The issue of “Bahasa ASEAN” came up again in Thailand, in a report on Voice TV:
A Chulalongkorn University research “Human Resources Preparation for the Opening of the ASEAN Market” has found that Thai will be another important language of communication and a common language in ASEAN on par with English because Thailand is the center of ASEAN. Lately it’s been found that [people in] the neighboring countries such as Lao PDR, Cambodia and Myanmar have become more interested in learning Thai.
Mr. Sompong Jitpradap, education lecturer, Chulalongkorn University, revealed that given the research findings, preparatory steps should be made to export Thai language teachers for foreigners [to] expand Thai education system. The ASEAN free trade will be an impetus for a more systematic education reform.
At present Thailand has many teachers of Thai language and students in Thai language major. However, the number and the quality of Thai language human resources have not yet been determined.
No one can fault the Malaysian or Thai officials for desiring to see their respective national language gain more prominence in the region. Indeed, there would be a lot of benefits, economically, culturally and politically. At the same time, however, no one can deny the importance of English, which is the de facto Bahasa ASEAN.
The reality is English will continue to be the most important language in ASEAN for a long time to come—perhaps until Chinese manages to take over. True, not all citizens of ASEAN are proficient in English but it is the only language that all ASEAN member countries have common proficiency and this proficiency will only increase. This is actually where Thai officials and citizens alike should be very, very concerned about: Thais’ dismal English proficiency.
The ASEAN market will have a free flow in 2015. That’s barely three years left for Thais to improve English proficiency, if Thais are really serious about moving ahead in ASEAN. Thais should also start learning the languages of our neighbors. Promote Thai language too, of course. All of these can be done, while learning to talk English seriously. After all, it can only help.
Versions of this debate could easily be held in Vietnam, Myanmar, and other ASEAN countries. The point is that we already have a “Bahasa ASEAN”, and it is English, the language of globalization. ASEAN can and should support its local languages, but continued improvement in English is a must for cohesion in all three pillars of ASEAN.