A few days ago, when I told a Frenchman that I came from Malaysia, he said, ‘Ah, you have a simple language.’ It was not the first time someone had told me that s/he thought Malay “simple”. The sub-text, albeit unarticulated, was usually: “simple language, simple people”.
I felt it again with this Frenchman, a European condescension towards my Asian culture. I thought to myself: what does he even know about Malay?
Malay was a language of my childhood, one of three. My family spoke English and Cantonese at home but I was taught in Malay at school – part of the first intake of students to be educated exclusively in the Malay language in what had previously been English-medium schools.
I learned the language, but failed to appreciate its poetic beauty. This was partly because in Malaysia, Mathematics and the Sciences are more highly regarded than the Humanities, and partly because of the political context in which the switch from English to Malay took place.
It occurred in the aftermath of May 13 1969, a day on which Malaysians of Chinese origin were targeted for slaughter at the hands of mobs of Malays in Kuala Lumpur’s streets. The killings occurred after UMNO – the political party which has ruled Malaysia since its independence from Britain in 1957 – and its allies lost the popular vote and many parliamentary seats in a general election.
The period afterwards was a time of radical change. Within about a year, Malaysia had a new Prime Minister; within two years, a raft of racially discriminatory measures was put in place. It was then that Malay was imposed as the medium of instruction in previously English-medium schools.
Language, of course, is not only a means of communication: it is also a political tool. In Malaysia certainly, language and religion are used adroitly by UMNO. UMNO understood early on the power of language. It has been uncommonly adept at choosing emotive words and at using these words to craft an insidious political narrative.
Thus I grew up hearing that I was pendatang yang tumpang sahaja di Malaysia, a newcomer who was only squatting in Malaysia. This was the backdrop in which I was taught Malay. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I never stopped to think about what a beautiful language Malay actually is. If French (which I speak) is romantic, then Malay is poetic. It was only when I started writing a novel and began filling my landscapes with characters who ran around speaking different languages that I was struck by just how poetic the Malay language is.
Take for instance the simple concept of homeland. The Malay equivalent is tanahair, literally translated as “soil (tanah) water (air)”, in other words the earth and water from which you come. I hope you will agree that the expression “my soil and water” is much more evocative than “homeland”.
Or take that well-known beast, the “orang-utan”. In truth, the latter is a bastardisation of the words orang, meaning a person, and hutan, meaning forest. Orang hutan is actually “a person of the forest”. The phrase, if you think about it, is immensely inclusive; it says, “Here is the forest, we share it with this creature which is not so different from us – a person of the forest.” For me, orang hutan captures the essence of traditional Malay culture, which was at once utterly respectful of others and very gentle towards them.
Even that wonderful political creation, the bumiputera – the prince (putera) of the earth (bumi) or son of the soil, a person who by dint of race or religion is privileged in Malaysia – has a certain ring to it. From a purely linguistic standpoint, the word bumiputera is really rather beautiful.
There are many other examples, and yet poetic beauty is not what people think of when they mention the Malay language. Instead they say what the Frenchman said to me: Malay is “simple”.
What he and others don’t seem to realise is that Malay was written using the Arabic script, a form known as Jawi, until quite recently. I discovered this for myself while carrying out research for my second novel (for which incidentally I have completed a first draft). Most of this research took place at the National Library of Singapore (whose generous opening hours of between 10 a.m. and 9 p.m. allowed me ample time to work). There, shivering in the ultra-cold air-conditioning which Malaysians and Singaporeans seem to favour, I found that the Malay language newspapers I wanted to read had been published solely in the Arabic script. On further digging, I could not find a single Malay newspaper which had not been printed in Jawi up to the Second World War. I was of course unable to read any of them; the Jawi which we had been taught in school was rudimentary, because Jawi was already not in everyday use by the time I went to school.
If Malay were still written today the way it used to be – in the Arabic script – would people go around denigrating it as a simple language?
I grew up hearing and speaking Malay every day but I took the language for granted, in the same way Malaysians assume they will see the sun every day. Only recently have I rediscovered Malay. At the same time, I began to appreciate the richness of Malaysia’s multilingual environment. I can easily recall the distinctive sounds of my native country: Malay, with its elegant smoothness; the no-frills brand of Cantonese I grew up with, rough and ready, a far cry from the haughty Hong Kong version but more in tune with the go-getting entrepreneurs who spoke it loudly and merrily; and the energetic, tongue-rolling Tamil used by our Indian friends, full of indecipherable syllables at which I could only shake my head.
We in Malaysia are fortunate to have this wealth as our heritage. But I have yet to hear a Malaysian adoring any of our languages the way the French adore theirs. The French are happy to debate the intricacies of their language for hours and will happily tell you how wonderful French is. This is something I wish Malaysians could also do, starting with our national language, Bahasa Malaysia. I would love to see Malaysians not only owning Bahasa Malaysia and learning it with enthusiasm, but also acknowledging its inherent poetry and being proud of it.