January 18th, 2013 by Hafiz Noor Shams
I have two related conversations to share. The first happened in a cab in Sydney and the other happened over lunch in Jakarta. Combined, the conversations are possibly a testament of the future importance of the Malay language.
The first conservation was not really a conversation. The cab driver, who was probably in his 40s or 50s, was overly chatty. He drove both the car and the conversation alone. “I came from Hong Kong,” he said without being asked.
“Oh, did you?” I answered with feigned surprise. I was tired and I wanted to go wherever I needed to go quickly and painlessly. So I took the cab. He did not take the hint, however, and so he went on talking.
So I learned that he immigrated to Australia some time when the United Kingdom returned Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China in 1997. He left because he did not trust the communists and he did not want to risk his livelihood under communism.
Since he was already at it and I was trapped in his cab, I decided to somewhat participate in the conversation. I was especially encouraged to do so when he demonstrated that he was an anti-communist. At least, I thought, there would not be any ideological battle here.
But I wanted more nuance. So I suggested to him that China might be communist in name only these days as the Chinese government had embraced capitalism with a surprising fervor. He would have none of that. “The communists are not good.”
“I’m an Australian now,” he said to end that part of the conversation. To him, communism is communism and it is all the same.
The fact that he is a first-generation immigrant was easy enough to spot. He did not sound like a completely naturalized Australian. He shouted his English with a strong, harsh south Chinese accent. He failed to use the word ‘mate’ whenever it is proper to do so. He also did not end his sentences with question marks, like a stereotypical Australian would do.
Between the accent and the shouting, I had to frown to catch his words. I know it does not make sense but somehow frowning helps with my hearing.
Another thing that I made out of the conversation was that he understood the importance of Mandarin in this era. Who does not, really? With about one billion native speakers in China alone and the country becoming more and more open than the China that the cab driver once knew, there is really no room for a dispute.
However, he confidently said there are only two languages that mattered in this world: English and Mandarin. The word only stirred me.
“Only two?” I asked skeptically. In my head, I could name several more languages of global importance.
“Two only,” he replied with an almost angry tone. I could not be sure if he was really angry because he sounded angry throughout the conversation anyway.
The really interesting part of the conversation came after he gleefully expounded on the importance of Mandarin, almost exhibiting a hint of cultural superiority. Or maybe he was not. Something might have been lost in translation.
“What language do you speak?” he asked.
“I speak Malay,” I answered.
With the same confidence, he dismissed the Malay language as useless. “What would you do with that language of yours?”
I smiled, looked outside and tuned out. “Are we there yet?”
More than 5,000 kilometers to the northwest, in Jakarta two years later, a friend was treating me to lunch. The friend is an Indonesian of Chinese descent who is currently residing in Sydney. He was on Christmas holiday and I was travelling with Jakarta being my first stop.
“I’ve been in school for too long. I want to take a gap year. I want to see the world,” he told me after we argued whether Malaysia or Indonesia is the real owner of nasi goreng and batik, among many other things.
He is training to be a surgeon and he has been in university for too long. That means English has been his primary language for some years now. He has little opportunity to practice the other two languages that he speaks, which are Indonesian and Mandarin.
He plans to spend his gap year by staying in Beijing for six months to practice his Mandarin and another six months somewhere in Indonesia to practice his Indonesian, which is not very different from the standard Malay language. To most speakers of standard Malay, understanding Kelantanese is likely harder than understanding Indonesian.
He wants to practice Indonesian because he knows that the Indonesian economy is growing rapidly and the population is large; the country is the fourth most populous country in the world. A population of more than 200 million, add another 30 million from Malaysia and several more million from elsewhere, the importance of Indonesian and Malay will be as undeniable as Mandarin, contrary to the opinion of the Australian cab driver. The friend does not want to be in a disadvantageous position when the language finally becomes a major world language in the future. The friend is in his 20s and he has a more urban, modern and global worldview than the cab driver. He has some ideas of how the future will look like and he is preparing for it.
In contrast, the cab driver is living in the present and stuck with old ideas. All he sees are the vehicles on the road and nothing beyond that. The only fortunate thing for the cab driver is that, the development outside of Sydney or even Australia probably does not matter so much to him. So, he can afford to keep his opinion.
First published in the The Malaysian Insider on January 16 2013.