Which, Exactly, is the National Language of Malaysia?

Have you ever wondered why the national language of Malaysia is called Bahasa Melayu and ALSO Bahasa Malaysia?

The forefathers of Malaysia has agreed among other things during formation of the nation, that the language of Malays, be the national language. The federal constitution guarantees this privileged position of Malay language or Bahasa Melayu in article 152.

But remember, this event took place during a transitional period from more than a century of British rule to a newly independent nation consisting of different races who are not really comfortable with each other.

One hundred years of using English chiefly in schools and government offices to be replaced by Bahasa Melayu within ten years! A human factor that has to be considered is that not everyone has the ability to learn another language fast enough to suit government policy.

Unfortunately, politicians who were in the position to help out were doing the opposite. A bloody racial riot which started on May 13, 1969 prompted the Malaysian government to take remedial measures. One of the steps is to promote the national language as Bahasa Malaysia, literally the language of Malaysia, for a more universal popularity sanctioned by the National Language Act 1967.

Malaysians in general are not fussy about having two terms for their national language. So is their government. Says the Education Minister who ultimately became deputy chief Minister Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak: “The government is not stiff about this. Although in the constitution the term Bahasa Melayu is used, in certain situations, the use of the term Bahasa Malaysia is allowed…We do not want to go into a argue on semantics. On the government’s part, we are being pragmatic by accepting both. This is not an issue to be exaggerated.”

However, there are nevertheless voices of dissent.

1994-The Education Ministry issued a circular to the media sanctioning only ” Bahasa Malaysia.” This led to a argue between the Ministry and Malay literary circles.

1999-Malaysia’s literary agency Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) refused to publish a collection of short stories. The reason? The writers used the term ” Bahasa Malaysia.” DBP’s stance is that Bahasa Malaysia is political and it acknowledges Bahasa Melayu. The strange part is, DBP has been publishing books using the term Bahasa Malaysia before this and continues to do so until as late as 2002.

2006-The newly appointed Information Minister Zainuddin Maidin said the term Bahasa Malaysia better reflects the mother tongue of Malaysians and not just of one ethnic group. ” Bahasa Malaysia is for all, not just for Malays. Whoever resides in Malaysia, his mother tongue is Bahasa Malaysia…But there are certain parties that are seeking political gain by calling it Bahasa Melayu and using Malay sentiments. But the national language is Bahasa Malaysia. That was the wish of the Tunku (Abdul Rahman, the first chief Minister of Malaysia) and the late Hussein Onn (3rd chief Minister of Malaysia),” he said.

Indonesia, Brunei and Singapore do not have this kind of story to tell. In fact, expatriates prefer learning Bahasa Indonesia to Bahasa Melayu or hmm Bahasa Malaysia.

Sigh…there is a motto in Malaysia that says the language reflects the spirit of the nation. You see the impressive Petronas Twin Towers and world class F1 racetracks but the nation that brings about these things is nevertheless undecisive about the identity of its language. What image does this portray? It is better to let Malaysia answer.

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