Indonesia’s Language Of Unity

Posted on August 10th, 2010 at 1:27 pm by Bambang


By Karim Raslan

Indonesia’s rapidly expanding economy will boost commercial importance of the Malay language, and Malaysian parents will start taking it more seriously.

INDONESIA’S rising strength will change the way many Malaysians view Bahasa Malaysia. At the moment, middle-class Malaysians tend to view Malay as a language with limited commercial value compared with English or Chinese.

However, as Indonesia transforms itself into an economic powerhouse, its language will become increasingly important globally. Malay will also benefit because it is the shared root for both Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Malaysia.

At the same time, the republic’s exploding consumer market of 240 million is tantalising. Global players are descending on Jakarta.

Recent investors range from Korea’s Lotte to Britain’s HSBC. Also, private equity group CVC has just purchased 90% of the national department store chain Matahari.

These investors know that in order to succeed in the domestic market, their managers must be able to understand the local language.

Ironically, then, Indonesia’s rapidly expanding economy will force middle-class Malaysians to wake up to the importance of Bahasa Indonesia, a language that literally binds the archipelago together.

I am confident that it will boost the commercial importance of the Malay language and that Malaysian parents will start taking it more seriously.

The economic potential, however, is only one aspect of this argument. A much more important lesson is socio-political.

Even though the two languages share the same root, they’ve developed in very different ways. This reflects the contrasting historical narratives at work.

Malaysians can learn a great deal from examining these differences.

Indeed, many of our underlying political problems are revealed in our attitude to the Malay language.

This in turn will help us understand why we are currently struggling as a nation.

Our politics has stunted the development of Malay language, and this is hurting us. For a start, Bahasa Malaysia is less vibrant, less intellectual and less creative than Bahasa Indonesia.

One only has to visit a Gramedia bookstore with all its translated books to realise the extent to which we have been left behind by our neighbours.

Bookstores in second-tier cities such as Jember and Pekanbaru have a better selection of books published in the vernacular than any bookstore in Kuala Lumpur.

Why? It’s because Bahasa Indonesia is very much the product of the republic’s revolutionary ethos. Sukarno’s flamboyant rhetoric is never far from the surface.

Furthermore, Indonesia’s struggle for Independence is etched in their national psyche. This imbues the language with a capacity for change and dynamism.

In Malaysia, the dominant ethos is aristocratic.

For better or for worse, our first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, embedded the elitism of the Istana firmly into our na-tional consciousness.

As a result, we are more feudal (consider our obsession with titles) while the Indonesians are more egalitarian. Witness our different words for government: pemerintah (Indonesia) and kerajaan (Malaysia).

This dichotomy is clear in the way the two languages have developed, and indeed diverged.

A landmark of Indonesia’s national awakening was the historic Sumpah Pemuda of Oct 28, 1928.

It also marked the first time Malay was formally promoted as Bahasa Indonesia – the language of unity.

Interestingly, the nationalist thinkers of the time chose not to use Javanese – the language of the largest community in the then-Dutch East Indies – despite its rich, centuries-old literary tradition.

Instead, they selected a language – Malay – that was used by many as a lingua franca but only spoken as a first language by a tiny minority of about 3% of the population.

In doing so, leaders such as Mohamad Yamin wanted a national language that would be an open system: accessible to all and value-free.

This would help bind together a disparate set of peoples: Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu. As such, the language had to be easy to learn, adaptable and open to external influences.

In addition, they wanted to avoid the caste-like strictures of Javanese in which a speaker’s social position was always of paramount importance.

These egalitarian principles were later expanded on by polymaths such as Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana, the essayist and academic, and Goenawan Mohamad, the founding editor of the news weekly Tempo.

Sadly, our language has developed in the opposite direction.

We have endeavoured to make Bahasa Malaysia more Malay and less Malaysian. Our language has evolved into a closed system – shutting out non-Malays and non-Muslims alike.

Is it any wonder then that Bahasa Malaysia has failed to become a unifying force like Bahasa Indonesia?

If we want to move forward, we mustn’t only leverage off Indonesia’s economic strengths. Their politics and society should be an example to us as well.


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