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Malay - the national language of Malaysia

K. Alexander Adelaar

This section gives an overview of the development of Malay into the national language of
Malaysia since the introduction of British rule. For the history of Malay in Southeast Asia
prior to that period, see Adelaar and Prentice and furthermore Grimes (this Atlas).
For the way standard Malay interacts with other languages in Malaysia, see under the
heading Malaysia in Adelaar and Prentice (this Atlas).
For standard Malay in Singapore and Brunei, see also under the headings Singapore and
Brunei in Adelaar and Prentice (this Atlas).

Malaysia is a multiracial society consisting of Malays, Chinese, Indians, Kadazans, Ibans

and a large number of smaller ethnic groups. Malay is the native language of the Malays,
the largest ethnic group making up about half of the population. A standardised form of
Malay has become the national language. Like Indonesian, this standardised Malay is
based on the literary language of the courts of Riau and Johore.
Malay became the national language in 1957 with the proclamation of
independence. The language had received relatively little government attention during the
period of colonisation.
Between 1786 and 1919 the Malay Peninsula gradually became a British colony
known as 'Malaya' (Andaya and Andaya 1982:205)1. The British encouraged large
numbers of Chinese and Indians to come to the Peninsula to work in tin mines and on
rubber estates. As a result of this policy the Malays became a minority in their own
country and were already outnumbered by the Chinese alone. Of a total population of five
and a half million in the Malay Peninsula in
1941, there were 44% Chinese, 40.5% Malays, 14% Indians, 0.5% Europeans and
Eurasians, and 1% others.
Under British rule, the Malays continued to practice their traditional lifestyle in a
hierarchically highly structured society. Malay education was mainly of a religious
character. It concentrated on reading Koran texts (in Arabic), and did not include the
study of their own language. Secular education for Malays started in the Straits
Settlements at the instigation of the British colonial administrator and founder of
Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles. The first school for Malays was founded in 1821 in
Penang, and during the following decades a restricted number of other primary schools
were founded by the government and missions in Singapore and Malacca.

1Penang, Singapore and Malacca, the so-called 'Straits Settlements', were the first regions
to come under British rule. They were followed by other parts of the Malay Peninsula
which were politically divided into the Federated Malay States (Negeri Sembilan,
Pahang, Perak and Selangor) and the Unfederated Malay States (Johore, Kedah, Perlis,
Kelantan and Trengganu).
Real government interest in Malay education only began after1867, and education
lagged behind in both the Federated Malay States and the Unfederated Unfederated
States. In the Unfederated Malay States, some of which came under British protectorate
at a rather late stage of the colonisation process, the first Malay school was founded in
1897 in Kedah, in Kelantan in 1903, and in Trengganu2 in 1915.

A major turning point in Malay education was the appointment of an Inspector of

Schools (for the co-ordination of school systems) and an Assistant Director in charge of
Malay Vernacular Education in the Straits Settlements and the Federated Malay States.
R.O. Winstedt, a famous scholar of Malay language and customs, was appointed to the
position of Assistant Director of Malay Vernacular Education in 1916.
The first Primary Teacher Training College was founded in 1876 in Singapore.
(The first Teacher Training College for women was established in 1935 in Malacca).
Conscious thinking about the curriculum of Malay schools began with the establishment
of a Malay training college in Malacca. The Acting Head was R.J. Wilkinson, another
well-known scholar of Malay language and culture. He improved the curriculum,
changing the textbooks and collecting and publishing a large number of Malay classics
which became textbooks in the colleges and in the village schools.
In 1922 the Sultan Idris Teachers College was opened. This was a more
centralised teacher training college administered by Winstedt, who prepared a unified
curriculum for teacher training in the Straits Settlements, the Federated Malay States and
the Unfederated Malay States.
In 1923 a Translation Bureau (attached to the Education Department of the
colonial government in Kuala Lumpur) was established, with Zainal Abidin bin Ahmad
as first translator. He later became a prominent Malay linguist and is usually referred to
by the abbreviation Za'ba. In 1924 the Translation Bureau became a branch of the Sultan
Idris Training College. Its functions were (1) the development of educational
publications, (2) the publication of modern novels, (3) providing translations for other
government departments, and (4) the training of Probationer Translator.
Za'ba tried to improve the Translation Bureau by moving in the direction being taken by
the Balai Pustaka (see Grimes) but he did not succeed. The Sultan Idris teachers College
forms a landmark in the development of Malay. It influenced the teaching of Malay in
Malaysia as well as in Singapore and Brunei, Sarawak and Sabah.
The establishment of Secondary Schools in Malay, however, did not take place
until after the Second World War.

Malay did play an important role in pre-war Malaysia and Singapore. It was a lingua
franca some form of which was understood by about 80% of the population, and it had
the status of a second official language after English. All civil servants were supposed to
know Malay.
But the true emergence of the Malay language was due to the rise of the
nationalist movement in the 50's, when independence became a major aspiration.
Before the Second World War Malay a new intellectual elite arose among the
Malays. Its members consisted of British-educated members of the aristocracy, graduates

2Presently officially known as Tengganu.
from Muslim educational centres, and graduates from the Sultan Idris Teacher Training
College in Tanjung Malim. This elite was well aware of the economical and educational
disadvantages of the Malays compared to other ethnic groups in the country. In 1946 it
founded the UMNO (United Malays National Organisation), a political party which
favoured the creation of a federation of independent Malay states. It later entered into a
coalition with the Chinese and Indian ethnic parties. This coalition won the 1955
elections and obtained independence in 1957. The full meaning of national independence
was realised in several stages in the following years. The coalition formed a Pemerintah
Aliansi (Allied Government), which had education and the national language as high
priorities in its program. Malay was accepted as the future national and official language
by all three parties.
Prior to independence an educational committee was created in 1956, led by the
future Minister of Education Abdul Razak bin Datuk Hussein. In the so-called 'Razak
Report' the Committee recommended that Malay should become the national language of
the country. It would be medium of instruction in all primary and secondary schools. A
Language Institute was to be created for this purpose, and moreover for teacher training
in the Malay language, and for research into the Malay language and its teaching.
The Razak Report became a blueprint for future language policy. In the first
Malayan Constitution of 1957, it was established that the national language should be
Malay. The National Language Act of 1967 determined that the national language would
be the sole official language of the country. (In 1967 Malay was renamed Bahasa
Malaysia [Malaysian] in an effort to make non-Malays more willing to identify with it. In
recent years, however, it has been officially renamed Bahasa Melayu [Malay]).
In 1959 the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka was established to fulfil the following
tasks: (1) the development and enrichment of the national language, (2) the promotion of
literary talent especially in the national language, (3) printing and publication, or
assistance in printing or publication, of books, magazines, pamphlets and other forms of
literature in the national language as well as in the other languages, and (4) the
compilation and publication of a national language dictionary. By the end of 1966 475
titles had been published. At the beginning of 1967 about 70,000 Malay technological
terms had been coined. 1970 saw the publication of a comprehensive Malay dictionary
(Iskandar 1970). The Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka was also the center for the National
Language Campaign to encourage the people to use the national language regularly in
their daily lives.
Sabah and Sarawak became part of Malaysia in 1963. Sabah proclaimed Malay as
its official language in 1973, Sarawak did so in 1985 (Asmah 1994:70).

The implementation of Malay as a national language in Malaysia has not been without its
problems. Both from the point of view of its practical application and from the point of
view of its acceptance in a multi-ethnic society, it has been a more difficult process than
the implementation of Indonesian in Indonesia (Aveling 1990).
Although upon Independence 80% of the population knew some form of Malay, it
did so in a variety of different dialects and sociolects, and usually not in the standardised
literary form that became the national language (Aveling 1990). Before Independence,
Chinese and Indians often only knew a form of trade Malay, whereas Malays themselves
spoke various forms of vernacular Malay, which differ considerably from the national
language. As a result, many Malaysians (including Malays) have had difficulties in
adapting themselves to the standard form of the national language.
Another factor has been the need for Malay to compete with English, a world
language and "the language of judiciary and legislation, science and technology,
business, commerce and industry and the mass media, in other words, the language of the
controlling domains" (Nik Safiah 1970:142)
Non-Malays have sometimes seen the requirement of Malay in education and for
all sorts of jobs as a form a discrimination. Their feeling is strenghtened by the
government's policy of giving preferential treatment to Malays in higher education and in
certain jobs where they were traditionally under-represented (Aveling 1990).
On the other hand, nationalist Malays often find that the government has been too
lax in implementing the national language. They resent the role of English as still an
important language in public life. They also resent the re-introduction of English as a
medium of instruction in tertiary education in 1993 (Aveling 1990).

Nevertheless, an important consideration in the assessment of the implementation of

Standard Malay in Malaysia should be the younger generation. Thay have accepted the
national language and are fluent in it, irrespective the different ethnic backgrounds of its
individual members.

The oldest form of Malay was written in a South Indian version of the Brahmi script, as is
evidenced by Old Malay inscriptions from the 7th century A.D. onwards. After the
introduction of Islam (around 1300 A.D.) the Arabic script was adopted, which in its
adaptation to Malay became known as "Jawi"3. Although there was no spelling unity in
the use of Jawi, when the Europeans arrived in Southeast Asia, the Riau standard of this
script seemed to have been predominant. The Europeans found the Roman script easier
and more adequate for writing Malay, and they used it as early as the 17th century. There
was little uniformity in their spelling conventions. Throughout the 19th century the
Roman script expanded gradually. By the end of the 19th century the Straits Branch of
the Royal Asiatic Society provided a spelling system for the transliteration of Malay
names and words into English. In 1878 this system was adopted for official publications
by the government of the Straits Settlements. Meanwhile a certain amount of uniformity
in the use of Jawi was reached with the publication of several Jawi manuals in the late
19th century and the 20th century (Vikør 1988:11-13).
With the development of a more extensive education system for the Malays at the
turn of the century, the Roman script became an instrument for the promotion of literacy.
Wilkinson drafted a consistent spelling system which was adopted in 1904 in the
Federated Malay States. The so-called "Wilkinson spelling" underwent some minor
revisions made by Za'ba in the 30's. It was used in schools until 1972, when it was
replaced by the "Ejaan Yang Disempurnakan" or "Perfected Spelling", the official
spelling system in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei (Vikør 1988:11-27).

3The frequent claim that Jawi is an adaptation of the Persian version of the Arabic script
needs further investigation.
Although far less widespread than the Roman script (or "Rumi"), Jawi is still used
in public life in the form of a daily newspaper, government publications, street signs,
names of buildings, trade labels and (sometimes) modern literature. In 1970 it was
included in the Primary School curriculum (Abdul Razak and Mokhtar Mohd. 1977:ix).
In this respect Malaysia is different from Indonesia, where the use of Jawi is largely
confined to religious literature.

Singapore and Brunei

The national languages of Singapore and Brunei are based on the standard Malay of
Since the separation of Malaya and Singapore in 1965, Malay has remained the
national language in Singapore, but it is only one of Singapore's four official languages
together with English, Mandarin and Tamil. (See also Singapore in Adelaar and Prentice,
this Atlas).
The Brunei Constitution of 1959 states that Malay is the official language,
although English may still be used for all official purposes. Brunei has followed the same
trends as Malaysia. Most school books come from Malaysia. Brunei has its own Dewan
Bahasa dan Pustaka which besides publishing books and magazines also coins modern
terms (Takdir 1975). See also Brunei in Adelaar and Prentice (this Atlas).

Bibliographical sources

The main source for this chapter is:

Takdir Alisjahbana, S., 1976, Language planning for modernization. The case of
Indonesian and Malaysian. Contributions to the sociology of language 14.
(Joshua A. Fishman ed.) Mouton: The Hague - Paris

Other publications referred to in this chapter:

Abdul Razak Abdul Hamid, Haji, and Haji Mokhtar Mohd. Dom, 1977 Belajar tulisan
Jawi / Learn Jawi. Kuala Lumpur: Fajar Bakti
Abdullah Hassan, ed., 1994, Language planning in Southeast Asia. Kuala Lumpur:
Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.
Andaya, Barbara Watson, and Leonard Y. Andaya, 1982, A History of Malaysia. London
and Basingstoke: Macmillan
Asmah Haji Omar, 1994, Nationism and exoglossia: the case of English in Malaysia, in
Abdullah Hassan ed. ..., 66-85
Aveling, Harry, 1990, Perencanaan dan kebijakan bahasa di Malaysia, Kritis 5/2:20-35
Iskandar (Teuku) ed., 1970, Kamus Dewan. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Pahasa dan Pustaka
Nik Safiah Karim, 1994, The controlling domains of bahasa Melayu: the story of
language planning in Malaysia, in Abdullah Hassan ed. ..., 133-150
Vikør, Lars S., 1988, Perfecting spelling. Spelling discussions and reforms in Indonesia
and Malaysia, 1900-1972. Verhandelingen van het Koninklijk Instituut voor
Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 133. Dordrecht (Holland)/Providence (USA): Foris