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Four is better than one - bahasa rojak, a uniquely Malaysian treasure

by Edward Khoo

Many countries have only one official language; some may have a couple. But only in Malaysia would you find four different tongues in one, all jostling for attention under a single linguistic umbrella. Listen to conversation on the streets of Kuala Lumpur, and you'll hear Malay being liberally peppered with English, Mandarin or Tamil phrases, with the ebb and flow of each language adjusting to the audience and subject of the talker in question.

Welcome to the excitingly jumbled world of 'bahasa rojak', the lingua franca of urban youth in the diverse cultural melting pot of Malaysia. But this uniquely Malaysian approach, to getting the peoples of its many ethnic groups communicating with each other, does have its detractors. It is the Malay language makes up much the bedrock of bahasa rojak - and for many Malaysians, especially in officialdom, the easy language mix of bahasa rojak is a threat to the mother tongue.

But how exactly did Malaysians end up with such fascinating language hybrid in the first place - and is it really a modern-day dumbing down of Malay culture and language? Well, it turns out that Malaysia owes its bahasa rojak (which simply means 'mixed language in Malay, by the way) not so much to the modern curse of globalization - but more to the centuries-old polyglot nature of languages in the trading crossroads of Malacca.

A bustling port since it's founding in the 15th century, the arrival of the European colonial powers added Portuguese, Dutch and English to the mix of Arabic, Chinese, Indian and Malay tongues spoke in the seafront shanties. To oil to cogs of trade, communication was obviously at a premium, and traders and seamen alike would converse in many languages at once - looking to gain an understanding from the other parties with at least one set of phrases. So the Malaysian ability to blend languages, into a pidgin tongue was born.

The modern-day bahasa rojak may not be directly passed on from those times, when the Malaysian Straits were the epicenter of east-west trade. But that knack of language blending and borrowing wasn't lost, and is kept alive through today's thriving community of Malays, Chinese and Tamil Indians. English has also been a big part of Malaysia's language scene, even after independence, and has become even more prevalent since the advent of globalization made it the international language of business.

So naturally enough, for youths looking out to the wider world, they picked up English from cultural influences on the internet, TV and in films. They added more English to their new version of pidgin, to give it a cool international edge (even though the name this blend is sometimes given, 'Manglish', sounds less than hip). The fact that bahasa rojak is partly coming from the outside world is possibly why the older Malaysian generation find it sticking in their throats - it can seem like a beachhead for an assault on Malay culture in general.

That has led to the government of Malaysia attempting to push back the tide of bahasa rojak. Pure Malay has been emphasized as the language of official communication - and TV stations were given their orders to clean themselves of the 'language pollution' of bahasa rojak. Even comics have been pressured to cut out 'bahasa malaysia' dialogues.

This power of language, to excite passions, hit a peak when a new national educational policy, that of teaching maths and science in English, had to be abandoned. The idea was to bring Malaysia up to the levels of English speaking seen in Singapore, and so help Malaysians to take part more fully in the new global economy. Middle-class parents were all for it - but defenders of Malay cultural purity were not. After riots in Kuala Lumpur, the 5-year experiment was bought to a close.

So will the renewed defense of formal Malay, and the official undermining of bahasa rojak, lead to it finally fading away? Well, if the experience of France is anything to go by, probably not. There, major efforts were made by the French government to defend their language from its own English assault - Franglais. But after decades of official frowning, English-phrases have still wormed their way into everyday discourse in France. Languages don't seem to be able to be nailed into place.

After all language is a living breathing thing, constantly absorbing, adapting and changing. And those driving the changes, in any society, are its inheritors - the youth. Whilst they are still being caught up in the cultural fusions of globalization, it's likely that the words they use will evolve too. Maybe Malaysians of all persuasions and groups can learn to love bahasa rojak for what it is - a uniquely adaptable language that takes the best of all-comers - and one that all of Malaysia owns.

About the author

Edward Khoo is a writer who is proud of his language and based in one of the exotic and tropical islands of Malaysia.

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