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Big Idea No. 5: Speak the National Language

The Straits Times | Kishore Mahbubani | Monday, Jun 16, 2014

SINGAPORE - Regular readers will know that I am identifying some Big Ideas to guide Singapore's development as a nation in this series of commentaries. The big question that this column will try to answer is: Why should Singaporeans speak their National Language, Bahasa Melayu?

Please notice I did not say "study" the National Language. Nor did I say "read" or "write" the National Language. I only said "speak" because we should set a very low bar and get most Singaporeans connected with their National Language.

Another point is worth emphasizing at the outset. I am not suggesting a major national campaign to achieve this. Nor should there be a government-led initiative to teach it in the schools as an additional subject. Instead, it should be a completely spontaneous bottom-up movement as individual Singaporeans decide by themselves and say "I am Singaporean and I should speak some words of my country's National Language". Ideally, some bright enterprising Singaporean souls should set up a fun blog similar to that of the Californian entrepreneur Salman Khan, who set up the famous Khan Academy website for his nephews and nieces. His website has been praised by Bill Gates.

Let me suggest five reasons, in ascending order of importance, explaining why Singaporeans should learn to speak Bahasa Melayu.

Being a normal country

FIRST, Singaporeans should speak their National Language because it is the "normal" thing to do. In most countries, most populations speak their National Language. This is how normal countries behave. Singapore is an abnormal country in that most Singaporeans (with the exception of being able to sing their National Anthem in Bahasa Melayu) do not speak their National Language.

I don't know whether there is any data available on what percentage of Singaporeans speak some Bahasa Melayu. Anecdotally, I know that my generation speaks it mostly because Bazaar Malay was the lingua franca when I was a young boy living in Geylang and Katong in the 1950s.

Today's young Singaporeans, however, seem to have little contact with Bahasa Melayu and therefore treat it, for all practical purposes, as a foreign language, even though it is their National Language. Our diplomats in Jakarta are sometimes embarrassed when visiting young civil servants from Singapore do not know simple words like ayam (chicken) or nasi (rice).

Second, Singaporeans will be able to sing their National Anthem with greater feeling and passion if they know a few words of Bahasa Melayu. As a result, they will not be singing their National Anthem in a "foreign" language but in a language with which they have some familiarity. Clearly, the emotional bond to the National Anthem will be much stronger if we understand the words clearly and not have to read an English translation to know their meaning.

To drive this point home, let me make an embarrassing personal confession. Until I began writing this column, I did not know exactly what some of the words of our National Anthem meant.

This is surprising since I grew up speaking a fair bit of Bahasa Melayu during my childhood. Also, when I was posted to Malaysia as the Deputy Chief of Mission of the Singapore High Commission from 1976 to 1979, I passed the standard one and standard two Malay examinations. If despite this, I could not understand all the words of our National Anthem, I am confident that I do not belong to a minority.

One particular word in the National Anthem always troubled me: berseru! I knew what the sentence Marilah kita bersatu meant in the National Anthem but I was always puzzled what the line Semua kita berseru. In preparation for this article I learnt that berseru means "proclaim". I never came across this word either in my childhood or in my studies in Kuala Lumpur. I would be curious to learn how many Singaporeans know the meaning of berseru.

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