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Sunday June 25, 2006

Guardian of Malay language

As the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka celebrated its golden anniversary, its captain and chief navigators reflected on its past and future direction, writes SUHAINI AZNAM. 

IT had humble beginnings: a small office in Bukit Timbalan, Johor Baru, simply called Balai Pustaka. But its responsibility was immense: to bring awareness of the Malay language for patriotic purposes – specifically independence and nationhood. 

Fifty years on, it has evolved considerably. Unnoticed, it has become the institution that has, without fanfare, pushed the language into mainstream Malaysian society. 

If an organisation is moulded by its founding fathers, then Balai Pustaka was shaped by Royal Prof Ungku Abdul Aziz Ungku Abdul Hamid, an economics professor who speaks faultless English, while passionately pursuing his love of the Malay language. 

Ungku Aziz and a few friends collected the then princely sum of $15,000 so that the third Malay Language and Literary Congress could be held in the peninsula’s south, he recalled. The Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP), as it was later named, was born on June 22, 1956.  

From its initial role of harnessing literary expression and creativity, DBP’s responsibility grew to provide the language of governance and administration, of knowledge, of intellectual expression, of creativity and for forging a national identity, noted Datuk Dr Firdaus Abdullah, director-general of the DBP for just over a year.  

“Nurturing a language cannot be done haphazardly. It has to be consciously planned,” he said. 

For this, the DBP relied on its large pool of skilled human resource. In December 2004, Sirim awarded it the ISO 9001:2000 for building and developing a national language and literature and for producing publications in various fields. 

Its work is compartmentalised into three areas: language, literature and publications. 

In its 50 years, the DBP can boast of having: 

  • developed a million terms in conjunction with its Malay-speaking neighbours 

  • devised a common spelling system for Malaysia and Indonesia 

  • talent scouted and nurtured young literary talents 

  • published more than 7,000 titles, excluding text books and periodicals 

    Prior to privatisation, the DBP was among the region’s “largest publishing houses under one roof, with editors, pre-press and marketing,” said Khalid Ahmad, who heads the division on publications coordination and privatisation monitoring. 

    “We identify the writers, organise the workshops. We spend RM19mil per annum on workshops and royalty.” 

    Now, the DBP still prepares the content of textbooks but does not print and market them anymore. 

    The DBP is bent on not allowing Malay to slip away like Latin but to be a “living language”, vibrant and constantly evolving. 

    Usage of Malay, however, should not be confined to government correspondence, letters from banks or vitamin labels, argued Firdaus.  

    At its most refined, it is the language of literature which best reflects the civilisation. And of its many roles, the DBP is probably best known as the home of Malay literary geniuses: the late Datuk Usman Awang, Za’ba, Keris Mas, A. Samad Said, Datuk Shanon Ahmad and assorted others. 

    “These writers grew with the Dewan, so eventually they became synonymous with the institution,” said Khalid with pride.  

    “They were towering parallels,” said Firdaus, who himself can be counted among the nation’s poets. 

    “We have awarded nine national laureates, not to mention several at state level. We hold young writers’ camps and have encouraged non-Malay writers to produce works in Malay.” 

    When the Dewan Sastera was launched in January 1971, with the motto “pioneering creative literature”, it became a must-read for students of Malay literature. 

    Today, the DBP’s literary role has somewhat dimmed. A younger generation of literary talent is being nurtured but, not having peaked in their careers, they have yet to achieve the same stature. 

    More to the point, many readers of Malay writing prefer the shorter, lighter novel, usually a tale of unrequited love or the supernatural, to a serious study reflecting a society’s political-economic fabric.  

    The debate goes on: Bahasa Malaysia or Bahasa Melayu? 

    “Academically and historically, it is Bahasa Melayu,” said Firdaus firmly. 

    “It was called Bahasa Malaysia during Tunku Abdul Rahman’s time for political and public relations reasons, specifically to get non-Malays to also accept and use the language. It was convenient.” 

    Today it has reverted to being called Bahasa Melayu, “which is academically correct,” noted Firdaus. Malaysia celebrates its golden anniversary next year. 

    “The Malaysian constitution as well as the school curriculum refers to it as Bahasa Melayu.” 

    BM, as it is often called, is “no longer exclusively the language of the Malays but of Malaysians,” said Firdaus.  

    “A significant number of my non-Malay students can write better essays, in Malay, than my Malay students because they (the non-Malay students) learn the language more systematically. 

    “Similarly, a lot of non-Malay politicians too speak fluent, even idiomatic, Malay. Whereas a lot of Malays take the language for granted and resort to the language of camporisation (rojak Malay),” said this former Universiti Malaya lecturer.  

    Khalid said regional dialects and ethnic languages in Malaysia are being safeguarded through the compilation of word lists, and glossaries.  

    “There is documentation now as we codify the language,” he stressed. The DBP branch in Sarawak has published a Malay-Iban dictionary. 

    “When appropriate terminology is sought, we do not just turn to English,” he explained. 

    “There is a process whereby we look first to other dialects in Malaysia, our ethnic languages, then regional languages, before venturing further and further afield.  

    “The word ‘alma mater’, for instance, is a very Western concept. Malays do not have a precise equivalent because it is not part of our culture. But the Iban do have the concept of a place they have left behind. So we have now recommended tembawai (formal) or temawai (colloquial) for alma mater. 

    “Bahasa Melayu is a super dialect,” said Othman Ismail, head of DBP's language development division. The regional dialects will continue to thrive but some words from each will be incorporated into the main language to best express stages of padi growth (from Kedah) or different gradients of highlands (from Sabah and Sarawak).” 

    “The economic success of this country is indirectly because of the DBP,” added Othman. 

    “We prepared the books, from primary school right through university, to the manpower in this country. 

    “The government functions in Malay, it refers to our dictionaries. Our economic activity, our laws are promulgated in Malay. And people think the Dewan has no role?” 

    To this day, any member of the public wishing to check the correct spelling or usage of a Malay word may just call the DBP and will be given an answer on the spot. 

    In the face of an onslaught of English from abroad, competition from the Chinese dialects which form the language of commerce, the emotional ties to pupils’ own language classes, the practical advantages of Chinese primary schools and the reinstatement of English recently in science and mathematics to give Malaysians a competitive edge, the Malay language has held its own. 

    Quietly, behind the mural that has marked its presence, the DBP has been the guardian of the Malay language. 

    “We are very, very relevant,” said Firdaus firmly.  

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