Malaysian Language and Malay

The identity of the national language in Malaysia is an ongoing debate. Is it the Malay language or, the Malaysian language? Is Malay language the same as the Malaysian language? A close inspection gives us a definite answer: NO.

Let’s begin with the Malay spoken during the Sultanate of Malacca. After Malacca fell to the Portuguese, the Malay ruler ship of Malacca moved to Johor and then retreated further to Riau to reemerge as the glorious Johor-Riau empire. Anglo-Dutch Treaty 1824 separated this empire: Johor to the British and Riau to the Dutch.

The Dutch established Riau Malay schools in other parts of Indonesia and upon it Bahasa Indonesia is based. How about the Malaya side? The commonly known version is the man who later became the first Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tunku

Abdul Rahman, talked ethnic Chinese into accepting Malay as the national language, by allowing Malay to be written in Romanized letters apart from Jawi. Also as part of the government’s effort to prevent a recurrence of the bloody May 13, 1969 racial riots, the national language is named the Malaysian language or, language of Malaysia – apparently to give it a more universal appeal. This is also the language the government is standardizing.

In view of the development of Riau Malay in Indonesia, what happened to this language at the other side of Johor? It has demoted from the status of a lingua franca to a dialect. Despite the popular notion that the national language of Malaysia is based this dialect, the Johor-Riau dialect, linguistic authorities are strangely silent, inconsistent and some even denied the connection !

For instance, a reference work dealing with pronunciation of standard Malay noted that there are many speakers of Johor-Riau dialect throughout the states of Johor, Malacca, Selangor and Perak. While acknowledging “more or less some variations of standard Malay is based on the Johor-Riau dialect,” this reference work went on to say standard Malay has developed to a stage of forming its own image and therefore should no longer be regarded as any dialects including Johor-Riau dialect.

At least that helps us to define the Malaysian language as the ‘standard Malay’ in Malaysia.

Malay language in comparison with the Malaysian language, comprises of bewildering numbers of dialects. Riau Malay for example, is divided into two major dialects: Archipelago Riau Malay and Mainland Riau Malay. Archipelago Riau Malay is again divided into 18 sub-dialects spreading throughout the Riau islands. This dialect retains much characteristics of traditional old Malay. Mainland Riau Malay consists of 13 sub-dialects and is beginning to come under Minangkabau influence.

Within Malaysia itself, the Kelantanese Malay is spoken in Kelantan and its neighbouring states of Terengganu, Pahang, Perak and extending into South Thailand. It is a very distinctive dialect similar to Patani Malay, incomprehensible even to most Malaysians. At the boundaries, Kelantanese Malay is mixed with other dialects to produce more variations. In the Borneo territories, the Sabahan Malay distinguishes its speakers with unique expressions. Of course these are only some samples, it is not feasible to discuss all the dialects in this article.

So, which one do you prefer? The Malaysian language still undergoing standardization, or Malay language comprising of many, many different dialects?