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Dr Anthony, PhD Holder With 2 Masters Degrees Did Not Allow Deafness To Define Him, Instead, He Made It A Career And Cause

Dr Anthony Alexander Chong Vee Yee made the headlines in 2021 when he conferred a doctorate (PhD) in anthropology and sociology from Universiti Malaya (UM)[1]. Since young, his intelligence has superseded his age. 

Dr Anthony is University Malaya’s first deaf doctorate recipient. He recognised that his achievement could spur more deaf people to pursue a PhD. His interest in education however started in secondary school. 

When he was enrolled in a special education class in secondary school, Anthony took a proactive step when he realised that his teachers only taught his class when they had free time.

Teachers just came to our class to teach whenever they had time. I realised most of us were spending time talking and idling away. Dr Anthony Alexander Chong Vee Yee, deaf activist, secretary of MyBIM[1]

Young Anthony did not let time slip by. He studied on his own and soon his hunger for knowledge caught the eye of his teachers. He went from the 16th class to the 3rd class in no time. Anthony continued to perform at the top of the class competing with normal-hearing students.

His continuous academic achievement is a testament that being deaf isn’t a barrier. 

Anthony, has been an activist for more than 20 years as a BIM educator, Secretary and co-founder of the Malaysian Sign Language and Deaf Studies Association (MyBIM).

However, Anthony’s education journey was not always easy. It was embroiled with a string of challenges and communication was one of them. 

Most of my teachers were not fluent in Bahasa Isyarat Malaysia (BIM). This hindered effective communication. I could not grasp lessons and relied heavily on notes my deskmates shared. Communication with my hearing classmates was also limited to writing on paper. Dr Anthony Alexander Chong Vee Yee, deaf activist, secretary of BIM[1]

Source: The Star

With two master’s degrees in linguistics and deaf studies[2], Anthony is highlighting the issues afflicting the deaf community at the forefront. One of the issues includes the disparity between the sign language taught in schools and one that is adopted by the deaf community to communicate. 

Without a standard language used to communicate amongst the deaf, the community’s ability to express themselves has been limited. 

Deaf people have difficulties in communicating with hearing people, with or without disabilities. Some deaf people have second disabilities — such as blindness, autism, Down’s syndrome and so on. When we are able to communicate with each other, regardless of our hearing status, we are able to practise our linguistic identity. – Dr Anthony Alexander Chong Vee Yee, deaf activist, secretary of MyBIM [2]

This is in addition to the lack of sign language interpreters in the public sphere, making it difficult for the deaf community to navigate, seek help or interact with normal hearing individuals.  

Anthony armed with his wealth of information and lived experience of the deaf in Malaysia is interested to reform policies involving the deaf community including implementing a standardised sign language in the education sector and the need for more sign language interpreters. 

I hope to be involved in policy-making. I would also like to conduct research projects and collaborate with universities. It is time to reform deaf community policies and shift misconceptions, especially those revolving around BIM. –  Dr Anthony Alexander Chong Vee Yee, deaf activist, secretary of MyBIM [1]

Speaking With Hands

As part of his academic journey, Dr Anthony was slowed down by the mismatch between the sign language used in school and one that is utilised in his daily life.

His experience of learning is similar to the Malay idiom; seperti ayam dan itik, where a student is unable to understand the teacher and vice-versa. 

In Malaysia, the language adopted by the deaf community is the Malaysian Sign Language (MSL) or Bahasa Isyarat Malaysia (BIM). BIM/ MSL is a signed form of oral Malay adapted from American Sign Language (ASL). It is also the official sign language recognised by the Malaysian government and used by interpreters such as Tan Lee Bee on television during official speeches and announcements.

Source: Youtube/RTM

Despite BIM/MSL being widely used amongst the deaf community, it isn’t the language being taught to deaf students in schools. In schools, the communicative method recognised by the government and the Ministry of Education is the Kod Tangan Bahasa Malaysia (KTBM).

KTBM is a communication system for the deaf to communicate Bahasa Malaysia using their hands instead of using their mouth to speak. So, when we use KTBM, we are expected to sign every Malay word, including its affixes, to fulfil Malay grammar. 

Even though many deaf students started studying under the KTBM system at school, they could not do it well, therefore they shifted to BIM, which is often used by the deaf community. 

After that, they forgot about KTBM and continued communicating in BIM with their peers. BIM is important for us to communicate our needs, feelings and opinions on a daily basis. – Dr Anthony Alexander Chong Vee Yee, deaf activist, secretary of MyBIM [2]

Individuals with other forms of disabilities such as blindness and physical disabilities can still converse in mainstream languages such as English or Bahasa Malaysia. But the deaf community requires a language for daily communication and the lack of a standardised language culminates in persisting issues in educating deaf children in schools

Even children with disabilities at the primary school level have passed comments about the teachers, saying that they don’t know sign language – how are they supposed to teach us?- Mohamad Sazali Shaari, Malaysian Federation of the Deaf (MFD) executive director [3]

When given the right tools, there’s no denying that deaf students would be able to excel. Dr Anthony is living proof. 

Without standardised language to communicate, the deaf community have not been able to explore other modes of expression such as poetry and storytelling. Anthony, through the procurement of the Krishen Jit fund, sought to create a bank of literature with the deaf community utilising BIM. 

With no formal education, we cannot have a chance to learn subjects like poetry. Because of this, many of us are unable to differentiate between storytelling, poetry and visual vernacular.  – Dr Anthony Alexander Chong Vee Yee, deaf activist, secretary of MyBIM [2]

The Person With Disabilities (PwDs) community in Malaysia is discriminated against in many forms and shapes. The community remains trapped in poverty and limited opportunities due to structural barriers. In the case of the deaf community, it is by refusing to implement BIM in the education sector. 

To Listen With Our Eyes

For the deaf community, a BIM interpreter is often a necessity when communicating with hearing people. However, there are only 95 qualified interpreters serving at least 40,000 deaf individuals[4]

Anthony, who had only received lecture-based BIM interpreting services during his postgraduate days, identifies that such services should be more widely available to the deaf community. 

These services, however, were only lecture-limited. Hence, I had to communicate with my supervisors through pen and paper. Dr Anthony Alexander Chong Vee Yee, deaf activist, secretary of MyBIM[1]

Similar to how government officials would have an interpreter on stand-by during conferences and meetings with foreign delegates, a sign language interpreter is a necessity to create an inclusive environment. 

When we need to communicate with hearing people, they will need to hire BIM interpreters, just like how our government communicates with foreigners using interpreters, and we would still be able to practise our linguistic identity. – Dr Anthony Alexander Chong Vee Yee, deaf activist, secretary of MyBIM [2]

In daily lives, the deaf community would sometimes rely on lip-reading when communicating with normal-hearing individuals. However, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic that made wearing facial masks mandatory adds to another dilemma for the deaf community. 

Of course, pen and paper can be used when communicating with a deaf individual. 

Source: Yahoo! News

But Dr Anthony found that deaf individuals have lower written English language proficiency compared to their hearing counterparts. Their Bahasa Malaysia proficiency doesn’t fare well either [5].  The solution lies in changes that include providing sign language interpreters in spaces such as healthcare, education and agencies that require one-on-one interactions.  

If people refuse to provide BIM interpreting services to the deaf community, it means that they are violating our linguistic rights.  – Dr Anthony Alexander Chong Vee Yee, deaf activist, secretary of MyBIM [2]

Setting A Lingua Franca

In Malaysia, normal-hearing individuals embrace different mother tongues and dialects in education, and social interaction and consume media with foreign languages with no barriers. But, the deaf community struggles to be heard in this country. Without unifying language, their plights and difficulties would remain invisible. 

Further, sign language interpreters remain inaccessible for many in healthcare, government agencies and education – in order for us to create a more inclusive Malaysia, the best way we could help is by picking up sign language. 

Learning BIM would create a wider network of individuals understanding BIM and the deaf community is no longer alone navigating in society.  There are organisations and mobile applications that provide training and classes for the general public who are interested to learn BIM:

Cover image: Dr Anthony Alexander Chong / Options The Edge

Explore our sources:

  1. Y.M.Yeung. (2021). Deaf UM student earns PhD. The Star. Link 
  2. A.Gopinanth. (2021). Deaf activist Dr Anthony Alexander Chong outlines plans for literary workshop that highlights Bahasa Isyarat Malaysia. Options The Edge. Link 
  3. C.Lee. (2020). The deaf community is calling for the Malaysian Sign Language to be taught in schools. The Star. Link 
  4. F.Awaluddin. (2021). Signing the deaf and mute away from the margins. Malaysia Now. Link 
  5. Free Malaysia Today. (2020).  Why deafness is not a disability but a linguistic identity. Link.
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