Thu, 10 Mar 2005

On 'Bahasa'

I have long wanted to write to correct the widespread use of the short form Bahasa to describe the Malay language. When the media reports that Singapore is considering teaching Bahasa as a third language in schools, they are saying that Singaporean children are going to be taught "language".

This is neither accurate or informative. Bahasa means language in Malay. Thus Bahasa Inggeris is the English language, Bahasa Arab, the Arabic language etc.

Brunei calls its official language Bahasa Melayu and Malaysia has shifted to using Bahasa Melayu (rather than Bahasa Malaysia) as the full term for the Malay language.

None of the English speaking countries call their principal language "the British Language", "the American Language" etc. Neither do countries like Argentine or Mexico call their main language the Argentinean or Mexican language. It's called Spanish. The list goes on and on from Austria and Australia, Belgium and Brazil through India and Pakistan to Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Malay, in its many varieties, is the official language, the lingua franca and usually the main language of communication in Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia. Bahasa, or "Language", is not. Or if it is, then it is what everyone everywhere speaks, whatever their first language, including in Singapore. Singaporeans don't speak Singaporean. They speak Cantonese, Hokkien, Mandarin, Tamil, English, Singlish, a whole host of other languages, and -- Malay, not Bahasa. Enough said.