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Promoting the national language: Steps in the right direction

To promote a language globally, a government has to work with educational institutions to introduce the language into their curriculum

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Brickbats and accolades have met Prime Minister Ismail Sabri’s move to promote Malaysia’s national language, Bahasa Malaysia, internationally.

First, no one is disputing that Malaysians hold their national language in high esteem.

But the problem is there is widespread confusion as to what to call that national language.

Some politicians and media keep stating that it is bahasa Melayu (Malay language).

But more inclusive thinkers believe our national language should be called Bahasa Malaysia (Malaysian language).

We need to resolve this label first in our backyard before we start promoting the language globally.

Second, as others have pointed out, the PM’s ambition to table a resolution at Asean to change the article that proclaims English as the common language of the region will spark much suspicion among member nations that uphold non-interference.

Other member nations will – and rightly so – question why the common language should not be their own nation’s language.

Some may even postulate that since their country has double the population size compared to Malaysia, their national language ought to be the common Asean language languare.

Hence Malaysia is entering troubled waters with its nationalistic proclamation of wanting to make Malaysia’s national language the medium of communication at Asean events.

Third, communications technology is racing ahead with English as the preferred medium of information, ‘infotainment’ and ‘edutainment’. So what is the incentive for the world to take an interest in a third world language from a country that has only 32 million people?

Let’s get real. While nationalistic sentiments do count in uniting a multiracial country like ours, selling the story of gloated pride globally will only fall flat if not backfire.

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Fourth, the fundamental fulcrum that balances human communication is the ability to speak in order to be understood with clarity and ease. The need to translate before comprehension is attained is only borne out of acute necessity.

So while we may gloat at the idea that we are introducing our national language at international platforms where English has been the long-established norm, are we not undermining our intention to be understood easily, clearly and correctly?

Considering the four reasons above, perhaps the Malaysian government would be wiser to take a more difficult but sensible pathway to promote Bahasa Malaysia globally.

It must be a national policy – and not a preference of a prime minister or a political party – to promote Bahasa Malaysia globally. Otherwise, each time we change prime ministers or have a political party that forms an in-coming government, we would have confused the international communities with our flip-flops.

Invest in information technology and communications mediums that makes the use of Bahasa Malaysia attractive and widespread along the information, infotainment and edutainment highways.

Create games and promote story-telling, novelty arts and crafts and spellbinding performing arts and shows in Bahasa Malaysia. Let these gain traction in the world.

Make the language an experiential attraction that gains popular buy-ins. This is for the long haul. Language popularity cannot be imposed, enforced or stubbornly bulldozed. It takes time and investment to build.

To promote a language globally, a government has to work with educational institutions to introduce the language into their curriculum. This is possible only when the educational sectors recognise the consistency, longevity and richness of a language.

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Hence, in our own backyard, we must first raise the quality of Bahasa Malaysia content.

From experience, we know that we are not adequate in this aspect. Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka must be empowered with budgets and capable human capital to enrich and strengthen the language. The language has to attain a standard that can be well recognised by educational institutes globally.

Hopefully, our leaders will think this through thoroughly. People also need to think this through rationally and deeply before we go bananas over such announcements of making the national language the lingua franca of the world.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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Ab Rahman
Ab Rahman
6 Mar 2022 8.41am

This is a NATO PM. A “tin kosong” . Preoccupied with pronouncing or parroting trashy slogans which he himself does not really comprehend fully .

Paul Lim
Paul Lim
6 Mar 2022 3.51am

It is ok to promote Bahasa in Malaysia but it is even more important in the 21st century to promote multi-lingualism to find a place for Malaysia. Bahasa will never be the Language of ASEAN and don’t try to create disputes in ASEAN. Even Indonesia does not promote its Bahasa version when as a biggest country it does not try. Will Thailand and the Philippines allow this? Forget about promoting Bahasa international. China has more reason than Malaysia. Even a small country like the Netherlands does not promote its language as an international langage but have first class speakers of English. Small countries like Malaysia can only survive with a multi-lingualism. All European countries have 3 languages taught including their mother tongue.

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