August is an august month. It is the month where three close neighbours celebrate their National Days, beginning with Singapore today, Indonesia on 17th August and Malaysia, 31st August. The last is still being disputed by most Sabahans and Sarawakians since Malaysia's National Day should fall on 16th Sept 1963 when these two States together with Singapore formed the Federation of Malaysia. At least Singapore and Malaysia share a common history and 49 years ago today, Singapore achieved independence from Malaysia.
Perhaps the first thing I like to note about these shared histories in this region is that National Day should be called as it is or Independence Day rather than "Birthday". I always feel that something is not right when someone uses the phrase, "Happy Birthday" for nation-states. In Malay, it would be Hari Kebangsaan or Hari Kemerdekaan and it is not hari jadi.
Speaking of Malay or the Malay language, it is the national language for both Malaysia and Singapore. Indonesia would prefer that their national language be known as Bahasa Indonesia which is derived from Malay and probably 80% similar to the Malay spoken in Malaysia and Singapore.
Significantly, Indonesia by calling its national language by its nation's name shows the political discourse and wisdom of her founding fathers who thought this one national language could unite the diverse tribes and races spread across 17,000 islands over 3,000 kms. Indonesia has achieved national unity and cohesion through its national language. Though it may be weak in the use of English where it is only taught in Secondary One in most national schools, Bahasa Indonesia has given Indonesia a sense of identity not found in her much smaller neighbours, Malaysia and Singapore.
Singapore has achieved much prosperity and its GDP per capita among the top in the world, 4 times higher than Malaysia and more than 10 times Indonesia's. However, Singapore's national identity is still weak, partly due to a lack of a national language. Not many Singaporeans know that its national language is Malay because very few politicians highlight this fact and the use of Malay is limited to army commands and certain State protocols. National identity is bound with its national language and Singapore must choose.
It may be that English has become the "national " language by default or at least a form of "Singlish" spoken by a majority of Singaporeans. This is a tough call, how to promote and revitalize Malay as Singapore's national language which if mastered can only benefit Singapore as Singapore's future in the next 50 years is bound up with its neighbours, Malaysia and Indonesia. For Indonesia, the call will be to introduce English in Primary School so that its citizens do not lack the speaking and writing skills of this global language, the lingua franca of international diplomacy, commerce and ICT while at the same time does not sacrifice its Bahasa Indonesia which has kept Indonesia united and cohesive as one nation.
Malaysia's national language, Malay is unchallenged in Malaysia and accepted as such. It too has provided the nation with a sense of identity and cohesion though it has not achieved the heights of the Indonesian language in bringing diverse peoples and citizens together as one nation. Part of the problem is its education policy that each of three main racial groups could choose the medium of instruction for six years of Primary School. As national identity and cohesion is largely conveyed through a common language, this education policy of Malay, Mandarin and Tamil existing side by side has weakened national identity as children grow up set in their culture and language with little interaction with other races until in their teenage years.
As much as a mother tongue is important for many, its emphasis has come with a price - a lack of social and national cohesion in Malaysia. Even as this month of August is auspicious in these three countries, my prayers are that Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia will live in harmony and peaceful coexistence with one another, prospering its neighbours, pursuing win-win political outcomes and much of these could be achieved, promoted and further enhanced by the use of a common language that binds these three nations in the South of South-East Asia.
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