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Malaysia is a country with many spoken languages, but there is still a long way to go for Malaysian Sign Language (BIM)

Malaysian Sign Language or Bahasa Isyarat Malaysia (known as BIM) is the official sign language of the Deaf community in Malaysia. But there’s still a long way to go in recognising its importance and value, for it has not yet been recognised as an official language in the country.

Bahasa Isyarat Malaysia (BIM) or Malaysian Sign Language is the official language used by the Deaf community in our country. At present, there are around 40,000 hearing-impaired people registered with authorities in Malaysia1 but those who work with the Deaf estimate numbers to be higher. 

As we observe the International Day of Sign Languages this week, here’s how we can advance the inclusion of the Deaf in our daily life and partner with them to create an impact and bless our nation. 

The history of sign language in Malaysia

The first known use of sign language among the Deaf began in Malaysia in 1954, when the Federation School for the Deaf (FSD) with seven deaf students in enrollment was founded in Penang.3 Adopting a British form of oral education (based on lipreading and speech), the students were prohibited from using signs or gestures to communicate, but allegedly formed their own ‘secret’ language of sign in their dorms4

In 1964, Tan Yap Yang travelled to the United States for a sign language interpreting course and returned with some American Sign Language (ASL) signs, which he taught to deaf students in Johor. In 1968, he opened a Deaf school in Kuala Lumpur and five years later, started the Deaf Club at the YMCA in KL as an inclusive, supportive community for the Deaf.

The YMCA Deaf Club is still going strong and meets every third Sunday of the month. Image Source: YMCA Deaf Club

In 1976, Frances Parsons arrived in Malaysia at the invitation of Dato Saleena Yahaya-Isa, the headmistress of FSD who by then was convinced that sign was the way to go. Saleena wrote to Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed (at the time Minister of Education) and asked for permission to conduct a learning experiment to see if the new sign education fared better than oral education. 

In just a year, the results were undeniable and the switch to sign education was made. An estimated total of 3,500 sign words were assigned to BM words and affixes for teaching purposes. These signs became known as Kod Tangan Bahasa Malaysia (KTBM) and are what the Ministry of Education still uses today.

When did Bahasa Isyarat Malaysia come into the picture? 

BIM is largely based on American Sign Language (ASL) and was first established in 1998 when the Malaysian Federation of the Deaf (MFD) started. MFD began gathering active sign words from the Deaf community in Malaysia, based on what the Deaf community used in schools and at social gatherings. The compilation was then published in 2000 as the first BIM book in Malaysia. 

BIM Alphabet. Fingerspelling is at times used for uncommon words. Image Source: Zikri Husaini

BIM is a relatively young language amongst sign languages (ASL is believed to have originated in 1817) but has and continues to evolve in terms of vocabulary and meaning. Today, there are slight variations amongst Deaf communities in different states, but on the whole, BIM is understood across Malaysia.2

Currently, BIM is the official language for the Deaf in Malaysia according to the Persons with Disabilities Act 20085. On a day-to-day basis, the Deaf community largely interacts and communicates via BIM.

However, BIM has not yet been named the official national sign language and the Ministry of Education still uses KTBM in schools. 

Although identified as the official language of the deaf by law, BIM’s definition in social and cultural society remains unclear

In the Persons with Disabilities Act, BIM is recognised as the official language of the deaf. There is also a clause that places the Government and private sector responsible for providing access to BIM for Deaf persons in official transactions. 

The Government and the private sector shall accept and facilitate the use of Malaysia Sign Language, Braille, augmentative and alternative communication, and all other accessible means, modes and formats of communication of their choice by persons with disabilities in official transactions.

Persons with Disabilities Act 2008 (Section 30)5

However, compliance and implementation of the law are often less than satisfactory. 

The ambiguous law makes it harder for the Deaf community to integrate into society and take on positions of authority and influence 

Researchers have also found that the Persons with Disabilities Act 2008 allegedly fails to properly define BIM3, resulting in the lack of both political and civic will to elevate its use.

Independent researcher Muhamad Nadhir Abdul Nasir says there seems to be an effort lacking on the part of both authorities and civil society in recognising the importance of BIM to the Deaf community in Malaysia6.

“If we have an elected official in the Dewan Rakyat who is deaf, would that person be allowed to communicate through his or her BIM interpreter using BIM? The term Bahasa Isyarat Malaysia or Jurubahasa Isyarat Malaysia is nowhere to be found in the Standing Orders of the Dewan Rakyat.”

Muhamad Nadhir Abdul Nasir6

Today, there are less than 100 certified sign language interpreters serving over 40,000 members of the Deaf community

Sign language interpreters are lacking in Malaysia. Image Source: Yahoo News

A ripple effect of the ambiguity surrounding BIM’s place in Malaysian society is that BIM interpretation services lack a proper regulatory framework7, resulting in very few interpreters serving the Deaf Community.

The lack of awareness means that the majority hearing world may not consider pursuing a career in sign language interpretation or understand the critical need for it. In 2021, there were only 95 certified sign language interpreters registered with MFD8.

In April 2022, the Communications and Multimedia Ministry announced a target of at least one BM sign language interpreter in each district of Malaysia9. At the moment, there are only 60 BM sign language interpreters nationwide, and most are based in Kuala Lumpur. 

Interpreters are crucial especially for official communications in daily life, such as appearing in court, financial issues, seeking medical advice, getting married and more. But for more interpreters to be trained, BIM needs to be given more space in society, and that can only happen when the hearing community speaks up too.

As Christians, how can we give the Deaf community in Malaysia a louder voice?

Sacred Heart Ministry to Deaf People organises Sign Language Mass. Image Source: Herald Malaysia

As we observe the International Day of Sign Languages this week, we can do our part to create space for the Deaf community in Malaysia by first, recognising BIM as vital to their growth both as individuals and Malaysians. How would this look practically? 

  • Employment: If you’re a business owner and the nature of your business allows you to hire a Deaf person, give them an opportunity!
  • Engagement: If you work in the service sector (e.g. F&B, medical services, public relations), take a step to learn BIM so that you can communicate more effectively with Deaf clients, customers and patients 
  • Speak up: Advocate the use of BIM, especially in official transactions. If you observe a Deaf person struggling at the bank or hospital, inform the staff that the onus is on them to provide access to interpretation services for their Deaf customer. And if you are part of the Deaf community, don’t be afraid to ask for your rights to be respected.
  • Empower yourself: Learn BIM anyway as a hearing person. You may not know a Deaf person, but you may one day. And if you can share God’s love with them in a language they understand, or join Deaf believers in fellowship, how amazing would that be?
  • Pray for them: Intentionally uphold the Deaf community in Malaysia in prayer – that their language, culture and identity would be preserved, protected and promoted. 

1. Muthiah W, 2022, KJ: Over 40,000 hearing-impaired people registered in Malaysia, The Star
2. Malaysian Sign Language, Ethnologue
3. Chong VY, 2018, The Development of Malaysian Sign Language (BIM) in Malaysia, Vol. 8,  Journal of Special Needs Education 
4. Nakamura K, 2002, Deafness, Ethnicity and Minority Politics in Malaysia,  Vol. 12, Article 20, Macalester International
5. Persons with Disabilities Act 2008, Laws of Malaysia, International Labour Organization
6. Muhamad Nadhir Abdul Nasir, 2020, Respect and protect Bahasa Isyarat Malaysia, The Star
7. Muhamad NAS and Alfa NAEE, 2020, Legal and Policy Basis for Bahasa Isyarat Malaysia Interpretation Services, Vol 5 Issue 21, International Journal of Law, Government and Communication 
8. Awaludin F, 2021, Signing the deaf and mute away from the margins, Malaysia Now
9. Target for a certified sign language interpreter in each district, says minister, 2022, Bernama
10. Featured Image Source: Penang YMCA Deaf Club

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