Saturday, June 16, 2007

An old column on Bahasa Malaysia

I managed to find my old column, published in the NST in 2002 / 2003, on calling BM Bahasa Malaysia. I'll repost it here, for what it's worth.

Bahasa Malaysia, the national language for all Malaysians

Juliet’s infamous phrase ‘A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet’ has been quoted and misquoted more often than Shakespeare could have possibly imagined. I have to disagree with her on the principle that a name means much more than just a name.

For example, when Malaya became Malaysia after achieving independence in 1957, the change in our country’s name signified the discarding of our colonial shackles and pointed to a new beginning for a young multiethnic and multi religious nation.

Similarly, the formalisation of Bahasa Malaysia, or BM, as the national language of Malaysia and as the main medium of instructions in national schools signified the intention to build a national identity and foster national unity based on a common language.

Malaysia has come a long way since those heady days of independence 45 years ago. BM is widely spoken and is the common language of communication for most Malaysians. And yet there are still those who do not feel a sense of affinity, loyalty and ownership of our national language.

There are many reasons for this including being in an environment which is not conducive or encouraging towards the use and study of BM.

But another possible obstacle could be the use or rather the lack of use of the proper name for our national language, Bahasa Malaysia, which implies that it is Malaysia’s language for all Malaysians.

Indeed calling BM by any other name would seem to imply that it is a language used by and is the preserve of a particular community. This seems like an unhelpful step towards the already difficult and sensitive task of ensuring the widespread use and sense of loyalty towards our national language.

China, to unite the many disparate regions with its different dialects, chose Mandarin as its national language and called it ‘pudong hua’ or common tongue. That name indicates a language that should be and is used commonly by different peoples across the different regions in China regardless of social status and economic wealth.

Indonesia, with an archipelago spanning over 13,000 islands, chose to call its national language Bahasa Indonesia to indicate its status as the national language of all Indonesians.

Malaysia has followed suit by naming our national language Bahasa Malaysia, the national language for all Malaysians.

But there still remains certain quarters which continue to refer to BM, whether in a public or private, formal or informal context, as something other than BM.

A quick check of our country’s constitution reveals that references to our country’s national language does not name it as Bahasa Malaysia. Would it not be helpful foster a sense of ownership of BM by all Malaysians if all references to the national language in our constitution could be changed to Bahasa Malaysia?

Indeed, I would go further and encourage all public institutions to refer to our national language as Bahasa Malaysia or BM both verbally and in written form. I would also encourage all Malaysians to refer to our national language as Bahasa Malaysia or BM. Although many people and institutions unconsciously use BM interchangeably with other names and have no intention whatsoever to present BM as the preserve of a particular community, the ill effects of such actions can be subtle and long lasting.

If possible, even references to BM in other languages commonly used in Malaysia should be changed such that it reflects the common ownership of BM by all Malaysians.

A country’s national language and its name should reflect the nature, composition and spirit of that country. Bahasa Malaysia is reflective of the roots of our country, our multiethnic composition and our unity in diversity.

We couldn’t imagine calling Malaysia anything other than Malaysia. In the same way, we shouldn’t call Bahasa Malaysia anything other than Bahasa Malaysia.


Sheena said...

When I initially heard the ruling back in secondary school, I remember feeling resentful that we had to learn "another race's language" under the pretext of it being our national language. 'cos indeed, as you said it, if it were a "national" language, then why not call it after the nation?

Looking back, I still feel resentful, AND paranoid, because if Malays are people who speak Bahasa Melayu (as defined by the Constitution), then what message is the govt. trying to send by making everybody learn Bahasa MELAYU? I won't go as far as to say that it may be trying to Malayise everybody, but the idea that maybe the govt. was trying to reiterate the supremacy of the Malay race by making everyone else learn their language, did cross my mind.

But, never mind. It's still Bahasa Melayu. In English, it's still called the Malay language. And non-Malay Malaysian students overseas still get asked by confused people:

So, all Malaysians speak Malay? Y.
Are you Malay? N.
But you speak Malay? Y.

Of course, the grimace on my face further confuses them, but why explain it? I'm the Malaysian, and even I don't get it.

lXl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

It seems our leaders have nothing to do. Things can be changed overnight with thorough consideration. I hope this not reflective of the Malay's attitude.

Anonymous said...

sorry, without

Anonymous said...

I just wonder people like u and me would learn BM if it is not a compulsory subject to pass. Anyway, pure Bahasa Melayu is a beautiful language, not Bahasa Malaysia. Bahasa Malaysia is already tainted with too many English words.

Anonymous said...

Well, i don't see the existence of "pure" Bahasa Melayu in the first place. Melayu itself is not "Melayu" in the sense that it comes from a dialect from the Indian continent. That was almost a millenia ago. Bahasa Melayu has a lot of Hinduism influences. You can find this even in SPM's History text. I hope that they won't censor that part of history out from the textbook just to protect the Ketuanan Melayu.

Anonymous said...


"...evolved under the influence of Sanskrit, Arabic and Polynesian cultures..."

So i won't use the word "pure" to describe the language. Rather, "rich" is better suited for it.

Anonymous said...

tell me, Mr. Author, has the formalisation of the Bahasa Malaysia or Melayu, whichever is used, makes no difference, been a success? This is a multicultural and multi-racial society, unlike China where it's society although made-up of different dialects but are of one ethnic group, the chinese. Taking away the usage of English as a medium of instruction in school is one thing. But lowering the standard of the English language in the country or almost to a point of non-existence in West Malaysia, is a 'suicide' in the Development sense for both it's people and the country! The English language, being an internationally recognised tool of communication has been forsaken purely for the sake of one race's strive for 'supremacy'. Whether one language unites a country is a very subjective issue but to jeopardize the next generation's future is very selfish of it's government.