The proposal to adopt the Malay language (Bahasa Melayu) as ASEAN’s “main and official language” is a non-starter, and even futile. This call, made by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak in Kuala Lumpur on 26 July 2017, comes after a similar suggestion by his Communications and Multimedia Minister Salleh Said Keruak in 2015 when Malaysia held the rotating ASEAN chairmanship. He made the case that Malaysia “need to show that the Malay language is a relevant and dynamic language that can act as the ASEAN language.”
These calls will fall on deaf ears outside of selected audiences in Malaysia. In the first instance, ASEAN has adopted English as the working language since its establishment in 1967. This practice was later institutionalised in the ASEAN Charter in 2007, Article 34 of which unequivocally states that “the working language of ASEAN shall be English.” Revising this provision requires the unanimous support from Malaysia’s fellow ASEAN member states, most of whom may find it onerous to support a seemingly nationalistic cause to promote the cultural and linguistic heritage of only one particular member state.
It is interesting to note that the ASEAN Leaders, in approving the Charter, opted for the term “working language” instead of “official language,” which can be interpreted as a sign of respect for the plethora of member states’ national languages. The adoption of any part of a specific Southeast Asian language as the official language would stir political backlash from other ASEAN communities, which may interpret the move as a form of political and cultural dominance. Arguably, the English language might be a non-native language of a former colonial power in the region, but this “neutral” attribute serves to unite ASEAN’s diverse socio-cultural make-up, providing a level political playing field for all member states.
The fact that English is lingua franca has facilitated ASEAN’s interactions with its Dialogue Partners and the wider global community. ASEAN can play a more effective role in bring the “regional story” beyond Southeast Asia and reaching out to other regions using a global language. In multilateral organisations throughout the world like the United Nations and World Trade Organisation, English is the working language. Thus, attempts to replace English as the working language with any other languages would rollback ASEAN’s gains in positioning the regional organisation as a global entity, and hamper future efforts to connect with the wider global community.
At face value, Prime Minister Najib’s proposal is an attempt to bolster his political credentials by championing the Malay language ahead of the general elections due by May 2018. However, his actions cannot be summarily dismissed as a domestic matter because as an ASEAN Leader, he has the recourse to push this cause at ASEAN Summits. If he follows through with this unrealistic proposal at the regional level, he might force his fellow ASEAN leaders into the conundrum of having to defend the primacy of their respective languages and promote their language as ASEAN’s main and official language as well.
Instead of focusing on the trivial, ASEAN should attend to more urgent and pressing matters of community-building. Playing up the divisive nature of language politics might fray ASEAN unity.
The writer, Dr Tang Siew Mun, is Head of the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute.