The protestors were marching to the Palace to ask the King to intervene in a row over schools teaching science and maths in English, instead of the Malay language. At least 124 people were detained, following what protestors said was a peaceful march. Police said organisers had earlier agreed to send in only representatives to the Palace, but opposition parties like PAS and Keadilan had turned it into a demonstration. Language, race and religion are sensitive issues in multiracial Malaysia.
Presenter: Sen Lam
Speaker: Professor Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, Director of the Institute of Ethnic Studies at University Kebangsaan in Kuala Lumpur
SHAMSUL: A couple of years ago in 2003 when Mahathir was still the prime minister, he introduced the medium of instruction for the teaching of science into English instead of Malay on the basis that this will expedite the process of English learning and to respond to global demand. So I think this is basically the issue that was very hot in the last couple of months.
LAM: Is there a fear amongst the Malay community that the Malay language is being sidelined here?
SHAMSUL: I think it's not so much the fear. The question now is that science in a new language. Using Malay to learn science is new because we have humanities and social sciences using Malay. So Malay is never sidelined in a sense. But for 35 years we have learnt science in Malay and it has caused a lot of problems for students to transfer from Malay to English. And it has taken them four years now and the results not been very good, and I think they're very unhappy.
LAM: But didn't the same thing happen 35 years ago when they switched everything from English to Malay, and the non-Malay students had to contend with that and they did reasonably well?
SHAMSUL: Well I think we're not talking about non-Malay students here because the Chinese are remaining to teach in English and Maths in Mandarin. So the issue is not the Chinese, the Chinese are happy. I think the Malays are not happy. Why is their language only, changed to English, but not the Chinese. And they clearly are not implementing this policy. So I think there is a twist of things that people don't actually highlight, that the Chinese remains to teach in Mandarin.
LAM: Well Malaysians still have to use English in trade and to deal with neighbouring countries. Do you think the Malaysian authorities are conscious of not handicapping Malaysians because of English language deficiencies?
SHAMSUL: Well nobody denies that. I mean not even in China. The question is do you like to consult or not to consult people? I think that's the issue, because when it was made the decision was made in UMNO and then brought to the cabinet. At no time people were consulted. So I think there is a wise thing to do, to consult people, so I think people are not happy because of that - not so much denying the importance of English.
LAM: Why do you think UMNO, the ruling party pushed this through with such insufficient consultation with its constituency?
SHAMSUL: Well during Mahathir's time many things were pushed through without consultation, and many of them were worked and some of them don't work. And one of those that didn't work is this particular policy.
LAM: And Shamsul finally are you surprised that 30 years after the May 13th riots or 40 years after the May 13th riots that race and language are still sensitive issues in Malaysia?
SHAMSUL: It's going to go on for another 400 years because that's how the society is constructed. Unless everything is changed again. But I don't think anything will be changed in Malaysia - race, religion will remain there despite the people wanting to overcome that and forget about that because that's what it's going to be, structurally.