Talking Asians into speaking with one tongue

Scholars, politicians, and businessmen are debating what should be the common language of the 245 million people living in the members states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Sometimes the issue comes up in literary conferences, as at a recent one in Ipoh, Malaysia. Scholars there discussed the linguistic future of all five ASEAN states: Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Most predicted the region's future language would be Malay.

But more often the question comes up in local disputes over school curriculum , language instruction, hiring of teachers, and the future of schools devoted to propagating certain languages.

For example, in Malaysia there is continuing debate over the official policy of stressing Malay over English. By contrast, in Singapore there has been some criticism of Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's policy of hiring expatriate English teachers.

Mr. Lee has promoted the use of English to keep the island republic's economic and political links open with the English-speaking world and to foster a common language for use by the city's Chinese and Indian-speaking population.

There are also disputes among minorities who do not want to abandon their own languages. The 3 million Thai Muslims who live on the southern border with Malaysia continue to speak and study Malay as their only tongue -- even though Thailand wants all its 42 million people to learn Thai as a unifying influence.

In practice English, though not a "first" language, has become the closest thing to a unifying tongue in ASEAN. British colonialism brought English to both Malaya and Singapore. American colonialism brought English to the Philippines.

Although Thailand has never been colonized, an increasing number of its people speak English, learning it either at home or abroad. Indonesians, too, have taken to learning English.

In recent years, however, some ASEAN countries have disagreed on English usage. After 1969 racial riots between Malay and economically dominant Chinese communities, Malaysia decided to downgrade English and replace it with Malay by 1982.

For its part, Singapore has moved the other direction. Under Lee Kuan Yew it has upgraded English instruction to help boost the city's economy through more trade and closer association with the English-speaking world.

The latest illustration of this was a recent decision, backed by Mr. Lee, for Singapore's Chinese-language Nanyang University to unite with the English-language University of Singapore.

By offering degrees to Chinese-speaking students, Nanyang made practical a separate system of Chinese-language schools. This prompted some Indonesians and Malaysians to fear it was helping to create Chinese residents more loyal to China than to their own country.

One reason 13 of 17 Nanyang council members went along with the unification move is that its graduates were increasingly unable to compete for jobs where mastery of English was essential.

Numerically, Malay and related languages such as Indonesian and Filipino dialects dominate the region. Of ASEAN's 245 million people, Malay is the "mother tongue" of some 151 million Indonesians and Malaysians. Another 46 million Filipinos speak Tagalog. Malay is one of four official languages in Singapore.

Many scholars suggest Malay eventually will become ASEAN's common language. Malaysians and Indonesians, understandably, hold strongest to this belief. But even some ethnic Chinese scholars support the growing utility of Malay.

"Malay has evolved from its traditional use and become a modern language for the expression of new ideas," Prof. Tham Seong Chee of Singapore University reportedly said at the Ipoh conference.

Others stress that it will take time for Thailand to accept such a trend, and that it will require educational changes, to teach Tagalog-speaking Filipinos the language.

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