Interview with HRH Raja Zarith

By Izzat Alhadjri, Liyana Farzana and Nishyodhan Balasundram

HRH Raja Zarith Sofiah Binti Almarhum Sultan Idris Shah read Chinese Studies at Somerville College, University of Oxford. Now the Chancellor of Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, she is also Royal Fellow of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (National University of Malaysia). She is also a columnist for The Star Malaysia newspaper.

Tuanku, you are famous for being a multi linguist. According to a study by the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, the Malay language is the 5th most used language in the world with 300 million users. How do you feel about Malaysians themselves who are not proficient enough in our national language?

I think they should be, but I do feel that they need help because one of the reasons why they are not proficient in Bahasa Malaysia is because they are schooled in vernacular schools. That is something I don’t agree with. If we have vernacular schools, they’d live in that kind of comfort zone so they didn’t have to speak Malay; unless they needed to go out to the shops or something. Ideally, I would like to see only one kind of school, where everybody was together, so you didn’t have a choice but to be friends with this Malay person or Chinese person or Indian person – they would just be put in a classroom; and you’d get along.

That’s what happened in my generation. I was in standard 6 in 1971 – before I left for boarding school in England. But I really feel that if you call yourself a Malaysian, you ought to be able to speak Bahasa, not the kind of deep or very sophisticated Bahasa, but enough to get by, enough to be able to communicate.

Having been trained in the field of linguistics, where do you stand, in the argument of whether to use English or Malay as the medium of instruction for the Science and Maths subjects, a matter which has seen major policy changes?

I feel it should be in English, for the simple reason that in Science especially, almost all the terms used are really in English – we just translate them; and even in Maths, when you have the Pythagoras Theorem and so on. The reason why I feel that we should have it in English – and this is something that I feel very strongly about – is because I see – apart from all of you who have had the benefit of going to university in an English speaking country – a lot of young people now, including the students I’ve met in local universities, who cannot express themselves in English. They’re too shy; they can probably read books and understand, but express themselves, they can’t.

I feel it should be more than just Science and Maths in English. I think there should be a few other subjects, like the English Language, where you’d have to write, say, an essay. I remember we used to do that in standard two, as soon as you came to school, the first thing you’d do was news. It made you become comfortable with writing something. So, I feel the English Language should really be more aggressively sought after because what I find very sad is that we used to be in the lead 40 years ago. We had people of my generation and the older ones, who could speak fluent English in and out of school. We could still speak in Malay, Tamil or Chinese. But we could converse in English. But now, there are not many young people who can do that. And when you’re trying to promote your country as a tourist hotspot, you need to be able to converse in English.

I’m really into English and I feel that we’ve lost the lead, and now, countries like Thailand, Vietnam and China, all the countries that did not have English at all in their curriculum or in their schools, are now getting better than us. And even the diplomats from these countries – Vietnam, Myanmar, you name it – are much better at speaking English than ours. So I think we really have to be more aggressive, especially when we think about the economy; if we want to make business deals with all the biggest companies, English is the language we’re going to use. Whether it is America, China or India, we still need that Lingua Franca whether we like it or not. We tend to confuse it by saying that if we speak English, we are glorifying our Colonial past, but English is not something completely British. It does not belong to the British. It also belongs to the Americans, the Australians, and the Canadians etc. So if you want to succeed in the global world now, you must be proficient in English.

So what do you think when people refer to countries like Japan, Korea, and Germany, where Maths and Science are taught in their mother tongues? Some point out and say this proves that English is not the sole criterion for success in Science and Technology.

I think they already have a good enough economy, and they are already in the lead in the production of cars and televisions etc, so they don’t need what we need to compete with other nations. We are talking about being in South East Asia; we can’t compare ourselves to Japan – they are already there, and they’ve been established for quite a long time.

If they wanted to teach Maths and the Sciences in their own language, they’d be okay. But we are a small country and we have to realise that. We have to be able to differentiate between having pride, and being arrogant. There’s a big difference there.

But I’ll be the first to say Negaraku, I’ll be the first to wear a Baju Kurung to represent my country, but at the same time, to impress, say the British or the Americans, we must be able to express yourself in English.

Marlborough College, Monash University and Nottingham University are foreign institutions that have set up branches in Malaysia. While it does provide an economic boost to the region, how do we ensure that local institutions will continue to grow despite strong competition from their counterparts?

The thing is that these colleges are expensive colleges. The average family will not be able to send their children to these colleges, so they’re going to be moving forward in parallel. These private colleges will go on, and our education system will be going ahead as well, without actually merging. I don’t think they will ever merge; there will be two separate paths. They already have their own curriculum and they know what they want. For the national schools, there is still a lot that needs to be done. All my children actually went to Sekolah Kebangsaan; in fact, my youngest son is currently in the same school as where his eldest brother went to, and the school has not changed. We’re talking about twenty years of difference. There’s a lot where I feel the education system in Malaysia can be improved; it needs very careful handling, and also from teachers themselves.

Tuanku, what are your views on the vernacular school system?

There’s a debate on whether the vernacular school system should be abolished or continued and yes, there are a lot of people who want the vernacular school system to go on, so the government is in a difficult situation – if they abolished it then there would be a group of people who would oppose this decision because they’d disagree with it, but then if they didn’t take steps then we would continue to have this problem where the children wouldn’t be able to speak the national language and there would be segregation between races. And basically it would be a Catch 22 situation.

I hope that we could somehow have fewer vernacular schools perhaps or come to a compromise. The problem is, for example, when these children grow up and go on to universities, they find it hard to adapt or to be friends with those who are of other races because they are so used to hanging around those of their own race and are so dependent on their mother tongues that communication itself becomes a hurdle.

Do you feel that the measures put in place by the government to tackle the problem of brain drain – for example, the setting up of TalentCorp – will be effective? What would you say to encourage Malaysians to return?

There has to be a lot more incentives, a lot more goodies to draw people back. There are reasons why maybe some students don’t want to come back. I’ve met people from Australia and the UK – students and working people – and they’re quite happy there. Not exactly having big wages or salaries, but they’re contented. So there has to be bigger incentives, like a house or a car.

The thing is, in the UK, they are very tolerant about what people wear, whether you’re covered up or not. I was at Westfield once and there were practically no white people there. That’s the thing about the British, they’re so wiling to accept you, and you can wear anything and yet walk down the street, whether you’re fully covered up or not and so forth. Over here people are a lot more judgmental. I think that could be one of the issues – that the people who live in the UK enjoy that freedom, and they don’t want to let go of it. If they came back, they’re afraid they would be pigeonholed.

Tuanku, Malaysian society is quite judgmental when it comes to issues such as HIV/AIDS or prostitution or homosexuality. These issues still arise but we tend to avoid bringing them into the public spotlight. What do you think is the best way to bring these issues out into the open?

Yes; like with HIV/AIDS, it’s actually quite bad especially amongst the Malays. I would say that 75%-85% of AIDS sufferers are Malays. You always think it is the homosexuals or the drug users, but actually the ones who are infected with HIV/AIDS are the women and children and the areas that are badly affected are the fishing villages. So the highest number of AIDS sufferers in Johor is Mersing, where there’re fishermen, and then in Kelantan and Terengganu.

You wouldn’t think that Kelantan and Terengganu would have the highest AIDS statistics but what happens is that the fishermen would go out to sea and where there are Thai boats, and these boats have women on them – Thai women. The men are with these women, and then they come home and then are with their wives and infect their wives and their babies, so then the wives and the babies have AIDS because of the men. So now, it’s not so much to do with the homosexuals and drug users – now, the big problems are women and children with AIDS. Most of the time, these children will not be accepted by their families. We had someone who spoke at the Red Crescent event that we had and the woman was in her 30s; her 1st child did not have HIV, but then her husband came back from a business trip and you know, she got pregnant and she was HIV positive and so was her baby. And her husband ran off even though it was him who infected her. So she was left with her newborn and she went to her in-laws and they chased her off. Can you imagine that? It was their son who infected her and yet they chased her away. So she’s now staying at Rumah Solehah. It’s about the only place that women and children can go to. It’s somewhere in Selangor. That is the reality of these AIDS sufferers, they are ostracised by their own family.

But back to the issue, I think one of the best ways is through the media, perhaps through a television or radio campaign. I find visual images is now the best way to appeal to the masses; we can see this through You tube’s popularity. If you have a campaign to break down the stereotypes of the issue like HIV/AIDS and show that the people who are suffering are the women and the children, that might have an impact. I have even heard of stories where a HIV positive child is admitted to a hospital and the nurses refuse to touch the child when the food is brought, instead, they just leave the tray there. That’s why we need a lot more awareness campaigns and these stories need to get across so that people change their perceptions.

I think a lot of it needs to start from school, and when I say ‘start from school’ I mean that it has to be from primary school because children absorb what we say; especially what their parents say.

This may come across as a cliché question, but how do you feel about the 1Malaysia concept?


I think that the idea of 1Malaysia is good – we forget about our differences – and that we should be thinking about ourselves as Malaysians and not according to our races. But at the same time I don’t think that we should forget our own cultural heritage because I think that each race has something that they can be proud of, from the way they dress, their history, their religion. I believe everybody should be proud of their religion and it is our diversity that gives Malaysia her richness. This richness is the reason why we’re not a boring country!

So I think in theory, 1Malaysia is good. However, whether it works or not, now that is a different issue. Because we’ve had periods before that where we’ve had clashes and so on, and even now, instances like the Cow’s-Head protest and the Church bombings should not have occurred.

So I think the Prime Minister is trying to show people that this is not the way to behave. I think the fact that he’s gone to have a meeting with the Pope is significant. Even the King of Saudi Arabia has met the pope.This is something that I feel strongly about – interfaith and interracial issues. Sadly, I don’t see enough of it going around. Because as a Muslim, I think we want to preach about our religion to others but at the same time we don’t want to know about their religions and it should work both ways you know? If you want others to respect us, we should also respect them.

I would like to see more interfaith dialogues where I learn about your religion and you learn about mine. Because that’s the only way, unless you are ready to learn and accept what other people feel and believe in, you’re going to live in a bubble and it won’t work.

The aim of this summit is to empower student leaders, how different is student activism when comparing the time when you were in Oxford and now?

Because there were so few of us Malaysians in the United Kingdom in those days, we actually had to join in with the Singaporeans. So we had the Oxford Malaysian Singaporean Association (OMSA), which is still there I believe. What I remember are the good things – like we’d have meetings in different colleges and we’d bring our own food for Chinese New Year or Hari Raya, and everybody would cook together and do the cleaning after. I only did the washing up though because I couldn’t cook! And it was great – we were a very small community.

I think it’s different now in the UK, because you have so many Malaysian students in each university, some have hundreds. I’ve heard that it can be like a kampung sometimes, like in London. I don’t know how true that is. I’ve even heard Malay being spoken when walking down Oxford Street!

The thing is I’ve heard this about some students: they don’t want to leave their comfort zones because it’s too comfortable – being around Malaysians, being able to speak Malay all the time and eat Malay food. I feel that when you are there, you should take advantage of it because you will never get it again, even if when you are older, even if you get to live in a foreign country, it will not be the same.

Lastly, personally, how can the royal family initiate positive change in society? For example, recently you and your family continued the late Sultan’s legacy of the Kembara Mahkota Johor.

Through education perhaps, and championing this cause. Also, when you talk about this 1Malaysia concept, the fact is the royal families feel that their rakyat come from all different races. That’s why my husband says “People in Johor are all my rakyat, whether they are Malays or not” and the role of the sultan is to protect his rakyat; so in that sense, of course we can use our roles to encourage the idea of unity, that we are all Malaysians. There are a lot more ways, but this is one of them.

Thank you Tuanku.


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