‘Bahasa ASEAN’ – Can Thai or Malay be ASEAN lingua franca?

Originally published on Asian Correspondent for SiamVoices on 19 January 2012.


Can Thai really be a common language of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations)? Apparently some people believe so. Voice TV reported:

A Chulalongkorn University research “Human Resources Preparation for the Opening of the ASEAN Market” has found that Thai will be another important language of communication and a common language in ASEAN on par with English because Thailand is the center of ASEAN. Lately it’s been found that [people in] the neighboring countries such as Lao PDR, Cambodia and Myanmar have become more interested in learning Thai.

Mr. Sompong Jitpradap, education lecturer, Chulalongkorn University, revealed that given the research findings, preparatory steps should be made to export Thai language teachers for foreigners [to] expand Thai education system. The ASEAN free trade will be an impetus for a more systematic education reform.

At present Thailand has many teachers of Thai language and students in Thai language major. However, the number and the quality of Thai language human resources have not yet been determined.

Unfortunately, the Voice TV report did not give any details of the research findings. No figures whatsoever were cited to back up such a drastic claim.

The online report has drawn quite a number of responses—from smiles and mild encouragement to snickers and the uniquely-Thai digital guffaws (5555+ – the number 5 is pronounced “Ha” in Thai). Some proud Thais readily rejoice in the future national glory promised in the news headline, “Chula research indicates Thai will become common ASEAN language.” More Thais are skeptical, though. Many point out that if any Southeast Asian language will have a possibility to come close to being a common ASEAN tongue, it will be Malay. Some wonder how the Chula research was ever concocted to have yielded such findings, while others tell the researcher to stop day dreaming and unspecified Thais to be less self-centered (only to be scolded by the proud Thais not to look down on a national heritage—and the usual online spat ensues).

Anyone who can count and know a bit of Southeast Asian geography and history will have a tough time being convinced that Thai—however beautiful a language it is—has a real chance of becoming an ASEAN lingua franca on par with English. Do the maths. ASEAN has 10 member countries, namely Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Of all these, Indonesia is the largest country. Bahasa Indonesia is the sixth most widely spoken language in the world. In multiple but similar forms, the language is spoken by 240 million Indonesians, 26 million Malaysians, and many Southern Thais, Singaporeans, Bruneians, and East Timorese. That’s at the very least 260 million speakers of Bahasa Indonesia, or Bahasa Melayu as it is called in Malaysia, in ASEAN. Now look at Thai. Thai is spoken obviously by at least 65 million Thais, plus maybe about 20 million in close neighboring countries. The number of Thai speakers falls short of 100 million.

Besides the number, another obstacle against Thai language becoming an ASEAN lingua franca is its own uniqueness. Thai does not have Romanized scripts like Bahasa Indonesia/Melayu, but an elaborate phonetic system with 44 consonants, 28 vowel forms and five tones. Except Laotians and Cambodians who share common linguistic history and have watched Thai TV soap operas for years and a couple of million Burmese migrant workers in Thailand, not very many foreigners have a strong incentive to learn Thai. Because Bahasa Indonesia/Melayu has Latin alphabet and the vocabulary borrows heavily from English (as well as Sanskrit, Arabic, Chinese, Portuguese, and Dutch), it is much easier for foreigners both within and without ASEAN to learn.

Termina Kasih

In September last year, the Malaysian Minister of Information, Communication and Culture Rais Yatim proposed that Bahasa Melayu and Bahasa Indonesia, spoken by about 300 million people, be used as an official language in ASEAN. Interestingly enough, he acknowledged that his idea came from a research confirming that Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Melayu are used daily in Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore and southern Thailand.  At the Meeting of Journalists and Culture Experts of Malaysia and Indonesia, he urged journalists and culture experts from both countries to “jointly enhance the status of Bahasa Melayu and Bahasa Indonesia as the languages of knowledge, art and commerce.”

Malaysian officials seem to have a strong interest in seeing their national language an ASEAN lingua franca. In October 2011 after launching the Bera-level 2011 National Language Month, the Domestic Trade, Cooperatives and Consumerism Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob said:

Bahasa Melayu had once been the language of commerce during the Malacca Sultanate…. We hope champions of the Malay language can work on making Bahasa Melayu the official language for ASEAN countries…. However, this does not mean we are putting English and other native languages aside, instead it is an effort to uphold Bahasa Melayu in the region.

No one can fault the Malaysian or Thai officials for desiring to see their respective national language gain more prominence in the region. Indeed, there would be a lot of benefits, economically, culturally and politically. At the same time, however, no one can deny the importance of English, which is the de facto Bahasa ASEAN.

Attempts by major ASEAN member countries to push their national language as an ASEAN official language are likely to encounter challenges—even for Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Melayu. Edmund Sim, who teaches a course on the law and policy of the ASEAN Economic Community at the National University of Singapore, explained the challenges for both Bahasas as follows:

The bigger issues regarding the use of Bahasa are both historical and practical. The issue of which Bahasa to use, Bahasa Indonesia or Bahasa Melayu, raises both points. The vocabularies are somewhat different, reflecting the different influences of Dutch and English, respectively.  These language differences still have historical meaning. This is important in a region with long, proud histories, where Malaysians and Indonesians have had cultural disputes over the origin of batik, rendang and traditional dances.

Another issue, of course, regards resources.  If ASEAN adopts Bahasa as another official language, will the ASEAN members provide the additional funding to support it at the Secretariat and other institutions?  ASEAN won’t need the vast army of translators that the EU institutions use, but Bahasa, in either form, has nuances that require skilled bilingual personnel.

Finally, adopting another official language could raise questions about whether other languages should be adopted as official ASEAN languages.  Chinese and Thai/Lao are other potential candidates, but with their own practical, political and historical issues.

The reality is English will continue to be the most important language in ASEAN for a long time to come—perhaps until Chinese manages to take over. True, not all citizens of ASEAN are proficient in English but it is the only language that all ASEAN member countries have common proficiency and this proficiency will only increase. This is actually where Thai officials and citizens alike should be very, very concerned about: Thais’ dismal English proficiency. Reuters reported in May 2011:

Thailand produces a workforce with some of the world’s weakest English-language skills. The IMD ranks Thailand 54th of 56 countries globally for English proficiency, the second-lowest in Asia. Singapore was third and Malaysia 28th.

Thai workers can’t compete with the Filipinos either in English skills. It is doubtful whether they can compete favorably with their Indonesian and Vietnamese counterparts.

The ASEAN market will have a free flow in 2015. That’s barely three years left for Thais to improve English proficiency, if Thais are really serious about moving ahead in ASEAN. Thais should also start learning the languages of our neighbors. Promote Thai language too, of course. All of these can be done, while learning to talk English seriously. After all, it can only help.

3 responses to “‘Bahasa ASEAN’ – Can Thai or Malay be ASEAN lingua franca?

  1. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations could be more daring and look at the use of the planned language Esperanto as a lingua franca.

  2. An interesting article Khun Kaewmala. My thoughts would be that schools should introduce neighbouring ASEAN languages as a foreign language in schools – a long away perhaps from having a common tongue, but this should help in making the neighbours less foreign to other, outwith of the usual clusters (eg Thai-Laos-Cambodia or Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines) I have numerous Brit friends who speak French and Spanish well enough, having studied them at school. They probably wouldn’t want to sign a contract in these other languages, but certainly know enough to get by when traveling and socialising with others. It’s important to have dedicated teachers though – if Thai students are anything like Malaysian ones, these neighbouring language lessons may turn out to be just ‘filler’ classes for students to have fun in!

  3. Hi Kaewmala,your topic on which language to use as Asean lingua franca is interesting.
    However as you can see it will remain English for a very long time to come,in fact i dont see any changes in the near future,not even remotely.
    As for chinese taking over,it will never happen.
    First China is not a member,2nd among Asean the population of oversea chinese is small and some don’t speak the langauge.Maybe chinese will be the lingua franca of the bussiness world in Asean.
    As for learning each another language among Asean i think we are already doing that in a small way by mean of travelling and visiting each another and also by having a small number of national in each another country,we have little Thailand,vietnam,Burma and a lots more.The Malaysian crosses into southern Thailand daily for whatever reason and vice-versa.
    Whoever want their language to be the lingua franca of Asean is only a matter of pride and if not handle with care may lead to unwanted problem which we all can do without.

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