is enshrined in the Federal Constitution.”

That answers all the questions on the requirement of the ability to speak BM for foreigners who want to become Malaysian citizens.

Speaking the language of a country where we want to live as citizens is not just a requirement. That language must become part of our very existence. That language must flow in our blood. That language must come in our dreams.

Now, can we force a language to be part of our very existence, or can we force it into our blood?

A mother tongue spontaneously becomes part of our existence, not only because we learn to speak from the moment we start making meaningful sounds but also because we love the mother tongue.

This “love” is the key to making a language part of our existence.

We fall in love with something (or somebody) because it creates an unstoppable appeal to our hearts. It is not that we want to love at first sight – it is what we see or feel that makes us fall in love at first sight.

Can BM create that appeal to foreigners? For some yes. For others (perhaps many), it could be a “no-no”.

For work and living, I had the experience of spending time in countries that speak languages that are foreign to me: Flemish, English, Japanese, and finally BM.

I knew how to speak Vlaams (Flemish), yet I refused to speak Vlaams mainly for a few reasons. First, I had no problem communicating using English – my second language – in Belgium. The second reason is a couple of experiences that I had at the beginning that made me feel how inferior is my Vlaams-speaking ability. Eventually, I felt ashamed of my way of speaking Vlaams.

On the contrary, I loved to attempt to speak Nihongo during my brief stay in Japan. Mainly because Japanese people loved my incompetent broken Nihongo. The moment I spoke Nihongo with a Japanese whom I came to know for the first time – they would say, “Sugoi des ne” – “Beautiful it is”.

I felt comfortable, I felt love with “Nihongo”.

Maybe Malaysians do not have to say “bagusnya” to an alien pronunciation of their language but they could at least ignore incompetent and broken attempts by foreigners to speak BM. They could stop correcting or reminding the foreigners of the accurate pronunciation when someone attempts to speak.

I shall put aside my first encounters of attempting BM in Malaysia. Rather I shall confess my inability to overcome the embarrassment that I felt.

Dismally, until today after living in Malaysia for 18 years – I have yet to open myself up to speak BM.

Why did I fail to fall in love with BM? In addition to my inability, could it be, at least, partly due to a lack of appeal for BM?

Then who is responsible for creating such an appeal for BM? It is no other than the Malaysians.

Nevertheless, If anyone encounters rude treatment by any Malaysian or personnel in government offices for not being able to speak BM – no matter whether they are expected to speak the language – that sparks the repulsion for the language in the first place.

A kind and polite gesture, on the other hand, could make anyone fall in love with the language and the culture. More so, a rude encounter by any Malaysian could make the foreigner repulsive not only to the language but also to the Malaysian culture of “budi bahasa budaya kita”.

The ambiance of speaking BM in Malaysia could be much better too. In any gathering of Malaysians, I observed different races use their mother tongues to converse among themselves.

Malaysians prefer English over BM when two different races converse. The preference of multilingual races in Malaysia for English is to break the barriers to the rest of the world. Well, there is no barrier to break when a Malaysian converses with their fellow citizens inside Malaysia.

A lack of confidence in BM was also felt when English was introduced to teach science related subjects in schools. Albeit, countries like Japan and Germany did excel in science without English.

That raised the question if Malaysians love and have confidence in their Bahasa.

I hear a lot of stern reminders of the requirement of the ability to speak and write BM for those who want to aspire to become a Malaysian. But I don’t hear any loving invitation to embrace BM.

By all means, these are not excuses to ignore BM being in Malaysia or being a Malaysian.

If anyone wants to be a Malaysian they not only need to speak, but to love BM.


The author is the Associate Dean (Continuing Education), Faculty of Dentistry, and Associate Member, UM LEAD, Universiti Malaya. He may be reached at

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