At home with Malay

At home with Malay
Actress Rilla Melati Bahri developed a strong grasp of her mother tongue thanks to her parents Ramlah K.M. Gazali and Bahri Rajib.

SINGAPORE - When actress and writer Rilla Melati Bahri was young, her parents believed that she should master her mother tongue.

So she and her younger brother "spoke 100 per cent Malay at home", she says.

Her mother, Ramlah K.M. Gazali, 63, says: "If the kids speak English both in school and at home, they lose out on their heritage."

Rilla, a theatre graduate from the National University of Singapore, has learnt her heritage lessons well.

The 40-year-old has teamed up with fellow actress and polytechnic lecturer Sharon Ismail to co-author the first bilingual Malay-English picture books for preschoolers by local authors.

The two books, which come in a set with a read-along CD, touch on local experiences such as eating nasi lemak at a coffee shop and playing dress-up in traditional outfits.

They are published by television production house Dua M under the brand of Mini Monsters, its educational arm, with a grant from the Lee Kuan Yew Bilingual Fund, and will be launched at the Singapore Writers Festival on Saturday.

When Rilla was growing up, her linguist teacher father and housewife mother went against the thinking of many Malay parents, who spoke English to their children at home then so that the kids could have a headstart in school.

Mr Bahri Rajib, 63, now a part-time Malay language teacher with Raffles Institution, adds that they now speak exclusively in Malay at home to Rilla's 12-year-old son and their sole grandson, Nadim.

Mr Bahri says with a laugh: "In pre-school, his teacher complained that he didn't understand instructions in English."

This year, Nadim topped his school, Naval Base Primary School, in the Malay language paper at the PSLE preliminary examination.

Rilla, who divorced Nadim's father 11 years ago, is proud of her son: "There's no need to fear using just one's mother tongue at home."

Mother and son live in a four-room HDB flat in Yishun. Her parents live with her single, younger brother in the same block.

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