A word of background is in order here on what languages may be used in education in Malaysia. In ``National Schools" Malay is the medium of elementary education; Tamil and/or Chinese may be taught if there are 15 students who petition for it. Otherwise, Tamil and Chinese medium ``National-type" Schools may exist, and they receive varying degrees of government support; Chinese schools tend to reject total subvention, in order to maintain more control. At the secondary level, Malay medium is the only publicly-supported schooling available. Privately-supported Chinese schools do exist, but there are none for Tamil, since the Tamil community can not afford this luxury. Again, at the secondary level, Tamil and Chinese may be taught as a subject if 15 students request it. The Malaysian constitution provides guarantees for the use of these languages in the above ``unofficial contexts", i.e. they are officially tolerated (also some use in broadcasting, the Department of Indian Studies at the U Malaya, and support for teacher training) but this official tolerance is thought of as unofficial since only Malay may be official.
The German sociologist of language Heinz Kloss provides a list of language-maintenance strategies that enhance or hinder language maintenance by minority groups in immigrant societies like the United States (Kloss 1966, in Fishman 1966). One of the factors that enhances language maintenance is ``pre-immigration experience with language maintenance", particularly in dealing with linguistic suppression in the form of underground resistance to education in another language medium, self-help language schools, etc. Groups that were already ready to cope with language maintenance in their home country because of suppression there, such as the Poles under Czarist Russian rule, were more able to ``hit the ground running", as it were, perhaps because the notions that widespread community involvement was important, everyone had to participate in order to make it work, everyone had to be eternally vigilant, etc., were accepted.
Tamils who came to Malaysia and other parts of Southeast Asia brought strategies with them that were developed in their home country, and at first these strategies seemed to work. Essentially these strategies were:
In the plantation economy of 19th century Malaya and the Straits Settlements, these strategies worked quite well. Most Tamils of the period came with the intention of returning to India at some point; British education favored Malay only, and no schools in other language were supported by the colonial power. Tamils of the more educated classes (actually many were from Sri Lanka) worked as clerks and supervisors and their knowledge of English was an advantage to them in this situation, since neither the Malays nor Chinese seemed to want to require English education. Plantation Tamils did learn some Malay, enough to get around and do their work, but in few cases if any did it actually supplant Tamil.Only the very anciently-settled and assimilated Chitty Tamil community in Melaka had become Malay speakers; more recently arrived Tamils did not. A great cultural barrier for most Tamils, though not all, was Islam, which served to isolate and contain them.
Again a strategy brought from India (keep clear of Islam) helped maintain the linguistic isolation. Knowledge of Tamil was necessary to be a good Hindu; it would not constitute a path to Islam. The few Tamil Muslims that came at this period were indeed in a different kind of situation, and assimilation through intermarriage of Indian Muslims and Malays did occur, but mostly with North Indian Muslims and Malays, not Tamils. For better or worse, Tamil Muslims tended to remain solidary with Tamil non-Muslims, and cooperated with them in language maintenance.
Though Tamils thought that the strategies delineated above would serve them well in Malaya, these strategies have become increasingly problematical after independence and under the threat of Malaysia's very stringent language policy. I hypothesize that the strategies brought from India have not been adapted, in fact may not be adaptable, in the current environment, and are not serving the cause of Tamil language maintenance.
But this is not the whole story. Another all-pervasive and inescapable fact about Indians in Southeast Asia, and especially in Malaya, is the fragmentary and disunited nature of the community. This is manifested in different ways:
This fragmentation and segmentation has remained until the present time, and underlies many of the current problems facing the Indian community in Malaysia. As far as Tamils are concerned, it works against language maintenance in a number of important ways, and combined with the inadequate and inappropriate language maintenance strategies brought from India, is now taking its toll on the Tamil language.