Last week Malaysian Minister of Information, Communication and Culture Rais Yatim proposed that Malay (Bahasa) be adopted as an official language within ASEAN. “It’s very good that we try to put Malay language side by side with German, French, Arabic, so that it becomes a lingua franca,” according to a Vivanews.com report.
Now Minister Rais is not proposing that Malay replace English as the official language of ASEAN. English was adopted because it was the only language which the Southeast Asian countries had some common experience with, although at varying levels of proficiency.
Bahasa in multiple forms is widely spoken in Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and southern Thailand, with lesser usage in Indochina and the Philippines. Encouraging the use of Bahasa would support the socio-cultural pillar of ASEAN and the ASEAN Economic Community as a practical language of commerce. After all, the EU has multiple official languages, with French and English being the most common working languages of the EU institutions.
Now, French is used in the EU because it was the traditional language of political diplomacy in Europe, and English is used in the EU because it is the modern language of commerce in Europe. ASEAN, English fulfills both functions, limiting the wider use of Bahasa.
The bigger issues regarding the use of Bahasa are both historical and practical. The issue of which Bahasa to use, Bahasa Indonesia or Bahasa Melayu, raises both points. The vocabularies are somewhat different, reflecting the different influences of Dutch and English, respectively. These language differences still have historical meaning. This is important in a region with long, proud histories, where Malaysians and Indonesians have had cultural disputes over the origin of batik, rendang and traditional dances.
Another issue, of course, regards resources. If ASEAN adopts Bahasa as another official language, will the ASEAN members provide the additional funding to support it at the Secretariat and other institutions? ASEAN won’t need the vast army of translators that the EU institutions use, but Bahasa, in either form, has nuances that require skilled bilingual personnel.
Finally, adopting another official language could raise questions about whether other languages should be adopted as official ASEAN languages. Chinese and Thai/Lao are other potential candidates, but with their own practical, political and historical issues.
In short, Minster Rais’s proposal recognizes the vital role of Bahasa in the region. Following up on it requires further study and addressing these historical and practical issues. Hopefully the use of Bahasa can help unify ASEAN, not divide its members. In the meantime we will continue to use English in ASEAN as the primary language. That is our "Bahasa ASEAN."