Which, Is the National Language of Malaysia? Sigh~

The story revolving around the nomenclature of our national language, vacillates between Bahasa Melayu and Bahasa Malaysia, turns me into an ostrich to bury my embarrassed head in the sand.

1957 ---Bahasa Melayu

1969 ---Bahasa Malaysia

1986 ---Bahasa Melayu

2007 ---Bahasa Malaysia


1957 - Bahasa Melayu

The forefathers of Malaysia have agreed among other things during formation of the nation, that the language of Malays, be the official language. The federal constitution guarantees this privileged status of Malay language or Bahasa Melayu in article 152.

But remember, this event took place during a transitional period from more than a century of British rule to a newly independent nation consisting of different races who are not really comfortable with each other.

One hundred years of using English primarily in schools and government offices to be replaced by Bahasa Melayu within ten years! A human factor that has to be considered is that not everyone has the ability to learn another language fast enough to suit government policy.

1969 - Bahasa Malaysia

Unfortunately, politicians who were in the position to help out were doing the opposite. A bloody racial riot which started on May 13, 1969 prompted the Malaysian government to take remedial measures. During the twenty-one months suspension of Parliament as a result of the riot, a committee called the National Operations Council ( NOC )lead by Deputy Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussain governed Malaysia.

Under NOC, Bahasa Melayu was changed to Bahasa Malaysia for two reasons:

1. To promote the image of Malay language as a language of Malaysians, not just the language of the Malay people.

2. The Malay language in Indonesia is called Bahasa Indonesia making it more acceptable as the national language sets a precedent.

This change of name was not incorporated into the constitution in which the official name is always Bahasa Melayu. Years later, quite a few entities among which the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka is prominent, argued that the proper name of the official language is Bahasa Melayu based on the constitution.

1986 - Bahasa Melayu

Nearly two decades after Anwar Ibrahim's fall from power, politicians point their fingers at him saying that he, in the capacity of the Education Minister, was the one who changed the national language to Bahasa Melayu.

Malaysians in general are not fussy with the two terms be it Bahasa Melayu or Bahasa Malaysia. So is their government. Says the Education Minister who eventually became Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak: "The government is not rigid about this. Although in the constitution the term Bahasa Melayu is used, in certain situations, the use of the term Bahasa Malaysia is allowed...We do not want to go into a debate on semantics. On the government's part, we are being pragmatic by accepting both. This is not an issue to be exaggerated."

However, there are still voices of dissent.

1994-The Education Ministry issued a circular to the media sanctioning only " Bahasa Malaysia". This led to a debate between the Ministry and Malay literary circles.

1999-Malaysia's literary agency Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka ( DBP ) refused to publish a collection of short stories. The reason? The writers used the term " Bahasa Malaysia". DBP's stance is that Bahasa Malaysia is political and it acknowledges Bahasa Melayu. The strange part is, DBP has been publishing books using the term Bahasa Malaysia before this and continues to do so until as late as 2002.

2006-The newly appointed Information Minister Zainuddin Maidin said the term Bahasa Malaysia better reflects the mother tongue of Malaysians and not just of one ethnic group. " Bahasa Malaysia is for all, not just for Malays. Whoever resides in Malaysia, his mother tongue is Bahasa Malaysia...But there are certain parties that are seeking political gain by calling it Bahasa Melayu and using Malay sentiments. But the national language is Bahasa Malaysia. That was the wish of the Tunku ( Abdul Rahman, the first Prime Minister of Malaysia ) and the late Hussein Onn ( 3rd Prime Minister of Malaysia )," he said.

2007 - Bahasa Malaysia

The Cabinet reached a unanimous decision in April to revert to Bahasa Malaysia. This was first published by Sin Chew Daily and the Star in June. We hear the usual story of promoting unity-lah while non-government sources questioned the long time lapse for the Cabinet's decision to reach Malay media which carry the news only after Chinese and English media had highlighted it.

in case there is another 'unanimous' Cabinet decision to revert to Bahasa Melayu in the future, don't tell Wan that she has made a grave mistake concerning the name of this website...


1. The Star, June 4, 2007, "Back to Bahasa Malaysia" by Wong Chun Wai and Audrey Edwards.

2. Language and national identity in Asia, Andrew Simpson

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