Managing Diversities
Bahasa Melayu (and the Malay identity) is in jeopardy

The Institute of Policy Studies recently published the full report of its study of the Chinese, Malay and Tamil Blogospheres in Singapore. I was a member of the research team. While the research was basically exploratory in nature — and not a comprehensive record of all non-English blogs — I have nevertheless come to certain conclusions about the state of the minority Malay community in the country and their facility with the Malay language. The situation does not look very positive.

A blasé and colloquial literary style

Collated statistics, as reflected in the report, indicate that only one-third of Malay-language bloggers choose to write in pure and formal Malay. The remaining two-thirds, or the majority, have embraced colloquial Malay as their literary style.

When asked why, bloggers who used colloquial Malay said they were merely catering to the demands of their readers. They also code-switched frequently, peppering their writing with English or Singlish words. This is a concern because it reflects a challenge that the Malay community faces: that of the declining appreciation of their ethnic language.

Those who are less concerned with this state of affairs have reasoned that the deterioration in the quality of an ethnic group’s mother tongue is to be expected with the country’s emphasis on English as the main form of communication. This, however, starkly contrasts with the blogs written in Chinese or Tamil, also studied in the research. While there are Chinese and Tamil language blogs written in informal and colloquial styles, none of those extracted for research seemed to fall into the trap of code switching. What is clear is that a blasé attitude of inserting non-Malay words and phrases in everyday literature is predominant and exclusive to the Malay blogosphere.

In a symposium on Malay language and culture conducted in October 2013, participants pointed out that the “intrusion” of English words into the Malay language was the result of the community’s lax attitude of “not emphasising the use of proper Malay when we speak”. They noted that even the Malay broadcast and print media had resorted to inserting specific English slang and jargon to replace Malay language equivalents, so as to get the attention of the younger crowd and garner higher viewership ratings. The absence of strong “watchdog bodies” to preserve the purity of the Malay language was also cited.

Nevertheless, one has to acknowledge that a national Malay Language Council has been in existence since 1985. The council has made efforts to promote the use and appreciation of the language, but what is lacking is perhaps the presence of strong political will similar to what was exhibited by the government in the past when it endorsed initiatives to ensure the primacy of Mandarin against the various Chinese dialects in the country. For example, the Media Development Authority previously implemented guidelines on radio content that prohibited local broadcasters from airing songs in various dialects. Such government policy was seen as being reversed only recently when it was reported that a local Mandarin song containing Cantonese lyrics had apparently been “unbanned” after 23 years”.

Paradigm shift

The loss of prestige in using Bahasa Melayu, the deterioration of the written Malay language in the blogosphere, and the increased popularity of using Facebook rather than blogs to communicate have had an impact on Malay language bloggers. With value now attached to spontaneity in interactions, the impact that a writer has on their readers no longer lies on their competency in literary discourse but more on their wit and sense of timeliness. In essence, the research team’s interviews show a belief among bloggers that posting one-liners on Facebook will be able to generate the same amount of response as a blog that carefully discusses the same issue. On Facebook, policing of the language is now made almost impossible due to the rapid exchanges between users, with those participating in the conversation having little time to ponder critically about the implications of what they are saying.

I would further suggest that the discussion or debate of important issues for the community seems to lose its cultural “ballast” when these exchanges are not conducted in Malay. For example, discussions between liberal and conservative Malays relating to contentious issues such as changes to the beliefs and customs of the Malays are, in my view, weakened when the debate is transplanted from a Malay language environment to that of an English one.

Take for example two articles on the Rilek1Corner blog responding to Facebook posts by National University of Singapore Professor Syed Khairudin Aljunied, where he characterised alternative modes of sexual orientation as “wayward”. One post in Malay was titled “Muhammadiyah’s Response Towards the LGBT Developments in Singapore”, while the second in English was titled “Singapore Murtad Association Pokes Fun at NUS Prof Syed Khairudin Aljunied on LGBTQ Issue”. Some may argue that having such emotive debates in English will benefit the community, as it takes away the “cultural baggage” that serves only to suppress rational argument.

For instance, in a debate on LGBT issues, the person arguing for acceptance of alternative sexual orientations in the Malay language may have difficulty making the case because of the religio-cultural paradigm within the language. Words such as haram (forbidden), menyeleweng (deviance) and bukan semula jadi (unnatural) are innately against such arguments. If the issue is discussed in English, the cultural baggage becomes more diluted. However, there is also danger of the potential degradation of the community’s social capital should value-free rationality be allowed to run around unrestrained. For instance, culturally-inherent attributes previously accepted as markers for Malay-ness such as sopan (polite), tertib (orderly) and hormat (respectful) may be lost in the fray. While healthy debate is always positive, perhaps the crossing of language platforms should be discouraged. Sustaining a sense of shared culture as members of the Malay community should always be the prerogative.

Impact on Malay Identity

There is a Malay saying, bahasa melambangkan budaya, or “language is the mark of culture”. In an ongoing online questionnaire by the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA), preliminary findings have revealed that 65% of respondents chose the Malay language as a marker of their association with their ethnic Malay identity. Hence, the declining use of the Malay language by Malays can be an indication of a gradual loss of identity for the community.

Sociologists as far back as Emile Durkheim have generally agreed that the loss of a common language is detrimental for a community and the individuals within it. Our culture, tradition and values shape our sense of identity of which a large part resides in our ethnic language. Sociologist Richard Jenkins has said that “identity is the human capacity — rooted in language — to know ‘who’s who’ (and hence ‘what’s what’)… a multidimensional classification or mapping of the human world and our places in it, as individuals and as members of collectivities.” Language represents the essential component that makes up our repertoire of identification. We will not be able to relate to each other meaningfully and consistently in its absence.

In a recent The Straits Times article titled “Big Idea No.5: Speak the National Language”, Professor Kishore Mahbubani remarked that “the country has been less than successful in meeting non-material challenges”. He suggested that more citizens pick up “just a little bit of Bahasa Melayu” which in turn would help reinforce the sense of common identity among diverse groups of Singaporeans.
Such suggestions, however, will fail to take off if even the Malays neglect to be committed practitioners of their own mother tongue. I would urge members of the Malay community to take action — and to do so quickly — to protect and preserve their ties to Bahasa Melayu.

Dr Shamsuri Juhari is an Associate Lecturer at UniSIM and former Director of the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs, the research arm of the Association of Muslim Professionals.

Photo credit: Malay Language Council Facebook

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