The Proposal to Make Malay an Official ASEAN Language is not Crazy

Last week the Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob remarked that Malay has the potential to be an official language of Southeast Asia. This feels like a rather surreal moment in Malaysian politics, at least according to most of the popular media coverage I’ve seen. Like of course that’s not going to happen, right?

I don’t think the idea of Malay as a working language for ASEAN is unrealistic. In fact, it would be entirely reasonable for ASEAN to designate one of the languages of Southeast Asia as an official or working language. And if you had to pick only one language from the ASEAN member states, it would definitely be Malay.

But of course there would have to be a lot of interesting details to work out. So here’s how to think about what’s going on in Ismail Sabri’s comments.

The first thing to note is that Ismail Sabri distinguishes explicitly between Bahasa Malaysia and Bahasa Melayu. The former is “the Malaysian language,” in the sense of the language of the state of Malaysia. The latter is “the Malay language,” which refers to a family of loosely related and mostly mutually intelligible dialects, many of which are creoles with various levels of official standardization and recognition. The generic term Bahasa Melayu would include the official languages of the states of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei, the Indonesian regional languages of Jambi and Riau, various dialects of Malay spoken in peninsular Malaysia, and the Middle Indonesians of Jakarta, Medan, Makassar, Manado, Kupang, Ambon, and other cities. One often hears “Malay” used to describe the official language of Malaysia, but Ismail Sabri means Malay in the expansive, second sense.

This means that Ismail is talking about the first language of hundreds of millions of people across at least seven countries. It is the majority language in Indonesia and Malaysia and Brunei, it is the national language in Singapore, it is a working language in Timor-Leste (a future ASEAN member), and it is a minority language in southern Thailand and the Philippines. No other single language is so important for so many countries in ASEAN; it’s not even close. It would be much more jarring to make such a case for Thai, Vietnamese, or Tagalog as a working language for ASEAN.

Second, Ismail Sabri’s comments don’t seem to be saying that Malay would be the only official or working language aside from English. It seems reasonable to say that Malay might be one of many, just like German and French are the work languages of the European Union in addition to English.

Third, the idea that there should be no other official languages for ASEAN besides English is a little colonial. It favors Singapore, and secondarily Malaysia and the Philippines. (This paragraph has levels of meaning that you may excavate at your leisure.)

The argument against adopting Malay as an official language of ASEAN is that ASEAN is not yet at the stage where difficult, internally-focused conversations are feasible. That is, making the first language of the largest linguistic group the official language requires a level of social trust and long-term institutional commitment that ASEAN member states do not have.

Put it this way: under what conditions would Vietnam agree to Malay as a working language for ASEAN? Only if it thought that there was a future in which either (1) Vietnamese were afforded such status in exchange or (2) it thought that ASEAN was so dependent on its relations with the Malay-speaking world, and Vietnam so dependent on ASEAN, that this was in Vietnam’s long-term interest.

One might think about this with reference to Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Malaysia, two standardized and official versions of Malay. Malay was a first language of a small minority of Indonesians at independence, although it was spoken as a second language by a larger minority (mostly in urban areas). Making Malay the official language of Indonesia proved to be unifying specifically because it did not favor any of the larger ethnic groups in Indonesia. In Malaysia, where Malay was the first language of a numerical majority of Malaysians at independence, making it the official language has proven divisive for the country’s linguistic minorities. Making Malay the lingua franca of ASEAN would probably be more divisive than unifying among ASEAN members. English, for better or for worse, isn’t so divisive.

Of course, there is also the question of which Malay. The national languages of Malaysia and Indonesia are close enough that one can understand both with some work,* but they are not identical and differences of meaning can sometimes emerge.** But the Middle Indonesians and Malay dialects of peninsular Malaysia can be highly divergent from those national standards: I suspect that a speaker of Kupang Malay would not be able to converse easily with a speaker of Kelantan Malay. Making Malay the lingua franca of ASEAN would mean developing a generic version of Malay which is probably not any of the standardized forms that currently exist.

And finally, if we’re going to talk about the political implications of making Malay a working language of ASEAN, we might also pause to consider the politics of Ismail Sabri’s own remarks. He was making them at a symposium on the Malay language being held by Malaysia’s own national language council, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.*** I view Ismail Sabri’s comments as directed internally towards Malaysians, encouraging them to use Malay in Malaysia as the default working language in business, tech, and education. Such an argument wouldn’t be needed for any other national language in Southeast Asia, which is, itself, an interesting observation.


* I tend to think that the difference between Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Malaysia as roughly equivalent to standard American English and Scots. If you speak one you can understand most of the other but you might prefer the subtitles when watching a TV show. It might be easier for non-native speakers like me to switch between them.

** Best example is kenyang, which means “full” or “stuffed” in Standard Indonesian, but in Bali Malay means something closer to “tumescent.” Cf. “fanny.”

*** Official motto: Bahasa Jiwa Bangsa [= Language is the Soul of the Nation]. (Not ethnic group: nation.)