Workshop course

Deaf activist Dr Anthony Alexander Chong presents plans for literary workshop highlighting Bahasa Isyarat Malaysia

It was during the preparation for the interview with deaf activist Dr Anthony Alexander Chong that it occurred to us how much we take for granted and how unaware we are of the daily minutiae that can be difficult for people who are hard of hearing. Chong is exceptionally benevolent about it all, but the effect of that initial exchange is permanently etched into our collective consciousness: While we may recognize that the world can be a difficult place for people with disabilities, we really do. no idea what some of their daily challenges are.

In fact, Chong’s own activist work would not have been more prominent without the Krishen Jit Fund, which aims to provide deserving arts practitioners with monetary assistance to pursue projects in the arts. Supported by Astro and the Creador Foundation, the fund – of which Chong is one of 11 grantees this year – draws on the pioneering work of the late theater director to celebrate original Malaysian creativity in as varied and alternative ways as possible.

Chong will use the funds he received to manage a Malaysian Sign Language, or Bahasa Isyarat Malaysia workshop for deaf participants to develop BIM literature in as many forms as possible, such as storytelling, poetry, translated poetry, visual vernacular, drama or folk tales. The idea is to shape a new culture for the community as well as to help build a body of BIM literature. The final work will be recorded for an online performance.

Its grant highlights the lingua franca used by the deaf community in Malaysia. Kod Tangan Bahasa Malaysia (KTBM) is a communication method recognized by the government and the Ministry of Education to help teachers teach Bahasa Malaysia to deaf students in formal educational settings. It is not in itself a language but a signed form of oral Malay adapted from American Sign Language (ASL), with the addition of grammatical signs representing the affixing of nouns and verbs. BIM, on the other hand, is the official sign language recognized by the Malaysian government and used to communicate with the deaf community, including on official broadcasts.

“BIM is a language and has its own grammar and structure,” explains Chong. “Like ASL, BSL (British Sign Language) and other sign languages, it does not represent Malay or English or any other spoken language. Many people have misunderstood that our language is “sign language”. It’s not. The term “sign language” is general, like “language”. KTBM is a communication system for deaf people to communicate in Bahasa Malaysia using their hands instead of using their mouths to speak. So when we use KTBM, we have to sign every Malay word, include its affixes, to follow Malay grammar.

Although officially recognized today, BIM was actually created by deaf students in dormitories who were prohibited from signing anything with each other – they developed their own sords (sign words) to communicate. . In the 1970s, American professor Frances Parsons proposed the Total Communications model to better prepare children with disabilities for further education. In 1976, she met the then Minister of Education, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who later introduced legislation requiring schools in Malaysia to adopt the Parsons method.

“Even though many deaf students started studying under the KTBM system in school, they couldn’t do it well, so they switched to BIM, which is often used by the deaf community. After that, they forgot about KTBM and continued to communicate in BIM with their peers. BIM is important for us to communicate our needs, feelings and opinions on a daily basis, ”adds Chong.

It is something that he understands personally. Deaf from birth, he attended public school and began learning KTBM when he started elementary school. “I was fortunate enough to learn Malay before learning KTBM,” he recalls. “A lot of my friends had a hard time understanding KTBM and Malay. It seemed like we had to acquire Malay through KTBM, which was difficult as many of us were unfamiliar with KTBM words and Malay words, and it affected our learning process.

Chong joined BIM classes after graduating from high school and, when he was interrupted, taught it to others for 10 years. Playing an active role in the deaf community, he became increasingly aware of the unique linguistic discrimination they faced. “A lot of deaf people think their language is sign language, KTBM or ASL, when in reality they communicate in BIM all the time. The majority of the deaf community has no knowledge or understanding of BIM, and if they don’t understand what it is, then how could they fight for their language rights? “

The aim of his workshops is not only to create a broader understanding and appreciation of BIM, but also to push for its application in creative aspects of linguistics such as poetry and drama. He also notes that BIM literature is not as popular among the Malaysian deaf community as ASL and BSL literature. The reasons for this are multiple, ranging from a lack of education in BIM, to the lack of confidence of those who know it and to the lack of educational recognition.

“In Malaysia, BIM is not fully recognized as a language, although it is recognized as a language enabling deaf people to communicate on a daily basis through the Disability Act. Therefore, BIM is not a topic for deaf people in school. Without formal education, we cannot have the chance to learn subjects like poetry. Because of this, many of us are unable to tell the difference between storytelling, poetry and visual vernacular, ”he says.

Even before the workshops are over and the final product is available for viewing, Chong knows what he wants to do next. “We need to secure funds to create a BIM corpus with a linguistic description, which will then allow us to deliver BIM courses for the deaf community and introduce it as a subject in primary and secondary education curricula. “

Being able to communicate is one of the most basic human needs, and it is disappointing that in our time, years after sending a man to the moon, the hearing impaired in our country do not have a unifying language that properly expresses what it is to be Malaysian. It is high time they did.

This article first appeared on December 6, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.