Reclaiming the English Language in Postcolonial Malaysia: Ethnicity, Class, and the Nostalgia for Global Citizenship

Choi, Seoyeon, Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia
Handler, Richard, Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia

This dissertation investigates how English, allegedly a "global language," mediates ethnic and class divisions in colonial and postcolonial Malaysia. After its independence from the British, Malaysian government implemented an aggressive linguistic nationalization policy. The national promotion of English after the 1990s seems to signal the end of the period when nation-building depended on the national language and the beginning of the time when the survival of a nation in the world economy becomes dependent on English. Contradicting the definition of the "global" and the "national" as antithetical forces, my discussion highlights how the locally produced ideologies of "globalization" and "global language" legitimize the elite imagination of nation while suppressing other versions of imaginations among the masses. The ideologies reflect the English-educated elite's nostalgia for the colonial past and their sense of intellectual, cultural, social and moral superiority to the masses. The first part reviews the linguistic and educational policies during the colonial and the post-independence periods. The institutional segregation between the Englisheducated elite and the vernacular-educated masses during the colonial period partly overlapped with the racial segregation between "immigrants" and "natives." The postindependence policies indicate the lasting importance of English as a marker of racial and class differences and the ambiguous status of the national language as the foundation of national unity. Defining public schools as the institution where policy ideas are put into practice, the second part focuses on my participant research from July 2004 to August 2005 in two iv schools in Kuala Lumpur. Despite their equal status in the education system and the similar ethnic make-ups of their students, one bears the characteristics of an inner-city school and the other is considered an elite school. The different experiences of nation and the national language among the members of the two schools influence their reactions to the reintroduction of English. While the students of the inner-city school, regardless of their ethnic background, experience English as the language of their social and cultural "others," the members of the elite school believe that they exclusively own the language, thus possess the qualification for the leadership as globally competitive model citizens.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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