Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Bahasa Rojak, the True National Language

Written by johnleemk on 7:01:07 am Mar 8, 2007.
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Love it or hate it, "bahasa rojak" is the de facto national language of Malaysia. Most Malaysians will never speak true Malay, English, Mandarin or Tamil to one another. Instead, we will always communicate in that pidgin language we have grown to simultaneously hate and love — bahasa rojak.

Purists have always and will always denounce bahasa rojak as a crude and vile mixture of several different languages. Instead of adhering to the rigidly set rules of grammar for Malay, or to the age-old conventions of English, bahasa rojak has developed a style of its own that can be greatly dissatisfying for the language purist. After all, bahasa rojak is neither here nor there, mixing all sorts of languages (but mainly Malay and English) into a colourful palette of diversity.

Nevertheless, it is my firm belief that bahasa rojak will prove to be the unifying language that neither Malay nor English can be for Malaysia. That is not to say that these two languages don't have roles to play — they do — but rather that they will be secondary to bahasa rojak in acting as a unifying language, mainly because they are the building blocks of bahasa rojak.

Now, what constitutes bahasa rojak? There are probably a lot of different definitions, but I prefer to keep mine simple. I define bahasa rojak as any mixture of Malaysian languages that does not adhere to the rules of any of these languages and is intelligible for most of the population. Thus, Manglish falls under bahasa rojak — as just one example.

One of the most often decried things about our country is that we seem to be at a loss, drifting for identity. One aspect of this apparent identity crisis is that our national language, Malay, seems neglected.

I would contend that for the chauvinist Chinese and Indians, this is probably so — but these people constitute a tiny minority of the population. Most Malaysians have a national language, and use it on a regular basis, however. It is just that this language happens to be bahasa rojak instead of Malay.

After all, consider just how much we use this language on a daily basis in our casual affairs. Bahasa rojak has a practical monopoly on our mouths. When we swear, we don't do it in one language alone. You'd be surprised how many Chinese are inclined to mutter "pukimak" or "pundek" or how many Indians cry "cibai" when things don't go their way. (And if you don't understand what any of the latter words mean, you've just failed the shibboleth test of Malaysian-ness.)

Should we not bemoan the fact that the proper, grammatically- and synctatically-correct appear to be dying out? Of course — it's just that they aren't really dying out.

After all, I would argue that all of the country's four major languages — Malay, English, Mandarin and Tamil — are more alive than ever. Almost every Malaysian worth his salt can speak Malay, if not some smattering of English as well (although the line between English and Manglish/bahasa rojak can sometimes be hard to draw).

Thanks to vernacular schools, Chinese and Tamil are often used by the common Chinese or Indian. Some may find this trend troubling in a sense, since the possibility of separatism always exists in a plural society which finds itself divided into cliques along racial lines.

I believe there is no problem in preventing racial separatism while encouraging the study of Mandarin and Tamil, however. The solution is simple: make these languages electives in all national schools, and provide well-qualified teachers to train students in speaking them.

If you are the type who is inclined against bahasa rojak, this is also beneficial because it encourages inter-ethnic bonding without introducing an odd pidgin language. By making Chinese and Tamil classes available to all Malaysians, we will be able to raise the level of understanding between the different communities and cultures.

I think, however, that bahasa rojak itself will not die out. It has found its niche in the mamak shops and in the hearts and minds of Malaysians, and there will it remain. There is no more true sign of one's Malaysian-ness than being able to order roti canai at the mamak, and there is but one language to use in such a situation: bahasa rojak.

I, for one, welcome our new grammatically incorrect overlords.


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.


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