Friday, August 22, 2014

Soekarno: Malay Language as Third Language

"Soekarno" now showing at the cinemas is one of the most beautiful films I have watched for a long time. It trumps even the movie on Margaret Thatcher which I also watched 5 years ago. Maybe I am a history and politics buff with love for all things regional, which to me is the "Golden Triangle" of Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. Soekarno, the film is especially poignant now that President-elect Bapak Jokowi is confirmed to take office on the 20th October after the Constitutional Court last night threw out presidential candidate Bapak Prabowo's challenge to the Elections results. The movie was 2 hours 20 minutes long, just the right length for an epic on the founding President of Indonesia. In the later years of his Presidency, President Soekarno launched the Konfrontasi (Confrontation) against the newly formed Federation of Malaysia and Singapore which was then a part of Malaysia suffered when two Indonesian agents bombed Macdonald house leading to several deaths. This 50-year incident somewhat came back to live when the Indonesian Navy named a warship after the two agents, executed by the Singapore government for their role in that short time of terror.

If anyone understands Indonesian history, it is a modern miracle that the Malay archipelago (Nusantara) of 17,000 islands achieved independence in 1945 under Soekarno-Hatta leadership. What impresses me about its early history is how Indonesians achieved nationhood through a strong sense of nationalism that led to independence and patriotism that binds different peoples, tribes, languages and religions together as one nation, satu bangsa Indonesia Raya! Part of their success is due to the Pancasila, the five foundational principles of nationhood where there is no State or one official religion and that no religion dominates another though close to 80% of Indonesians are Muslims. This sense of nationhood is the strongest in Indonesia, more so than in Malaysia and Singapore. Malaysia's former premier Dr M lamented recently that Malaysia could never become bangsa Malaysia because of racial, language and religious divisions in the country. Dr M cited Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand as countries that exhibit strong national identity where citizens identify themselves as Thais, Filipinos and Indonesians as the case may be. I could go on as to the causes of division in Malaysia but I will leave it to the political analysts and academics. One thing I learn and observe is that prosperity, even shared prosperity can never really binds a nation together.
There is peace when things are fine and even unity when a nation prospers and the economic cake is shared by a large majority of citizens but when downturns come, a lack of prosperity or economic wealth could endanger and tear the social and national fabric apart unless something more concrete, though intangible like a strong sense nationhood that binds every citizen as one family, one nation, and one State exists. Indonesia is a good example of a country with that sense of nationhood despite falling behind economically. I am not saying that parts of Indonesia had not experiencd separatist ideologies like Aceh and West Papua. I have argued previously that this unity is largely due to the use of a common and national language, bahasa Indonesia. 

At least Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia share one thing in common, that is we have our national anthems in the Malay language. Perhaps it is time for Singapore to think of introducing a "Third Language", after English and Mandarin (for the majority of Singaporeans, 80% take Mandarin as their mother tongue language) and make Malay, a desired third language so that Malay could truly be a national language for all Singaporeans resulting in a stronger sense of nationhood and togetherness among the different peoples and races that make up Singapore. As someone who knows Malay well, I can say that learning Malay is easy and two or three hours a week for 3 or 4 years in Primary School, students will speak good Malay in no time.

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