ROAD SIGNS NOT A GOOD SIGN! by Chandra Muzaffar
The decision of the Penang state government to put up road signs in different languages within the island's heritage enclave is ill-conceived as it is unwise.
That it will help foreign visitors to the enclave to understand Penang's heritage better is a facile argument. In many of the heritage cum historical sites that I have visited in other countries, the authorities provide some explanation of their significance in an international language such as English. This practice of providing information to the foreign visitor in an international language should be encouraged. However, it should be distinguished from the proposal to have road signs in different languages.
Road signs whether they are in heritage enclaves or elsewhere are often in the language of the land. Since Bahasa Malaysia is our sole official language, it is the language that should be used for official purposes which under article 152(6) of the Federal Constitution include the activities of local authorities like the Penang City Council. Putting up road signs in other languages such as Chinese, Tamil or English conveys the impression that they are also "official languages", on the same level as Malay.
This in fact diminishes the status of Malay since the language --- unlike all the other languages --- has a special relationship with the land. It is the language that defines the nation's identity. It is the language that is most intimately associated with the history and evolution of what is today Malaysia. For centuries it has served as a language of inter-ethnic communication a lingua franca --- within the larger Malay world. Today, it is perceived as a principal channel for forging solidarity among Malaysia's multi-cultural population. It is because of what Bahasa Malaysia means to the nation that the decision of the Penang state government has elicited such an adverse reaction from writers, academics, activists and politicians.
The truth is putting up road signs in Chinese has been part of the politics of Chinese based political parties for a few decades. As soon as the Gerakan came to power in Penang in May 1969, party functionaries sought to put up road signs in Chinese. Because of the Emergency and NOC (National Operations Council) rule, the plan was abandoned. In the March 2008 Election campaign, the DAP pledged to put up multi-lingual road signs if it captured the state. The Gerakan, now in the opposition, taunted the DAP by putting up six road signs in Chinese in July. Through subtle manipulation of Georgetowns heritage status, the DAP is now seeking to prove to the electorate that it has kept its word.
Communal posturing of this sort is a bane upon ethnic relations. After 51 years of Merdeka, one would expect DAP and Gerakan leaders, and indeed, all Malaysians, whatever their political hue or ethnic affiliation, to possess a more profound understanding of the foundations of the Malaysian nation. It is because they lack such a perspective that many of them cannot appreciate what primacy of Bahasa Malaysia means in the psychological and sociological sense.
28 October 2008.