Phasawit Jutatungcharoen explores the debate surrounding the introduction of a second official ASEAN language, examining the potential geopolitical ramifications of introducing a new language, amongst contenders of Malay, Bahasa Indonesian, or even the adoption of every official language of all member states.
From the inception of ASEAN, English has been the de facto official and working language in the secretariat, before being set in stone in Article 34 of the ASEAN Charter in 2007 where it was stipulated that “the working language of ASEAN shall be English” (Association of Southeast Asian Nations, 2008). Nevertheless, the position of English as the sole official language has not gone unchallenged.
Malay: A New Language
One of the contenders is Malay, an official language in Malaysia and Brunei, as well as being a de facto language in Singapore and Indonesia. The discussion began earlier in March 2022 as Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob addressed the Malaysian upper house that “there is no reason why we cannot make Malay one of the official languages of ASEAN” (Ang, 2022). He further noted that there were already native Malay speakers in at least eight of the ASEAN member states.
These intentions did not go uncontested, notably from neighbouring Indonesia. Nadiem Makarim, Indonesia’s Minister for Education, Culture, Research and Technology rejected Malaysia’s proposal to elevate Malay as ASEAN’s second official language in April while adding that “[Bahasa Indonesia] is a better choice” (Ang, 2022). Indonesian is spoken by at least 275 million people and is also the working language of Timor-Leste, currently an ASEAN observer. Makarim further stated that “[Bahasa Indonesia] has been acknowledged globally which puts the language ahead of others if ASEAN were to use a common language at its meetings” (Britshi, 2022).
This recent row raises certain questions about the status of the official language of ASEAN. Why has English remained the sole official language in ASEAN, and why has no other language managed to compete or stand alongside it?
Multilingualism: A Case of ASEAN
ASEAN’s official language was never based on any preconceived values akin to the EU’s multilingualism. English emerged as the language that the diplomats and public officials used to communicate with each other and conduct their affairs. When researcher Akiko Okudaira interviewed key ASEAN figures about English being the common language, they responded that it “came out automatically” and that they “took it for granted” (Okudaira, 1999). Even before its official status in the ASEAN Charter in 2007, there seemed to be an unstated unanimity regarding the status of English as the lingua franca of ASEAN.
Historical Contenders of the English Language in ASEAN
English itself has faced a few challenges, but they have often been exceptions that prove the rule. The first known instance of this was during the expansion of ASEAN in the 1990s. The first attempt to introduce another language occurred during the accession of Vietnam as an ASEAN member in 1995, when French was suggested as a working language (Kirkpatrick, 2008). Malay was also first suggested by the Malaysian Minister of Information in 1997, then again in 2017 by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak (Tan, 2017). Ultimately, these proposals and the issue of language were neither discussed nor seriously considered. Professor Andy Kirkpatrick once asked the director of The Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization (SEAMEO) in 2007 why Malay was not considered, in which he replied that it would open a “Pandora’s Box” (Kirkpatrick, 2010).
What this “Pandora’s Box” likely refers to is the threat of division within ASEAN itself. This ties into the way ASEAN was structured and kept together, not by conformity to an agreed set of values, but through compromise and mutual respect. Professional linguist Muhammad Ersan Pamungkas explained that ASEAN as a group of sovereign nations exists to facilitate cooperation for economic growth and social progress without overstepping its influence. As he states, “imposing one of the Southeast Asian languages as an “official” language diminishes other countries’ sovereignty and national identity” (Pamungkas, 2022).
Considering the above, Prime Minister Ismail Sabri’s proposal appears to be a provocative political move to appeal to a domestic Malaysian audience. He promotes the use of Bahasa Melayu in all functions and has exclusively used the language including at the UN General Assembly in September 2022 (Kamarudin, 2022). He and fellow proponent Najib Razak are also members of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), a right-wing conservative political party that promotes the spread of Islam and Malay nationalism and superiority, as well as the strengthening of Islam in public affairs (Saat and Alatas, 2022). While this rhetoric may be appealing to a nationalistic Malay audience, the rest of ASEAN had either opposed it or ignored it altogether. Little follow-up on the discussion since May 2022 indicates a lack of interest from other governments and the public.
Working Language or Official Language?
Furthermore, it is unclear whether proponents are proposing a new ‘working language’ or an ‘official language’. In organizations like the EU and the UN, official languages are used in documents made available, while working languages are used in internal communications. For ASEAN however, English is defined as a ‘working language’ in the ASEAN Charter but is also generally acknowledged as a de facto official language to the point where both terms are sometimes interchangeable in public discourse. Proponents have also been inconsistent with the terminology, with Najib Razak proposing in 2017 for Malay to be ASEAN’s “main and official language”, while Ismail Sabri avoided both terms and only referred to Malay as a ‘second language. This lack of clarity is perhaps intentional, where a proposal could be pushed while leaving room to negotiate the extent of its usage.
Even so, there have been arguments that a ‘second language is needed on a practical basis[CS1]. The use of English within the ASEAN populace is still lopsided, the language is used more frequently in Singapore and Malaysia and less so in Thailand and Indonesia. For some, Bahasa Indonesia is simply the ‘logical choice as a second language alongside English, given the large Indonesian population, the ease of the Indonesian language to learn, and potential business opportunities from working with Indonesians (Khruathong, 2015). Given that the ASEAN Secretariat itself is based in Jakarta, adopting Indonesian as a working language could arguably smoothen operations on the ground.
However, these arguments fail to compete against the versatility of the English language in ASEAN. The popularity of English within ASEAN is steadily increasing as a useful language for business and communicating with those outside of the region. It seems a more attractive option for many if given the choice, to learn a language more widespread around the world than one mostly used in a specific region. English is taught in schools in all ten ASEAN countries, overtaking other foreign languages even in post-French colonial nations like Vietnam (Kirkpatrick, 2010). This may also be cause for recent proposals to tone down their stance on English, opting to position themselves alongside it rather than to replace it.
Beyond this, there have been alternative proposals for ASEAN to adopt all official languages of all member states as the official languages of ASEAN. This would certainly bypass the issue of one language dominating the other by giving them all equal status. This model is also adopted by other regional organizations, notably the European and African Union (Pamungkas, 2022). However, such a proposal is unlikely from a pragmatic standpoint, as Dr Kirkpatrick noted that translation and interpretation services would be too complex, costly, and labour-intensive (Kirkpatrick, 2010). In 2013, it is estimated that all EU institutions combined contributed at least €1 billion annually towards translation and interpretation for the sake of preserving multilingualism (European Commission, 2013). In contrast, the ASEAN Secretariat in 2016 had an annual budget of only US$20 million and 300 staff members (Russell, 2020). This is also dwarfed by the African Union’s 2020 budget at US$647.3 million, though at least 60% is funded by external partners (African Union, 2022).
It is difficult to see if there will be any changes to the status of English as ASEAN’s sole official language. Despite the recent proposal by the Malaysian prime minister and rebuttals from Indonesia, discussion among member states and the public has been scant, if any at all. Concerns about maintaining ASEAN stability, the financial costs involved, and a lack of political drive have created little incentive or need to make any progress on this front. While it remains to see if there are any new developments, ASEAN for the time being seems to have collectively treated this issue as a moot point.
This article represents the views of contributors to STEAR's online digital publication, and not those of STEAR, which takes no institutional positions.
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