In Part 3 of a series, Sinjoro Eng talks about unity versus culture.

“How many ethnic tribes are there in Malaysia?”

If you were asked this question, what would be your answer ?

Three decades ago, you might positively get this reply:

“Three races.”

Perhaps, you might get :

“Many — I don’t how many.”

Of late, you could hear people adding Iban and Kadazan-Dusun to the list of languages in Malaysia.

For years, I have been searching for this answer too. Malaysians are not able to tell the world how many ethnic tribes are living together in Malaysia like Chinese can, for instance. (‘ We have 56 ethnic tribes in China.’) The Vietnamese are also able to tell you that there are 54 ethnic tribes in Vietnam. Even the Indonesians can tell you there are more than 600 ethnic tribes in their country.

I tried hard to search for such data after years of missing out the report in The Star which reported that there are 214 ethnic tribes in Malaysia. The report was deleted from the The Star news portal not long after it was published.

What is the population censorship board doing ? After 13 general elections, we still cannot complete documenting the different ethnicities in Malaysia. But instead conducting this census properly, the authority is damping everything together in the name of ‘unity’.

Many Malaysians who support this form of assimilation have even suggested via political parties that we erase all the ethnic tribes options in the application forms and just put in one word: ‘Malaysian’.

I believe that if Malaysia takes that path, it will be a big mistake. All the races will as good as be wiped out from this earth. At least one hundred languages will be killed with this silly form of ‘unity’.

What I worry about more is how long would it take for the Orang Asli languages to be forgotten, not only by their respective children, but also the world.

In Malaysia, we have many NGOs but there is not a single NGO which looks into the extinction of languages, or in more simple terms, study the death of languages. There are animal rescue teams but the language and culture of the people is apparently worth less than the life of a cat or a dog.

Is there a way that we can live in ‘unity’ without killing any one language off in the process of nation building ?

I do not know how many Orang Asli languages there are in my beloved country. I only depend on the Wikipedia data and other minor resources which I can obtain from the search engine.

Are the Selatar people still able to speak their language after this short film was made?

Though I do not totally agree with the talk, however, it is worth a watch.


Featured image is of Taiwan’s indigenous Bunun tribe by Ralph Repo on flickr.

After watching the 8 minutes short film of the late Dr Claude Piron on the chanllenge of language, Sinjoro ENG has himself revolutionised. Watch it and see whether the short film will touch you too.

3 replies on “The Soul Dies When Language is Buried — Part 3”

  1. Saluton Musa

    I did not know whether you did watch other films by UNESCO pertaining to the language and culture. If you do not , please do so.

    I just wondered you ate the dumplings and sang the poems of ?? in English would be more comfortable or in Chinese langauge, can be putong hua ???or dialects ???

    You would use English to sing Kerongcong or the Malay language

    The disappearing of Baba dan Nyonya language and culture is not mentioned in my articles but hope you could pay a little attention to it.

    Perhaps, the Dondang Sayang should be made into the funk music and sing in English :)

  2. Sinjoro Eng,

    Thank you for trying to educate a linguistic neanderthal like me.

    Whilst I may disagree with you that language and/or culture will be lost if we become unifies as "Malaysians", I am quite surprised that we don't really have a register of the number of different tribes in Malaysia.

    To be honest, I am not too sure which Minister would be responsible for compiling this information. One can only hope someone will take up this cause.

    Looking forward to the fourth part in the series.

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