Yesterday (4/10) I went to visit the "Ekspo Bulan Bahasa Kebangsaan" at the Sarawak Tourism Complex situated right smack in the center of Kuching City (see inset). The yearly exposition takes turn to be held throughout the thirteen states of Malaysia and this year it's Sarawak. At the expo, I dropped by at the DBP 's booth. Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) is the premier Malaysian agency on the development and standardisation of the national language especially regarding its spoken style and spelling which are of real concerns for students or any users of the language nationally and worldwide. The national language was called " Bahasa Malaysia" in the early 70's when linguistic nationalism was at its peak and efforts to optimise the usage of the national language became the norm in the 1980's onwards, culminating in its use as the main medium of instruction in all public universities in Malaysia. I used to teach "Bahasa Malaysia" as a single language at a secondary school in Bintulu in the mid 70's ( after my graduation) and used it daily in official written communication throughout the 80's till early 90's when I was employed as a civil servant.
A Millenium or Global Language?Come the 21st century, some bright Ministers in the Malaysian Cabinet changed the naming of the national language to " Bahasa Melayu". "Melayu" means "Malay", thus 'the Malay language'. Presently Malaysia is caught by a national fever called "One Malaysia" which resembles very much like the " One Unilever" concept introduced a few years ago by Unilever as a means to integrate all its operations globally. Now caught in this latest fever will the national language be faced with a reversal of fortune and be called "Bahasa Malaysia" again? I wonder.
I was glad to be given a copy of the pamphlet on the "Pedoman Bahasa Melayu" - Guide to Malay Language. So it is confirmed. The authority now declares the national language as "Bahasa Melayu". Any doubts? Back home, I turned to page 6 of the pamphlet and couldn't yet fully recover from a rude shock.Let me explain.
In the days of high linguistic nationalism, teachers, students and any users of the language were told to translate "nationalism" as "nationalisma". Now the pamphlet says we are wrong. The latest spelling is "nationalisme". But 5 lines below it I was knocked by another major shock. If "organism" is to be translated correctly as "organisme" today, what then thus "ism" mean when 'nationalism' is to be spelled " nationalisme" while "organism" is to be written as " organisma". Isn't it just plain crazy when "ism" is spelled as "isme" in one and "isma" in another and both are allowable. I guess it is such glaring erratic nuisances that make some a plain hobby to be 'mad about Malaysia'.
Ok, in reading between the two words another word struck me. It's " Optimum". Here's a short story. The word "Optimum" was my school motto in Miri as early as the 60's. I left the school/college in 1969 to take up further studies at University of Pulau Pinang on the historical island of Penang, West Malaysia. Well now, back to Miri in the 80's , the Principal of the school which by then was transformed into a college and who by the way is a Bahasa Malaysia language expert decided to translate the school/college motto and the letters " OPTIMA" appeared on the school emblem, logo, exercise books, certificates, letterheads, badges and whatever paraphernalia related to the college branding. That sounded so upbeat, new, nationalistic and spelling-wise correct. Now according to DBP , the word " Optimum" should be spelled exactly as the English derivative. Will the college authorities, paint over the school's motto and badge to " OPTIMUM" like it was in the 60's? Makes me wonder where DBP is leading us to?