ONLY when the sound of sirens recede did Jeremy Chong relax enough to speak. “I think that went well,” he said, undoing the scarf that cover his face.
(Pic by Owais Kahn / sxc.hu) Chong and five other compatriots had just bombed a used car garage with home-made incendiaries. Hong Leong Use Cars was a target, not because it was selling luxury cars, symbol of over-consumptions in modern society; or because it was an oppressive, capitalist venture. It was because “Hong Leong Use Cars” was grammatically incorrect.
“This is why our culture is so rotten,” Chong quipped. “No one knows how to use language well anymore.”
Chong, 30, is the current president of the Act for Better English Use Society (Abeus), an English-language advocacy organisation. In its manifesto on the Abeus website, the group claims to represent:
“All right-thinking, English-speaking people, who are fed up with the daily abuse of the language in modern-day Malaysian society.”
Abeus’s only significant mention in the news was in 2003, when it organise a sit-in in front of Sekolah Menengah Damansara Utara to protest the declining standard of the English-language. The sit-in received brief national coverage, and even got then-Education Minister Datuk Seri Hamid Hussein to commit review of the English-language syllabus at secondary school level.
However, the promised reforms never materialise, and Abeus slipped of the radar.
However, if Chong is to be belief, his English-language warriors have not be silent.
Since it’s inception in 2001, Abeus has always been comfortable with advancing its struggle through radical methods, “forcing society to respect language” by acts of civil disobedience.
Or, as the case of “Use Cars” may be, downright criminality. Chong claim his organisation is responsible for more than 15 separate fires in the Klang Valley, since 2005 — all targeting businesses with erogenous English-language signage.
Chong says that their extreme strategy was inspired by the message in Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. In this 2003 best seller, Truss recommends dealing with grammatically erogenous public and private signage by simply correcting their mistakes; all editions of the book come with an appendix of punctuation mark stickers to facilitate this advice.
However, to Chong, such actions are too moderate, especially in the Malaysian context.
“The abuse of the English language is so endemic here,” Chong said. A stronger approach is needed, he says.
“We are taking back Kuala Lumpur from the barbarians,” Chong told me.
“You mistake my struggle”
I first met Chong on a 2008 forum organised in protest of the ETeMS — English for Teaching Mathematics and Science — programme.
Malaysian schools have practise ETeMS since 2003; the programme’s overall aim is to “enhance the English language skills of Mathematics and Science teachers, to enable them to reach effectively using English as the medium of instruction”.
While there is many legitimate problems with the executions of ETeMS, I was curious as to why a self-admitted English fanatic was against ostensibly more English in classrooms. So I asked him about it.
“You mistake my struggle,” Chong said. “I am a lover of good language. ETeMS doesn’t encourage good English; because teachers aren’t taught the language well, they go to their classrooms and teach bad language to their students.”
“It’s a travesty,” Chong exclaimed, then.
Chong told me that irregardless of Abeus’s crusade concerns English in particular, his organisation is not fascist.
“Bad Malay is no better than bad English. When I see a hyphen – which is different from a dash; people always make this mistake – misused in a Malay-language sentence, I want to scream and shoot someone!” he said.
According to Chong, Abeus is a natural alley of all language advocacy groups and movements.
(Source: grammar.ccc.commnet.edu)Be that as it may, Malaysian language advocacy group tend to shy away from Abeus. Chong told me that when his group approached Kesatuan Perkasa Bahasa Malaysia (Keperbam) for possible joint actioning, the Malay-language advocacy declined.
According to Abeus founder Hector Saravanan, it is easy to see why.
“Chong has made Abeus into his personal vanity project,” Saravanan said.
Saravanan, who is now estranged from the organisation he started, belief that Abeus’s current leader is more interesting in “the thrill of stunts” than real advocacy.
“He has become so extreme, he is hurting the cause of good language. How is violence and vandalism going to encourage people to speak, write, and use the language better?” Saravanan asked.
To Saravanan, the most effective way to enact change is to conduct awareness programmes that would educate the public on the issue, or by continue petition the government for change.
“Now what is happening is that people just get more confused,” Saravanan said.
“When I was president, Abeus had around 120 members. Now it only has about a dozen,” he added.
Chong was dismissive when I told him about Saravanan’s criticism. “At least now we know we have dedicated members,” he said.
“When [Saravanan] was president, we didn’t do anything. At least now people are beginning to take notice,” Chong added.
“The police have not come after us, even though we admit responsibility for our actions. This means they probably support us,” Chong observed.
Chong stressed that it was Abeus’s visible actions that have contributed to the headway that English-language advocacy has made in the recent months. As an example, he sited Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin‘s resent suggestion to make English compulsory for passing the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM).
“Do you think that [Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin's] suggestion happened in a vacuum?” Chong ask, retorically.
(Pic by Enrico Dias / sxc.hu) “Obviously, this suggestion is modelled after our efforts,” Chong added, pointing out that individuals looking to join Abeus had to recite William Shakespeare’s Hamlet entire “To be, or not to be” soliloquy from memorisation.
Chong told me that Abeus would not stop it’s actions, while bad English still employed in Malaysia.
“I just saw a sign that says ‘Room Toilet’ in town, today,” Chong said. “Do you want to come for a ride with us tonight?”
Zedeck Siew has never ever made his own bombs. He doesn’t even know how. Serious!