Bahasa in trouble? Slang, mixed languages threaten national language

Protecting Malay's purity for a united nation

27 Apr 2024 12:02pm
according to DBP deputy director-general (policy) Md Johari Hasan, the responsibility concerned does not come with the power to take action against those who fail to use the language correctly. - FILE PIX
according to DBP deputy director-general (policy) Md Johari Hasan, the responsibility concerned does not come with the power to take action against those who fail to use the language correctly. - FILE PIX

KUALA LUMPUR - Nearly 67 years have passed since Malaysia attained independence but the inability to master Bahasa Melayu remains a significant obstacle in the endeavour to strengthen the national language.

This issue, in fact, cuts across all ethnicities, including the Malays themselves who sometimes take their mother tongue for granted.

The emergence of pidgin languages, which are simplified forms that disregard grammar rules and are commonly spoken by foreigners or non-native speakers, further worsens the fate of the national language.

This attitude of not heeding language rules is not just limited to daily communication but also extends to signboards, signs displayed by business premises and even hoardings that are visible to all and sundry.

Regrettably, the misuse of the Malay language has become a norm these days, possibly due to society’s tendency to overlook these language errors.


When asked by Bernama why his shop sign was in English and not in Bahasa Melayu as required by the local authorities, a businessman providing photostating services in the Klang Valley replied that his shop sign has "existed for a long time and no one has questioned me”.

"We’re not disturbing anyone, we are offering a service to the community,” he said.

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The issue of signboards not using the Malay language or displaying wording written in improper Malay is not a new issue, but recently, another problem has emerged and is seen to be becoming more widespread - namely, intentionally mixing words from different languages and using colloquial or slang spellings in advertisements to attract attention.

A case in point is this slogan by an energy drink manufacturer, "Kipid 100, Sentiasa Onz, Bila 100”, emblazoned proudly on a giant billboard in Petaling Jaya, Selangor. (For the uninitiated, the slogan can be loosely interpreted as "Keep it 100, Always On The Go, When 100.)

Such advertising strategies have triggered debates on social media, with some netizens criticising the authorities, particularly Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP), for not taking action against the organisations concerned.

With regard to the Petaling Jaya billboard, most people are aware that the advertisement clearly violates the advertisement bylaws enforced by local authorities. Then why did the local council concerned issue a permit for the advertisement to be displayed there?


Starting in 2015, local councils mandated that advertisers and advertising agencies obtain certification from DBP to get a permit to display their advertisements. This is to ensure the correct usage of words and letters in Bahasa Melayu. Even signboards in public spaces and signs used by business premises must be written in proper Malay before permits are issued for their display.

Under the 1995 amendments to the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka Act, DBP is also entrusted with the responsibility of monitoring the use of the language in public places, implemented through directives, reviews, advice, assistance, guidance, training and supervision.

However, according to DBP deputy director-general (policy) Md Johari Hasan, the responsibility concerned does not come with the power to take action against those who fail to use the language correctly.

"DBP doesn’t have absolute authority. It involves many parties (advertisers and local councils). Usually, DBP will cooperate with these parties (advertisers and local councils) regarding the correct use of language in advertisements," he told Bernama.

He said this lack of authority is also hindering DBP's function in strengthening the position of Bahasa Melayu as Malaysia's official language.

He added in January this year, DBP officials surveyed the city centre here, specifically the Pudu Raya area, and found 30 to 40 language errors on signboards within a day.

"Most probably, the signs were put up illegally, that is, without getting a permit from the local authority. We say this because to get a permit for an advertisement, the advertiser must get us (DBP) to certify the language first.

"All approved advertisements must display the local council’s approval number. Any advertisement without this number is considered illegal,” he said.


Meanwhile, Siti Najah Raihan Sakrani, a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Communication and Media Studies at Universiti Teknologi Mara’s Melaka campus, claimed the lack of serious enforcement is the reason why advertisements featuring slang words and a mixture of languages have become prevalent now.

"This situation was ‘allowed’ to happen and ‘given permission’ to fester,” she told Bernama, adding, "... it is similar to the concept of demand and supply (they will continue to exist as long as there are people who like such advertisements).”

If left unchecked, the practice of mixing words from different languages in advertisements will continue to proliferate and further undermine efforts to educate the younger generation about proper language use.

"For example, at the school, university and even organisational levels, we are taught to use proper and good language and grammar. However, these efforts are disrupted by this situation (advertisements featuring improper language), ultimately damaging the purity of the national language," said Siti Najah

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia language expert Associate Prof Dr Mohamed Fazal Mohamed Sultan feels there has been no earnestness on the part of the authorities in preserving the purity of the Malay language.

"I believe this is happening because DBP is not given full authority to oversee the use of the Malay language,” he said, proposing that DBP be granted full authority to supervise and enforce the use of Bahasa Melayu in advertisements and signage.


Commenting on the challenges faced by DBP in elevating the status of Bahasa Melayu, Md Johari said the lack of public concern regarding language errors in signs and advertisements is making it difficult for the agency to make the necessary corrections.

"If they love the national language and want to preserve its purity, people should report to us any language error they encounter. But this is not happening, perhaps because the public is also unaware of these mistakes,” he said.

Agreeing some business owners use other languages in their advertisements and on signboards to attract attention due to the perceived notion that Bahasa Melayu lacked economic value, Md Johari said: "They can use other languages but on the condition that they don’t overshadow the Malay words in terms of font size, colour or position. In short, the Malay wording must be more prominent than other languages,” he explained.

He added efforts to elevate the Malay language should transcend all ethnicities to foster a sense of nationalism among the people and promote inclusivity. - BERNAMA

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