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To know Malay is to love Malay – with persuasion

Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka must start by seeing the Malay language as a great product that people must be convinced to “buy” instead of its usage being enforced.

Putting aside concerns about the deteriorating standards of English, something so critical for our overall economic success, let’s focus on what we can do to help Malay become the dominant language in Malaysia.

Here’s the reality: English is critical and popular because it’s the global language. No other language comes even close.

Mandarin has a huge and growing following, but mostly concentrated in China. However, other languages are also in a good position to make themselves popular across the world.

Malay is clearly one of them. But not in its current form.

We should strategically work together with Indonesia again, as Malay is very closely related to Bahasa Indonesia, and we worked with them in the 1970s when we standardised the spelling of common words.

But we must clearly accept that Indonesia is the big brother in this relationship.

The common language that will result from blending the two won’t be as pure as Malay currently is, though seeing how rapidly English is being hijacked into Malay (“sukses”, seriously?), wouldn’t it be better instead to accept changes from our cousins across the Straits of Malacca?

English itself is an amalgam of many languages. Having started out as a Germanic language, it went on to absorb a lot of words from Latin, Greek, Spanish and other languages too, including French.

While the French are concerned about the absorption of English into their language, the British are less concerned about absorbing French into theirs.

As long as the absorption and changes are controlled and monitored, it’s not a problem. This is what Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) is well equipped to do.

Promote multilingualism

However, what has happened is that social media users have created their own version of the language, which is rapidly evolving into a patois that could overwhelm its parent languages.

This is why it’s so important for Malaysians to be multilingual. Otherwise, the population will just adopt and bastardise other languages, currently English but it could easily be Mandarin or Korean, creating an unholy linguistic monster down the road.

DBP must promote multilingualism while sending the message that Malay is of equal importance to people’s mother tongues and English. Why do we want to force people to forget their mother tongues when we ourselves think our own mother tongue is so important?

And what chance do we stand in trying to marginalise English? It’s easy to be employed by the government and push for this – but those of us living in the real world who have to fight for every single bit of advantage in life won’t bother with whatever exhortations, or even punishments the DBP can dish out.

Becoming a regional power

I know the DBP is really serious about making Malay a powerful regional language, and a well-loved one in Malaysia. But to do that, it must get over the enforcement mindset and adopt a marketing mindset.

It must start by seeing the Malay language as a great product that it must convince people to “buy”. It must understand there’s competition, some of which are “better” in terms of history, utility etc, especially English and increasingly, Mandarin.

It must also accept that there are many disincentives for learning and using Malay. That’s a big negative, and unfortunately tied to many other almost intractable social and political issues. Many see the Malay language as a symbol of the political battles being waged against them, and hence attach a very negative connotation to it.

Must we pay to use Malay?

What if, as a marketer, you adopt the mindset that you must persuade, and not force, people to like your “product”? You would then adopt a very different attitude and strategy and skills and direct your investment away from increasing the bureaucracy, punishment and rent-seeking activities.

After all, how far away are we from having to “pay”, whether in actual fees or in “coffee money”, for permits for signboards and commercials and texts and computer software?

That’s exactly what’s waiting for us down the road.

We must exploit technology and use whatever tool is available, such as mobile apps, and increasingly, AI-driven solutions. Put the entire Malay lexicon on super-fast servers and make it available without charge so people can develop apps to learn the language and make money from it.

By letting free enterprise and competition come into play, the chances of success would be much higher. After all, what do we have to lose?

Change DBP’s attitude

Enough with using politics to force people to do what you have elsewhere conditioned their mind to dislike. Stop thinking about creating a bureaucracy that will run wild, much like the French, who invented the term in the first place.

The DBP should stop salivating about having power and making money. If it wants to do so, ditch its legal protection and come out here in the real world and fight on a level playing field. Its success shouldn’t be tied to KPIs about the number of fines collected or the number of prosecutions initiated.

Rather, its success must be tied to whether we see Malay growing in its use, not by those compelled to use it such as the government and public sectors, but by those who aren’t, such as the business, education and cultural sectors.

Malay must be branded properly. We are not a global language. We’re not even a regional language – the Indonesians have a better claim to that. Let’s call it instead what we want it to be – the language of Malaysians, or Bahasa Malaysia.

Misguided politics

Calling it Bahasa Melayu was a misguided political attempt to assert superiority when we should be striving instead to build something up rather than crowing about silly political victories.

It’s clearly one of those decisions that has resulted in Malay being where it is today – in need of even more help and protection, rather than a growing, blooming and much loved language.

As a beautiful Malay proverb says so succinctly, “alahsabung, menang sorak” (it’s in the DBP’s online dictionary!). It means we win the shouting while losing the actual fight.

If we can get the Indonesians on board, we can even brand it as Bahasa Nusantara. Sure, both sides would have to make some sacrifices (more so for the Indonesians, actually), but how could we succeed without sacrifices?

Belt & Road collision

We don’t have much time. There are many competing languages in Southeast Asia trying to be dominant. Malay is the least dominant speaker-wise, compared to the number of speakers of Bahasa Indonesia, Thai, Tagalog, Vietnamese etc.

Soon Mandarin will come rumbling down the many Belts and Roads being built by China, and we could become roadkill in the battles between the East and the West.

DBP, and the government that funds and empowers it, must really take a hard, unflinching look at the matter. This is pretty much our last chance to build Malay into a strong regional player. Otherwise, habis lah.

Source: Free Malaysia Today