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In what must be a world first, Bernama is reporting that the people over at Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) are mulling a new law to enforce “respect” for the national language replete with fines of up to RM50,000 and/or jail time.[1]

And if that wasn’t asinine enough, DBP says straight-faced that the hefty fines are “not to punish but to evoke love and patriotism for the country.” Hmmm. Hefty fines and jail sentences to promote love and patriotism? How does that work?  

The best response to this latest absurdity came from Darell Leiking, the Penampang MP: “I am holding back vulgarities – both in English and Malay – over this ridiculous and dull-witted proposal,” he said.[2] No doubt many Malaysians will heartily endorse his sentiments.

If you want to know what really disrespects a language and causes ridicule, look no further than the way they take an English word, tinker with its spelling and end up with a word that sounds very much like “semen” for cement!

If the government is really serious about wanting to promote the national language, it should just sack all the DBP board members who supported this absurd proposal and use the money to offer free language classes to everyone who wants to speak better Bahasa Melayu. There are, in fact, many ways to encourage greater use of the language; forcing people to respect the language is not one of them. Imposing fines for disrespecting the language only hardens resistance and increases resentment. 

But I suppose it sits well with a government that sees the need to control everything. We have laws that criminalise insults to the monarchy, laws to punish those who hurt the feelings of our thin-skinned but persistently boorish politicians. We have laws against disrespecting religion. We have laws to police what we say on Twitter or Facebook. We have rules to determine what we can or cannot wear when entering government offices, even which festivals are kosher and which are not. Why, we even have rules to cover how food items and alcoholic beverages can be named (hint: hotdogs and Timah whiskey are out).

When a government expends its energy on petty things like insults to language or the length of a woman’s skirt instead of focusing on real challenges like corruption, religious extremism and the plight of its struggling citizenry you know that it has lost the plot. No wonder many Malaysians simply give up and move away, fed up with all the insults to their intelligence.

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | Thursday, 23rd June 2022]

[1] Those who disrespect Bahasa Melayu may face legal action, says DBP board chairman | Malay Mail | 21 June 2022

[2] Warisan MP slams proposed fine, imprisonment for ‘disrespecting’ BM | FMT | 22 June 2022