25 October 2010

Bahasa Indonesia & Bahasa Malaysia

Malaysian Columnist for THE STAR

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 national 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.


  1. You are quite correct, Sir. In Indonesia the Chinese speak Bahasa Indonesia better than the Malay people in Malaysia speak Bahasa Malaysia.

    Malaysia may be more advanced economically now, but it is more backward politically and culturally. Your government's decision to align what is otherwise a naturally dynamic language (Malay) with race (Malays) and religion (Islam) is a negative contributor to the language being adapted by people of other races, religions, and ethnic groups. Not so in Indonesia.

    By the way, Jember and Pekanbaru are more accurately third-tier cities than second-tier.

  2. but if it's only by culture, we CAN'T make our country better! The important thing i can say, protect your language and conquer other as well. That's when you'll LEAD. :)

    P/S: i really love this article. Makasih ya...

  3. Yes, I think Malaysia is a best example for a LOW TRUS NATION. Melayu never trust Chinese and Indians, Malay Muslim never trust Christian, even never let Christian to pray or read Bible in Bahasa Malaysia. I think this is the best way for Malaysia to end its story.

  4. bagus banget tulisannya karim raslan... bisa memberikan perspektif baru tentang indonesia.

  5. Indonesian or Malay, both mean language of it's 'eponym'. Why would you embellish it with 'bahasa'? It's cumbersome and surely it doesn't do well when you talk about la langue Fran├žaise in an English text, instead of simply French.

    Biasa begitu kalau berbicara mengenai bahasa Perancis atau Xhosa dalam bahasa Melayu atau Indonesia.. Tidak begitu tentu kalau menulis.dalam bahasa Inggris, tak perlu lagi ditulis kata 'bahasa' karena kata 'English' atau 'Indonesian' sudah mengartikan nama bahasa.

  6. Kumpul Rebo, dalam artikel ini Karim Raslan menggunakan Indonesian atau Bahasa Indonesia, Malay (Bahasa Melayu), dan Bahasa Malaysia. Tidak pernah dia menggunakan Bahasa Indonesian atau Bahasa Malaysian atau Bahasa Malay. Jadi baca yang cermat sebelum komentar.