Malay for ASEAN Integration

Anthea Fraser Gupta A.F.Gupta at
Sat Aug 25 09:21:24 UTC 2007

From: singlish at [mailto:singlish at] On
Behalf Of Chua Ai Lin
Sent: 25 August 2007 04:39
To: singaporeheritage at;
SingaporeHeritage at; singlish at
Subject: [singlish] ST: 'Cakap-cakap' to make a difference in Asean

Aug 25, 2007 

'Cakap-cakap' to make a difference in Asean integration 

By Janadas Devan  

THERE was a time when Malay - or rather, some version of it - was the
lingua franca in Singapore. 
Some non-Malays, like Mr Lee Kuan Yew, spoke the language with
near-native fluency. Some, like the late S. Rajaratnam, took lessons to
improve their Malay. 

Almost every politician of the 1960s, including Chinese-educated ones,
spoke some variety of the language. An Indian then, wishing to
communicate with a Chinese in a wet market, could do so in 'Bazaar
Malay'. Malay was literally the language of the market-place. 

Its demise as the lingua franca is one among the many results of
Singapore's pragmatic language policies. 

Because it aspired to be a global city, it had no choice but to adopt
English as the language of government, business and education. Because
it was impractical for Chinese Singaporeans to be speaking a dialect at
home while trying to learn English as well as Mandarin in school,
dialects were deliberately de-emphasised. 

Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese have declined in Singapore for the same
reason Malay has ceased to be a lingua franca: Logic required their

Have Singaporeans paid a price for our attachment to reason in such
matters? Of course we have. Nothing in this world, not even the most
rational of choices, comes without a price. 

Mandarin is not the 'mother tongue' of most Chinese Singaporeans, and
English is not the 'first language' of the majority of Singaporeans. 

The fact that Mandarin has become a de facto 'mother tongue' and English
the dejure 'first language' has entailed a measure of cultural
dislocation. The transmission of Chinese culture occurs in a tongue with
no hinterland in the memory of Chinese Singaporeans; and our thinking
about and exchanges on the central questions of our time, occur in a
language, English, with which most of us are not inwardly familiar. 

Singlish - that strange imbrication of English with Malay and various
Chinese dialects - is one result of these dislocations. The attachment
many Singaporeans feel towards Singlish would be understandable if one
viewed it as a reflection of cultural loss. 

Singlish seems 'authentic' to them precisely because they have lost
other, more culturally rooted, markers of linguistic authenticity.
Singlish has become a place-holder for an absence. 

Our only consolation for these twistings of our tongues - and it is by
no means a trifling consolation - is that we would have had no occasion
to worry about cultural dislocations if we had suffered economic ones. 

We decided economic survival was primary - so we made logical linguistic
choices. Those choices undoubtedly entailed a measure of cultural loss.
But consider the price other multi-ethnic countries have paid for making
emotional, not logical, linguistic choices. Sri Lanka, for instance, was
more economically advanced than Singapore in the 1950s and 1960s. Sri
Lanka, a former British colony, chose to make Sinhala, the language of
its majority, its lingua franca; Singapore, also a former British
colony, chose English. Has Sri Lanka been culturally, let alone
economically, enriched as a result? 

STILL, we should be conscious of our losses. The demise of Malay as a
lingua franca is one loss. Young Singaporeans today, unlike their
parents and grandparents in the 1950s and 60s, cannot cakap- cakap or
bual-bual in Malay, as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong put it in his
National Day Rally address last week. That means young Singaporeans are
no longer in a position to communicate effortlessly with Malay
Malaysians or Indonesians. Close to a quarter billion people in the
region, or half the population of Asean, speak either Malay or Bahasa
Indonesia. That is a huge chunk of humanity for Singaporeans not to be
in communication with, especially since they are our closest neighbours.

PM Lee's decision to introduce incentives for non-Malay students to
study Malay as a third language will not make the language the lingua
franca again. Some things in history are irreversible, and Singapore's
post-independence linguistic development is probably one of them. But
the incentives PM Lee proposes to offer in schools, if they are taken
up, can do only good. 

Malays account for about 14 per cent of Singapore's resident population.
If only 10 per cent of non-Malays in every school cohort were to offer
Malay as a third language, close to a quarter of Singaporeans would be
able to communicate with Malaysians and Indonesians in Malay. If 5 per
cent offered Malay, close to a fifth would be able to do so. If one
included in the mix former or current Malaysians resident in Singapore,
the numbers would swell. 

One should not, however, romanticise the possibilities of communicating
with Malaysians and Indonesians in Bahasa. It is worth remembering that
Singapore's biggest bust-ups with its closest neighbours - Separation
from Malaysia and Konfrantasi with Indonesia - occurred at a time when
many more Singaporeans than now spoke Malay. 

Singaporean civil servants were required in the 1960s to be proficient
in Malay. Singapore's leading politician then, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, spoke a
Malay that then-Malaysian prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman claimed was
superior to his. It didn't help. 

Consider what happened on May 27, 1965, during the debate on the King's
Address to the Malaysian Parliament. Mr Lee had begun his reply to his
critics in English, and switched to Malay mid-way. Twenty-five years
later, the late E.W. Barker recalled what happened: 

'He (Mr Lee) spoke for about half an hour. There must have been about
500 or so in the House and in the gallery but you could hear a pin drop.
I think if they could have cheered, they would have. Looking back, I
think that was the moment when the Tunku and his colleagues felt it was
better to have Singapore and Mr Lee out.' 

Singapore's bilateral disputes with Malaysia and Indonesia won't be
resolved even if all its diplomats spoke Malay. They won't be resolved
even if all Asean diplomats spoke Esperanto. 

But for better or worse, Asean is stuck between 

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Anthea Fraser Gupta (Dr)

School of English, University of Leeds, LS2 9JT

NB: Reply to a.f.gupta at

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