Tamils - a Trans State Nation..

"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home > Tamils - a Nation without a State> Malaysia >  Malaysian Tamils and Tamil Linguistic Culture - Harold F. Schiffman

Tamils - a Nation without a State

Malaysia - மலேசியா
- an estimated 1,060,000 Tamils live in Malaysia -


Malaysian Tamils and Tamil Linguistic Culture

Harold F. Schiffman
University of Pennsylvania

31 December 1998

"The purpose of this paper is to examine the position of Tamil as an ethnic minority and language in Malaysia, and to make some predictions about the prognosis for survival of Tamil in the twenty-first century. Tamils are the largest of the language groups that form the `Indian' minority in Malaysia, which constitutes around 9% of the population, or 1.5 million. Within this number, people classified as Tamil-speaking are about 85%.... .. (But) increasing number of Tamils ... are not actually Tamil speakers.... The Tamil language will probably survive in Malaysia into the twenty-first century, but perhaps only in isolated rural pockets, or as the language of a marginalized urban underclass... Tamil has no economic value in Malaysia, and is therefore maintained by the socio-economically destitute as a last vestige of primordial ethnicity. Since even in the developed western countries (e.g. the US) a similarly destitute urban underclass persists, and continues to maintain its own variety of English despite teachers' attempts to extirpate it, the prognosis for Tamil is unlikely to be any different in Malaysia"

Comment by tamilnation.org The words of Eamon de Valera On Language & the Irish Nation on 17 March 1943 may bear repetition here - " For many the pursuit of the material life is a necessity... A section of our people have not yet this minimum. They rightly strive to secure it and it must be our aim and the aim of all who are just and wise to assist in that effort. But many have got more than is required and are free, if they choose, to devote themselves more completely to cultivating the things of the mind and, in particular, those that make us out as a distinct nation. The first of these latter is the national language. It is for us what no other language can be. It is our very own. It is more than a symbol, it is an essential part of our nationhood. It has been moulded by the thought of a hundred generations of our forebears. In it is stored the accumulated experience of a people... The Irish language spoken in Ireland today is the direct descendant without break of the language our ancestors spoke in those far off days. A vessel for three thousand years of our history, the language is for us precious beyond measure. As the bearer to us of a philosophy, of an outlook on life deeply Christian and rich in practical wisdom, the language today is worth far too much to dream of letting it go. To part with it would be to abandon a great part of ourselves, to loose the key to our past, to cut away the roots from the tree. With the language gone we could never again aspire to being more than half a nation..."

The purpose of this paper is to examine the position of Tamil as an ethnic minority and language in Malaysia, and to make some predictions about the prognosis for survival of Tamil in the twenty-first century. Tamils are the largest of the language groups that form the `Indian' minority in Malaysia, which constitutes around 9% of the population, or 1.5 million. Within this number, people classified as Tamil-speaking are about 85%.

Below I will deal with the subject of the increasing number of Tamils who are not actually Tamil speakers. In a fairly recent compendium of articles on South Asian immigrants in Southeast Asia (Sandhu and Mani, eds. 1993) over half of the articles are devoted to the question of Indian communities in Malaysia--nineteen out of a total of 37, the rest being devoted to Brunei, Indonesia, Myanmar (Burma), the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.

All of them see the situation of Indians in Malaysia as somehow problematical, whether it be the preferences given to Bumiputra Malaysians over immigrant Indians, the socio-economic conditions affecting plantation workers or the educational opportunities provided their children.

I will try in this talk is to place the issue of Tamil language and language maintenance within the larger scheme of the future of the Indian community in Malaysia, and see whether we can predict a prognosis for the survival of Tamil, and indeed the survival of a Tamil-speaking minority, in Malaysia in the twenty-first century. Contrast this with the articles on Singapore, where the future of Indians in Singapore is described as ``not without promise." (Sandhu 1993:787, op. cit.) .

In fact the future of Indians in Singapore may be more secure than the languages spoken by them; what would happen if all Singapore Indians were to become English speakers, and how this would fit the wishes of the Chinese majority is another question. In a sense, this paper will somewhat resemble a book review of that portion of the Sandhu and Mani volume devoted to Malaysia, for it provides the most up-to-date research on the general problems facing Tamils (and other Indian immigrant communities) in Malaysia.

What it does not do is to discuss in very great detail the fate of the Tamil language in Malaysia, and here is where I must fill in with my own very inadequate observations. When the request to appear on this panel came, I had hopes to be doing research on the question by means of a Fulbright grant in Malaysia and Singapore; the research clearance for Malaysia came too late for me to do any but the most perfunctory kind of research into this issue, but many of the observations I made in Singapore are pertinent, though one must be careful to not overgeneralize.

Language policy in Malaysia is a topic that cannot be openly discussed without fear of being charged under the Sedition Act of 1948.The policy, as stated in the Constitution (Amendment) Act, 1971, is that the status of Malay as official and other languages as tolerated, ``may no longer be questioned, it being considered that such a sensitive issue should for ever be removed from the arena of public discussion." (Suffian bin Hashim, 1976:324) It is only one of those taboo issues (the place of Islam, the special status of Malays) that may not be discussed in Malaysia, for fear of disturbing certain ethnic sensibilities.

Therefore the only writing one finds on the topic of language policy are filiopietistic articles extolling the virtue of the system, its natural fairness, its commitment to building up the national culture, and so forth. It can be described, but it cannot be criticized, so criticism of it will only be made outside the country.

Internal critics must therefore tread lightly. Recently the government of Malaysia itself made some moves that violated, in some people's views, its own policy toward Bahasa Malaysia. That was the proposal, made early in 1994, to allow some science teaching to go on in English, because of the generally low level of knowledge of English among Malaysians (code for: among Malays) which would jeopardize Malaysia's ability to modernize and become an industrialized nation any time soon. The Prime Minister himself defended this proposal, but he had to immediately contend with massive criticism from the association of Malay teachers, who vowed to ``not give an inch" to such a ``drastic" change in the language policy.

That this should cause such a furor must be viewed in terms of the issues it covertly raises. The problem is not that there is an inadequate knowledge of English among Malaysian citizens, such that would jeopardize Malaysia's ability to participate in scientific developments.

The problem is that though Malaysians of Indian and Chinese background do quite well in English, and often must seek higher education abroad (though English medium) because they are denied access to Malaysian institutions of higher learning due to the ethnic quotas, the problem is that there are not Malays or Bumiputras whose knowledge of English is adequate. Thus if English-knowing non-Bumiputras are allowed to dominate the scientific fields, even if it would help Malaysia to modernize, this will not help the Malays, so it cannot be allowed to happen.

What apparently would be the ideal solution would be a policy to help Malays learn enough English to study science, but not permit this for non-Bumiputras. Such a policy would be too blatantly unfair, and therefore impossible to implement and defend, so it cannot be formulated as such.

My original stated goal for this paper was to establish how the Tamils of Malaysia were maintaining their language in the face of a national language policy that emphasizes integration through Bahasa Malaysia and Islam. Since the Tamils are known for their intense language loyalty in India and Sri Lanka, I was expecting to find that their love of the language and intense language maintenance efforts, manifested in India and Sri Lanka with strong opposition to Hindi, Sanskrit and English.

The current antipathy is strongest against Hindi and is known as Hindi etirppu; the opposition to Sanskrit was stronger several decades ago, and the opposition to English is mainly to English loan words being borrowed into Tamil (angliak kalappu), not to English as an instrument or as a language per se.

The opposition to Sanskrit has had the effect of ridding the written language of almost all traces of loan words from that language; in the spoken language, where no overt rules are prescribed, Hindi, Sanskrit, English, Portuguese and other loan words abound. would result in effective language maintenance within the Malaysian context.

The approach taken by the Tamils is known as corpus planning or corpus treatment by sociologists of language; it is perceived by Tamils to be the most important kind of language maintenance, but in this day and age it may in fact have little relevance in contexts such as Malaysia and Singapore.

Language maintenance in Tamilnadu, and in contested Sri Lanka, also involves status management, I prefer the terms `corpus management' and `status management' to `planning' or `treatment'.and various measures have been undertaken to restrict the domains of Hindi, Sanskrit and English (in Tamilnadu), and Sinhala (in Sri Lanka) so that Tamil can recapture the domains of elementary and secondary education, the media, and so forth.

This has been more successful in terms of keeping back Hindi and Sanskrit, but in the case of Sinhala, of course, things have degenerated into civil war. In the case of English, which is perceived in some ways as a buffer against Hindi (and Sinhala) efforts are ambivalent, and many of those who decry angilak kalappu use English and even send their children to English-medium schools.

The result is that English is still the main language of higher education in Tamilnadu; in Sri Lanka the battle to replace English with Sinhala, even in higher education, has been much more intense. In India, of course, the central government has no control over local educational policies, so no attempt to impose Hindi as a medium of instruction in Tamilnadu universities and colleges has ever been, or will ever be, attempted.

In Malaysia (and in Singapore) language policy is not set by the Tamils, and Tamils are therefore in the position that Telugu speakers or Kannada speakers are in Tamilnadu: they are a tiny minority, have no say in overall policy formulation, and are suffered to maintain their languages only for elementary education, if there.

One of the great weaknesses of Indian language policy is the very weak provisions for language groups who live in territories where they are in the minority. It is fine to be a Telugu speaker in Andhra Pradesh; it is not so fine to be one in Kerala, Karnataka or Tamilnadu, and the constitutional provisions to protect such groups are noticeably without teeth. Each linguistic state, having driven out the perceived oppressor and established its own linguistic regime, turns out to be an even more ferocious oppressor of its own linguistic minority groups.

Educational Policy

A word of background is in order here on what languages may be used in education in Malaysia. In ``National Schools" Malay is the medium of elementary education; Tamil and/or Chinese may be taught if there are 15 students who petition for it. Otherwise, Tamil and Chinese medium ``National-type" Schools may exist, and they receive varying degrees of government support; Chinese schools tend to reject total subvention, in order to maintain more control. At the secondary level, Malay medium is the only publicly-supported schooling available. Privately-supported Chinese schools do exist, but there are none for Tamil, since the Tamil community can not afford this luxury. Again, at the secondary level, Tamil and Chinese may be taught as a subject if 15 students request it. The Malaysian constitution provides guarantees for the use of these languages in the above ``unofficial contexts", i.e. they are officially tolerated (also some use in broadcasting, the Department of Indian Studies at the U Malaya, and support for teacher training) but this official tolerance is thought of as unofficial since only Malay may be official.

The German sociologist of language Heinz Kloss provides a list of language-maintenance strategies that enhance or hinder language maintenance by minority groups in immigrant societies like the United States (Kloss 1966, in Fishman 1966). One of the factors that enhances language maintenance is ``pre-immigration experience with language maintenance", particularly in dealing with linguistic suppression in the form of underground resistance to education in another language medium, self-help language schools, etc. Groups that were already ready to cope with language maintenance in their home country because of suppression there, such as the Poles under Czarist Russian rule, were more able to ``hit the ground running", as it were, perhaps because the notions that widespread community involvement was important, everyone had to participate in order to make it work, everyone had to be eternally vigilant, etc., were accepted.

Tamils who came to Malaysia and other parts of Southeast Asia brought strategies with them that were developed in their home country, and at first these strategies seemed to work. Essentially these strategies were:

All schooling through elementary levels should be in Tamil only.
The kind of Tamil needed was whatever was being developed in India and no adaptations or compromises to local conditions were necessary, or even permissible.
English could be admitted at the higher levels and would in fact be quite useful in the new environment.
Any other local languages that were useful or necessary (e.g. Malay) could also be acquired for auxiliary use, but should not be given first or even second priority.

In the plantation economy of 19th century Malaya and the Straits Settlements, these strategies worked quite well. Most Tamils of the period came with the intention of returning to India at some point; British education favored Malay only, and no schools in other language were supported by the colonial power. Tamils of the more educated classes (actually many were from Sri Lanka) worked as clerks and supervisors and their knowledge of English was an advantage to them in this situation, since neither the Malays nor Chinese seemed to want to require English education.

Plantation Tamils did learn some Malay, enough to get around and do their work, but in few cases if any did it actually supplant Tamil.Only the very anciently-settled and assimilated Chitty Tamil community in Melaka had become Malay speakers; more recently arrived Tamils did not. A great cultural barrier for most Tamils, though not all, was Islam, which served to isolate and contain them.

Again a strategy brought from India (keep clear of Islam) helped maintain the linguistic isolation. Knowledge of Tamil was necessary to be a good Hindu; it would not constitute a path to Islam. The few Tamil Muslims that came at this period were indeed in a different kind of situation, and assimilation through intermarriage of Indian Muslims and Malays did occur, but mostly with North Indian Muslims and Malays, not Tamils. For better or worse, Tamil Muslims tended to remain solidary with Tamil non-Muslims, and cooperated with them in language maintenance.

Though Tamils thought that the strategies delineated above would serve them well in Malaya, these strategies have become increasingly problematical after independence and under the threat of Malaysia's very stringent language policy. I hypothesize that the strategies brought from India have not been adapted, in fact may not be adaptable, in the current environment, and are not serving the cause of Tamil language maintenance.

But this is not the whole story. Another all-pervasive and inescapable fact about Indians in Southeast Asia, and especially in Malaya, is the fragmentary and disunited nature of the community. This is manifested in different ways:

Indians come from a number of different parts of the subcontinent, and do not all speak the same language.
Indians are settled in many different localities, often separated from and in isolation from others of their own kind.
Within any given language group, there are the usual splits involving caste, religion, and class. Even if all Tamils were concentrated in one area, there would be differences that are perceived as unbridgeable. The gulf between Sri Lanka Tamils (Rajakrishnan 1993), who acted as overseers and clerks, and laborer Tamils (from India) was vast.

This fragmentation and segmentation has remained until the present time, and underlies many of the current problems facing the Indian community in Malaysia. As far as Tamils are concerned, it works against language maintenance in a number of important ways, and combined with the inadequate and inappropriate language maintenance strategies brought from India, is now taking its toll on the Tamil language.

A New Factor: Urban Squatter Settlements

The previously described situation, in which Tamil communities either consisted of rural estate workers or urbanized middle-class Tamils is now complicated by a third factor, the urban squatter settlement populated by Tamils who have left the plantations and are now working in various low-paying jobs in urban areas such as Kuala Lumpur, Johore Baru, and Penang.

They congregate in squatter settlements (Rajoo 1993, in Sandhu and Mani 1993) and send their children to Tamil medium schools.In at least one case I know of, the urban area has come to the plantation--the Kuala Lumpur megalopolis has sprawled out into Selangor State to engulf former plantation land, which has been converted into luxury housing, but the Tamil school and a squatter zone continue to exist, cheek by jowl with the fancy housing.

Such schools persist in their substandard conditions, despite their status as "National-type" schools, which should receive state subsidies, but are provided with very little other than teachers' salaries. [Also not a new paragraph] For whatever reasons these communities still choose Tamil medium, the general overall economic and cultural destitution of these groups means that Tamil medium prepares them for nothing but the substandard conditions they have always had--they work at part-time jobs, in factories at the lowest level, as messengers and sweepers, and have the highest rate of single-parent families, alcoholism, crime, prostitution and all the other social evils of the modern urban underclass.

One Tamil stated to me that it appeared that the Tamils are and will always be the ``niggers" of Malaysia; he saw no way for these Tamils to break out of this cycle and move up the socio-economic ladder. Those that manage to do so, by attendance at National Schools, will leave the Tamil language behind. In his view, Tamil will only survive in Malaysia if Tamils remain poor and at the lowest level of society.

We therefore now have two language strategies employed by the Tamil ``community" in Malaysia. One continues to prefer Tamil schooling; the other abjures Tamil schooling and is economically motivated to prefer Malay and English; Tamil may remain as a home language, but in many cases not even this happens. This is not to point the finger; this strategy, of embracing English to the detriment of Tamil, is in fact a survival mechanism engendered by the national language policy. Several elements of that policy conspire to cause this:

  • Admission to Higher education is controlled by ethnic quotas, and seats are reserved on an ethnic basis. If certain ethnic groups do not use their seats, they are not relinquished to another group, they are simply not filled. The group that is not filling its quota is the bumiputra group. Indians and Chinese who would otherwise be qualified for these seats must go abroad for higher education.Consider a comparison with a transportation model: imagine an airline that assigned seats on its flights by ethnic quota; if certain seats are not filled because not enough members of a certain ethnic group made reservations, the flight leaves with empty seats, and members of other ethnicities are obliged to travel by some other mode of transportation.
  • Since it cannot be determined in advance who will be admitted and who will not, students must plan for the eventuality of expatriation in order to get higher education. Planning for expatriation means English proficiency must be high.
  • Students who go abroad for education often do not return, but obtain jobs elsewhere.. The cost of this `brain drain' for Malaysia is immense, since, whatever else anyone cares about who gets educated, a tremendous amount of foreign exchange is leaving the country to finance this drain, and if the students do not return (and why indeed should they?) the cost of their education is lost to Malaysia.
  • Students who otherwise might want to return to Malaysia to work have other barriers to face. One is quotas for certain jobs; another is barriers to degree-holders from certain countries. The general atmosphere is one of not being wanted. In face of this, the strategy of planned expatriation via English is not hard to understand.
  • This strategy of course colludes with other strategies mentioned above, such as the predilection of (educated) Tamilians to learn English, the strategy of maintaining a puristic Tamil which has no economic value, and is therefore perceived as useless, and the strategy of non-cooperation with other similar groups.

Summary and Conclusions: The Tamil language will probably survive in Malaysia into the twenty-first century, but perhaps only in isolated rural pockets, or as the language of a marginalized urban underclass. When all is said and done, it is less the overt language policy (as enshrined in the Malaysian Constitution) that determines this outcome than the socio-economic history and present conditions of the Tamil community in Malaysia. Tamil has no economic value in Malaysia, and is therefore maintained by the socio-economically destitute as a last vestige of primordial ethnicity. Since even in the developed western countries (e.g. the US) a similarly destitute urban underclass persists, and continues to maintain its own variety of English despite teachers' attempts to extirpate it, the prognosis for Tamil is unlikely to be any different in Malaysia.


Kloss, Heinz. 1966. ``German-American Language Maintenance Efforts." in J. Fishman (ed.) Language Loyalty in the United States. The Hague: Mouton.
Marimuttu, T. 1993. ``The Plantation School as an Agent of Social Reproduction." in Sandhu and Mani (eds.) 1993, pp. 465-483.
Rajakrishnan, R. 1993. ``Social Change and Group Identity among the Sri Lankan Tamils." in Sandhu and Mani (eds.) 1993, pp. 541-557.
Rajoo, R. 1993. ``Indian Squatter Settlers: Indian Rural-Urban Migration in West Malaysia." in Sandhu and Mani (eds.) 1993, pp. 484-503.
Suffian bin Hashim, Tun Mohamed. 1976. An Introduction to the Constitution of Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur: Ibrahim bin Johari, Government Printer.
Sandhu, K. S. and A. Mani. 1993. Indian Communities in Southeast Asia. Singapore: Times Academic Press and Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.




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