Making a mockery of the national language

Co-President of the Centre For A Better Tomorrow (CENBET), Gan Ping Sieu, has issued a statement asking state authorities to “review the ban on non-Muslims using words related to Islam”. He says such a ban “makes a mockery of our national and Arabic languages” and makes it difficult for non-Muslims to converse in Malay. I would tend to agree with him, if only there really was such a ban in the first place.

Poor Mr Gan. I admire his concern for our national language, but it seems using it has left him dazed and confused. He is clearly having difficulty conversing in our national language, but I don’t think it is because of any ban on using some words. More likely it is because he doesn’t properly understand it. If he did understand it, then he would have known from reading the relevant states’ laws that they clearly do not prohibit non Muslims from using words related to Islam.


“(1) Seseorang adalah melakukan kesalahan jika ia, dalam apa-apa tulisan yang diterbitkan, atau dalam apa-apa ucapan awam atau pernyataan atau dalam apa-apa ucapan atau pernyataan yang ditujukan kepada suatu perhimpunan orang yang dirancang, atau dalam apa-apa ucapan atau pernyataan yang diterbit atau disiarkan dan yang pada masa ucapan atau pernyataan itu dibuat ia tahu, atau pada munasabahnya patut tahu akan diterbit atau disiarkan, menggunakan mana-mana perkataan yang disenaraikan dalam Jadual, atau apa-apa terbitan atau virasinya, untuk menyatakan atau memperihalkan sesuatu fakta, kepercayaan, idea, konsep, perbuatan, aktiviti, perkara atau hal mengenai atau berkaitan dengan sesuatu agama bukan Islam.

Now, anyone who is the least bit proficient in our national language can see that this does not mean what Mr. Gan thinks it means. This law prohibits the words from being used in a non-Muslim context and does not prohibit them from being used by non-Muslims at all. Take  for example the word “Syariah”. What is not allowed is to use “Syariah” to refer to, say, Christian law. No one is stopping any non-Muslim from saying “Mahkamah Syariah” to refer to Islamic courts, for instance. There is a practical purpose to this. When someone says a product is “Syariah compliant” we assume immediately that it means that the product conforms to Islamic law because that is what everyone understands the term to mean. Would it not be confusing, not to say dishonest, if someone were to use the same term  for a product that conforms to some other religion and not Islam?

And what is so shocking about these laws anyway? These kinds of prohibitions have been routinely applied all over the world in many areas of life. Chinese sinsehs and Malay bomohs aren’t allowed to call themselves doctors, but you don’t see anyone protesting, do you? In Europe, you can’t call a cheese “Parmesan” unless it comes from a specific region near Parma Italy, even if your cheese smells, tastes and has the exact same chemical composition as the Italian one. So you have the strange situation where German cheese makers who have been using the word “Parmesan” for decades have had to call their cheese something else when selling them at home, but continue to use “Parmesan” when selling them to the rest of the world. Sure those Germans are not happy about it because their livelihoods are affected, but they’re not screaming bloody murder as if some fundamental right has been denied them. Unlike some folks here.


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