*This article was originally written in BM. Click here to read it on SOSCILI.
We tend to think of the first PM of Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahman, as well-loved and respected by the rakyat. After all, he was an icon. But just 10 years after Merdeka, on 3 March 1967, an angry mob set fire to an effigy (paper cutout) of Tunku! Along with it, they burned an Utusan Melayu article written in Jawi and branded the newspaper “pengkhianat” (traitor) and “pengampu UMNO” (UMNO puppets).
“One guy who couldn’t control his emotions even tried to push Utusan Melayu photographer, Hussein Nor, into the flames, during the burning of the article, but was he held back by Utusan reporter Taib Ahmad.” – Zainuddin Maidin, former Utusan Melayu Editor-in-Chief
In the climax of the protest, the crowd of 2,000 people carried a coffin painted with the words ‘Perkara 152’ from Dewan Bahasa Pustaka (the government department responsible for upholding use of the Malay language and literature), and marched it to Tunku’s house and to Parliament.
Merdeka from the British already still want to use English?
But when Dewan Rakyat tabled the Language Bill 1967, the transition period was abandoned. During the 10 years, it was said that the country (in general) failed to improve BM vocabulary, there were not enough BM teachers and lecturers in schools/unis, and BM was seen as worth teaching only as a language subject, or for literature, not the science field. Malay NGOs were furious to find that some provisions in the Bill maintained English in some areas, especially in the court system.
So, the literary community formed a movement, Barisan Bertindak Bahasa Kebangsaan (BBBK), to uphold Article 152… hence the words ‘Perkara 152’ on the coffin, symbolising the ‘death’ of the Malay language.
They marched to Parliament led by Syed Nasir Ismail (DBP Director), Abdullah Hussain, Usman Awang (both novelists and National Laureates [aka Sasterawan Negara]) and a number of language advocates. Addressing the crowd, Syed Nasir’s voice was choked with emotion as tears rolled down his face:
“I cry not because I am afraid, but my tears come from my heart, as I ponder the fate of my nation. I cannot do and say anything right now. I am bound. One day when I’m no longer bound, I will pour it out to the people. Now there are attempts to destroy me, to degrade me…” – Syed Nasir, DWP Director, quoted from Utusan Malaysia (28 Feb 2010)
Nevertheless, the Government was adamant in keeping English as a second language. So did the incident really come to nothing? Not quite…
Two months later when May 13 happened, everything changed. It was a catalyst to make BM the main medium of communication. As a result, English SJKs were abolished and turned into Sekolah Kebangsaan. Additionally, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) was formed as an alternative to the British-established Universiti Malaya. This was DBP’s greatest victory to date… but is it really over?
Actually, there have been repeats of Coffin 152 protests throughout our history
You know that at one point, schoolkids learnt Science and Mathematics in English. This programme was called the Dual Languauge Programme (DLP) or Pembelajaran & Pengajaran Sains & Matematik dalam Bahasa Inggeris (PPSMI). It was implemented during Tun Dr. Mahathir’s time as PM in 2003.
However, some people were against this policy, specifically a group called Gabungan Persatuan Penulis Nasional (GAPENA), which at first protested with a soft approach. Later they became more aggressive in protesting PPSMI, forming the more hardline Gerakan Mansuh PPSMI (GMP), led by none other than A. Samad Said.
Keranda 152 surfaced again on 7 Mar 2009, when thousands marched in protest from Masjid Negara to Istana Negara carrying a, yep, coffin with the words “Keranda 152”. It was chaotic! There was clashes with the cops and tear gas. This was A. Samad Said’s first time experiencing tear gas:
“Saya berjalan (ke istana), sepatutnya diiringi dengan motokar. Rupa-rupanya begini caranya untuk menyelamatkan bahasa.” – A. Samad Said, National Laureate, Malaysiakini
The protesters submitted a memorandum detailing the ‘suffering’ of students having to cope with learning in English throughout those 6 years. In the end, Education Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced PPSMI would be abolished by 2012.
Then there was another incident in 2016, when PEMANDU proposed a secret idea to implement DLP in 300 public schools. They would teach Science, Mathematics, IT and Design in English and use the language as the main medium… but secretly. When word got out, well there was a big hooha, then start again la the protest. This time the protests were decidedly less chaotic, more of a peaceful nature, but the Coffin was still the main feature. It just refuses to stay buried!
Now Mahathir wants to bring PPSMI back…. UH-OHHH
Recently on 28 Feb, Mahathir said that they might consider bringing PPSMI back if Pakatan Harapan wins in GE14.
“Jika majoriti rakyat mahukan PPSMI dikembalikan semula, kita akan laksanakan. Terpulang kepada rakyat dan kita akan pertimbangkan jika itu yang mereka mahu.” – he told reporters, quoted on Astro Awani
Honestly, the argument FOR and AGAINST the dual language programme has been discussed to death. You know la, how it goes. People who dowan it say it will split the next generation in half – one will be thinking in an English language-based culture, and another thinking in our native language. Others say teachers can’t cope with teaching in English coz their own grasp of the subject is poor.
K, let’s not go down the rabbit hole with the fors and againsts.
At this point in time, we don’t have PPSMI, but we have MBMMBI… what dis?? The Memartabatkan Bahasa Malaysia dan Memperkukuhkan Bahasa Inggeris (MBMMBI) policy does as its name suggests, to uphold BM as the official national language but also to strengthen English among students. It has two programmes under its belt, High Immersive Programme (HIP) and Dual Language Programme (DLP). With HIP, it’s all about having English language activities and stuff, while DLP gives schools the option to teach STEM subjects in English.
For Mahathir, he supports PPSMI because he worries that Malaysians will be left behind as the world progresses in science.
So will Coffin 152 rise from the grave and make a comeback? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯