Taming Babel: Language in the Making of Malaysia

Rachel Leow has written a timely book with an elegance necessary for the tangled cords that characterise the language policies in colonial and postcolonial Malaysia. The book in question, Taming Babel: Language in the Making of Malaysia, weaves together three phases of language policy as governance that follow and build upon each other.

It sensitively captures, as she succeeds in demonstrating, the dialectic of ‘taming and untaming; of anxious bids for order in the face of chaos; of closures, openings, and tussles within the languages of politics and political ideas’ (p. 215). Malaya/Malaysia is presented as a micro-cosmos of the region, impossible to pin down in a coherent way. Attempts to do so, as the colonial administrators did, have proven futile. Yet, this futility opened itself to opportunities of discursive empowerment, as seen in the efflorescence of Malay political language in the early 1940s. But it also widened the ruptures of the sagging national fabric when the newly liberated were tasked with governing their own language policy into the postcolonial horizon.

Leow contends that language policies – for the purpose of governance, trade, education and keeping the colonised class in their rightful place – is a site of contestation for ideas related to race and ethnicity, self-determination, and a nation’s destiny. Perhaps for the neat exposition of her arguments, Leow focuses on only two languages in her book, Chinese and Malay, and how language evinces the internal crisis and ultimately breakdown of colonial logic to ‘tame’ the unwieldy melting pot of Malaya. For the Chinese and Malay language(s) proved to be the oppositional yin and yang in British eyes; Chinese was found to be the untameable and suspicious sibling to the domesticated and reliably docile Malay, binary oppositions that would have postcolonial consequences for its people. British colonial administrators could not keep up with the different Chinese dialects and their ability to reconfigure when transplanted in new frontiers; Hokkien spoken in Xiamen is different in Penang, as the British camped in mainland China to learn the language woefully discovered. British efforts to learn Chinese and its dialects were further hampered by racist distrust of Chinese teachers and their ability to train colonial officers.

The chapter on the taming of the Malay language is by turns very interesting and unsettling. Interesting and unsettling at the same time because it is a colonial success story. The transition of the Malay language from its Arabic script and reduction of multiple dialects across the massive swathe of the archipelago to the Romanised standard Malay spoken in Malaysia is an example of what Leow calls the disciplining of the language’s ‘internal frontiers’. Yet, the colonial success story is largely an orthographical one. Dutch-British intervention helped produce the written and spoken ‘standard’ Malay – a hybrid derived from Riau-Johor Malay - inherited by Bahasa Melayu today. The lexical frontiers were pushed to new limits during the Japanese occupation that, when the British returned to a post-war Malaya, resulted in a politicisation of the Malay vocabulary the British found hard to countenance. New Malay words created in unprecedented ‘political dictionaries’ (kamus politik) of anti-colonial firmament mushroomed after the Japanese rain: autocracy, fascism, imperialism, revolution. The binary opposition of Malay/Chinese reared its beastly head again under the Japanese occupation when anti-Chinese restrictions were imposed on Chinese language education and Chinese-Communist discourse. Chinese had long gained a reputation amongst the British, and later Japanese, as a dangerous ‘political’ language thanks mainly to its elusiveness to colonial mastery.

In the closing chapter on the formation and purpose of The House of Language and Literature (Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka) and its mission to nationalise (only) the Malay language to the exclusion of others, we see the early germination of Malay anxiety about its linguistic place in the new nation and indeed the world. Such anxiety about language has the dark power to twist meaning altogether. Early attempts to push against the state programme of Malay monolingualism and for a more equal treatment of other non-Malay languages were accused of ‘communalism’ and ‘chauvinism’. As if echoing the colonial sculpturing of ‘correct’ Malay (not market Malay or Baba Malay), the House of Language and Literature has denigrated the ‘incorrect’ Malay spoken by non-Malays and unleashing racial stereotypes at the same time. House of Language and Literature’s project of ethnic superiority seems to be a distraction from its more noble and often herculean efforts of promoting literature and enriching the Malay language with technical words in translation, all with mixed results. There is an amusing account of attempts to establish fundamental national cohesion through the local version of Esperanto, Engmalchin, that quickly met its demise in 1955. A loose combination of Malay, Chinese, Tamil, and English, Engmalchin (with Tamil going missing in the portmanteau) – ‘Itu stamp ta’ ada gum ta’ boleh stick lah’ – was declared a failure by historian Wang Gungwu ‘only because of its self-conscious artificiality and the failure of its “sires” to understand that a language can never be created by edict’ (p. 192). His eulogy is perhaps immature as the organically-formed Manglish, which sounds suspiciously like Engmalchin, remains a viable linguistic reality in Malaysia.

While the book is deeply fascinating and rivetingly-written, there is a discomfiting message that runs throughout: is language the mind, heart, and soul of a racialised body politic? If it is, can once-imperial languages be thought the same way? Although there is a suggestion that in the postcolonial years, the insecurity about Malay identity led to a national monolingual policy to the direct detriment of national inclusivity, there is little insight in how the ethnic groups were deliberately kept apart during the colonial years which may then explain the vociferous calls of such exclusionary policies. Was there native complicity to maintain linguistic segregation during the colonial period? The end of Taming Babel leaves the reader to contemplate the dilemmas and opportunities of the present day, with the Malay language still playing catch up with English with the creation of new words (swafoto, anyone?) and thinly disguising itself as the vanguard of Malay chauvinism.