[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1989-2 pp.9-13 later designated J11]

The Malay Spelling Reform.

Asmah Haji Omar.

Having studied Indonesian Language and Literature, Professor Asmah took a PhD in General Linguistics at the University of London. She is now Professor of Malay Linguistics and Director of the Language Centre, University of Malaya, in Kuala Lumpur. She has published several books on the linguistics of Malay and related languages, and her role in the spelling reform was that of Deputy Chairman of the Permanent Committee for Bahasa Malaysia since its establishment in 1972.

1. Background to bahasa Malaysia.

Malay, as referred to in this article, is the national language of Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei Darussalam and Singapore. However, the term 'Malay', or 'Melayu' as official nomenclature, only applies in Brunei Darussalam and Singapore; in Malaysia it is known as bahasa Malaysia, and in Indonesia bahasa Indonesia (bahasa = language).

The original name of this language was Melayu or Malay, while its native speakers were and are still known as Malays. They are the Malays of the Malay Peninsula, Singapore, Brunei, parts of Sarawak, and the eastern part of North Sumatra known as the Riau mainland together with islands off its coast. The population of the native speakers has been small compared to the non-Malay peoples whose various tongues are not Malay, but belong to the same family as Malay. These are the natives of the islands of Southeast Asia, better known in history as the Malay archipelago which mainly comprises the four countries mentioned above. Malay has been the lingua franca among these peoples from time immemorial.

The Malay maritime hegemony which spread over the archipelago from the seventh to the nineteenth century, as represented by the various empires in Sumatra, the Malay Peninsula, Borneo and the southern Philippines, had contributed enormously to the spread of Malay, not only as the trade language of the area but also as the language of administration, literature, religion and philosophy. Great literary and religious traditions from outside entered the archipelago through the Malay language. At first it was the great Hindu and Buddhist traditions, and these were later followed by those of Islam.

With the arrival of Western imperialism, specifically, that of the British, the role of the Malay language in officialdom began to diminish in the former Malay states of the Malay Peninsula, Singapore and Brunei. In Sumatra (Indonesia), Malay as the language of administration was replaced by Dutch, whereas in Peninsula Malaysia, Singapore and Borneo, it was superseded by English.

Map showing Malaysia.

2. Roman and Arabic scripts in Malay.

A literacy program in English was designed in the British territories, viz. the Malay states and Singapore, through the 'English Schools', that is, schools using English as medium of instruction. At the same time literacy in Malay was not neglected, although the Malay vernacular schools provided education to the rural Malays up to Primary VI only. For this literacy program in Malay, the British colonial government decided to use the Roman alphabet as a writing system for writing Malay. It was only in 1904 that the first Malay spelling system was introduced; this is now known as the Wilkinson System, after its originator. This system was used widely in Malaya, Singapore and Brunei.

When the Romanised spelling system was introduced, the Malays already possessed a writing system, and that was the system using the Arabic script. This was the script used for recording their religious and literary traditions. This was also the script used in the correspondences between the Malay kingdoms of the archipelago. The introduction of the Roman alphabet, strictly speaking, was not a step in making an illiterate people literate, but it was more of an addition of another writing system to the knowledge of an already literate people. Hence, from the dawn of the twentieth century, the Malays have been writing their language in two entirely different systems of writing.

In Indonesia, although there was Javanese, which was the language of the majority of the Indonesians, the Dutch colonial government had chosen Malay to be the language in which they interacted with the natives. Although the Dutch did not build Malay vernacular schools for the Indonesians, they found it necessary to write the Malay language using the Roman alphabet. A spelling system was formulated by a Dutch scholar of Indonesian, van Ophuysen, known as the van Ophuysen system. While the spelling used in the British areas was based on English graphemes, that of Indonesia was based on those of Dutch.

The differences between the Wilkinson and the van Ophuysen systems were most obvious in the choice of graphemes for the vowels and consonants shown here:-

Phoneme Grapheme
 WilkinsonVan Ophuysen

3. The Soewandi and Za'aba amendments.

In 1948 the van Ophuysen system in Indonesia underwent changes in the two graphemes for the vowels /u/ and /e/, which then came to be written <u> and <e> as in the Wilkinson system in Malaya. The change was effected by Mr Soewandi, the Minister of Education at that time, and the van Ophuysen system with these two changes came to be known as the Soewandi system of spelling. In this system the schwa and /e/ were represented by one grapheme, <e>. This was the system that was in use until 1972.

In the meanwhile, in Malaya, the spelling system was also undergoing changes. In fact, the situation in Malaya, which was later known as Malaysia, was more fluid than in Indonesia. Long before the van Ophuysen system came to be replaced by the Soewandi system in Indonesia, the Wilkinson system had already undergone a major change in 1924. However, the changes did not involve new graphemes, but reflected a decision on the vowels that should occur in final closed syllables. The reform devised by Za'aba, a well-known Malay grammarian, replaced the vowel grapheme <u> with <o> in final closed syllables when the final consonant is represented by <k, h, ng> or <r>. It also replaced <i> with <e> in final closed syllables, where /k/ or /h/ is the final consonant. Examples are given in the table below:-


Za'aba had no explanation for such changes. One could see that his uppermost consideration was the phonetic realisation of those words. Wilkinson was more concerned with the vowel harmony that should be represented in the orthography, and we should remember that the Soewandi system in Indonesia was similar to Wilkinson's in the treatment of the vowels in words such as those above.

Apart from the choice of vowels in designated closed syllables mentioned above, the Za'aba system also introduced a new grapheme, which was <ě> for the schwa. With the diacritic mark thus represented, the Za'aba system differentiated schwa from the half-open vowel /e/. In this way, there was greater facilitation in reading texts using the Za'aba system of spelling compared to that of Wilkinson.

The Za'aba system was the one adopted in the teaching of Malay in the schools from the 1930's onwards, and it came to be known as the school spelling system. Even with its spread via the schools, this system was not to be left unchallenged. Various sectors were not happy with the system, and suggestions for a reform appeared intermittently as time passed by.

4. Eclecticism of the 1940s and 50s.

During the Japanese Occupation of Malaya and Indonesia, there emerged a system which was supposed to uniformise the systems in the two countries. The system known as Fajar Asia (or 'the Dawn of Asia') appeared to use the Soewandi system of writing the vowels and the Malayan system of writing the consonants. This system only existed during the Occupation.

When the war was over, the two countries reverted to their separate ways.

In Malaya, talk about reforming the spelling system never ceased, unlike in Indonesia. In 1956, a year before the Independence of Malaya, the Third Malay Congress, held in Johore Babaru, came out most decisively for a spelling system known as the Congress System. This system never came out in print except in the proposal papers of the Congress. The reason was that it was not practical for use by the ordinary people and certain graphemes proposed by the system were not represented in the typewriters. This system prescribed the use of symbols in the International Phonetic Alphabet for <ch>, <j>, <ng>, <ny>, and <sh>, going by the dictum of one symbol for one phoneme. It also made a new proposition in the writing of diphthongs. Whereas the Wilkinson and the Za'aba systems had <au> and <oi>, the Congress system suggested <aw> and <oy>. This innovation did not seem to gain acceptance of people in general. Even then, certain groups particularly those affiliated to the Literary Movement 1950 used the Congress graphemes for diphthongs in their own publications. This group even reverted to the Wilkinson style of writing the vowels in closed final syllables which was, as said earlier, similar to the Soewandi style in Indonesia.

Since the Malay sections of publishing houses were mainly manned by members of the Literary Movement 1950 or their sympathisers, the Movement's style of spelling seemed to gain a widespread currency through published works. In the meantime, the schools and the government publications were still using the Za'aba or the school system of spelling. Hence, the public became confused as to which system to follow. Language usage outside the precincts of the school reflected a state of confusion in the minds of the people in the spelling of their language using the Roman script. It was not unusual to find several systems used in a short passage in the print media not to mention in individual writings.

5. Malaysia and Indonesia after Independence.

Malaya became independent in 1957, and with this Malay became the national language and one of the official languages, the other being English. This meant that Malay had to play a more significant role in administration and in the education system than previously. This also meant that the state of confusion in spelling the language became more widespread and came to everyone's attention.

In 1959, Malaya and Indonesia signed a Cultural Agreement, which included the implementation of a common spelling system for the two countries. The system agreed to in this Agreement was known as the Malindo System, Malindo being the contraction of Malaya and Indonesia. However, this system was never implemented or even published for the information of the public, mainly due to two factors. Firstly, the system was very similar to the Congress system which was found to be impractical. Secondly, relations between Malaya and Indonesia made a turn for the worse soon after the signing of the Agreement; the cause of the deterioration in this relationship was the idea behind the independence of Singapore, Brunei, Sarawak and North Borneo - that these territories would be given independence by the British government only if they joined Malaya to form Malaysia. Soekarno, the President of Indonesia at that time, saw this as a threat to the security of Indonesia. The formation of Malaysia in 1963, the "crush Malaysia" policy of Soekarno's Indonesia, and the severance of diplomatic relations with Malaysia from 1963 to 1966 are now history.

When the warfare between Malaysia and Indonesia ended at the end of 1966, among the first items on the agenda of a detente between the two countries concerned was a common spelling system. With the green light from their respective governments, language experts of the two countries sat down to serious work on formulating a spelling system that was practical and above all accepted by the two parties concerned. Six years passed by, and in August 1972, a common spelling system was adopted by the two countries. It was announced simultaneously in Indonesia and Malaysia on 16th of August 1972, the eve of the anniversary of into Indonesia's Independence. In Indonesia, the announcement was made by President Soeharto, while in Malaysia it was by the Prime Minister, Tun Abdul Razak.

6. The 1972 spelling reform.

A grace period of five years was given in both countries for the people to get used to the new system. In Malaysia this meant that students were not penalised for making mistakes in spelling words according to the old systems. However, a rigorous programme was undertaken by the government's Language and Literacy Agency (Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka) to see to the implementation of the new spelling system by giving special classes to the people, especially teachers and administrators, on how to spell their language according to the new spelling system. The grace period also allowed the publishers to dispose of their old stocks and to publish revised editions and new titles in the new spelling. Names of roads places, and institutions had to undergo a change in appearance, using the new spelling system.

The common spelling system of Malaysia and Indonesia is characterised by four main traits: practicality, simplicity, symmetricity and flexibility.

7. Standard characters, no diacritics.

Practicality in the spelling system means that all the graphemes consist of characters that are easily available in the typewriters and the printing machines. The IPA symbols were out from the start, and no new characters were created.

Simplicity can be viewed from two aspects. First is the use of diacritics. The old spelling systems in Malaysia and Indonesia made use of diacritics. We have seen the diacritics used on the schwa and /c/. The new system, guided by the Wilkinson and the Soewandi systems, has discarded them and uses <e> for both the vowels concerned. The Malay language shows a higher frequency of the schwa compared to /e/. The Malaysian Za'aba style of placing a diacritic mark on <e> to stand for the schwa was not economical in terms of the time taken for writing, quite apart from the fact that the text was full of diacritics. Furthermore, with a few exceptions, the occurrence of /e/ is predictable, as /e/ usually occurs in a harmonious relationship with itself and /o/ in two contiguous syllables where the vowel of the other syllable is also /e/ or /o/. On the other hand, the schwa enters such a relationship with /i/ and /u/, as seen here.

With /e/

Without /e/


There are cases where the occurrences of the schwa and /e/ are not predictable as in semak (with the schwa) 'bushes', and semak (with /e/) 'revise', but such pairs are few and far between.

8. Removing apostrophes and hyphens.

In the old systems, particularly in Malaysia, the apostrophe was placed before a vowel, if the vowel is syllable-initial, to indicate the pharyngeal fricative which appeared in loan words from Arabic. However, Malay does not have this phoneme in its inventory. Most Malays actualise this sound as a glottal stop. Since syllable- and word-initial vowels in Malay are always accompanied by the glottal stop, the apostrophe to indicate the Arabic pharyngeal fricative was discarded, so spelling certain Arabic loanwords with one grapheme less, as here:-

Old Spelling
New Spelling

The use of the hyphen became significantly less with the new spelling system. The old spelling systems were liberal in the use of the hyphen e.g. between the affix di- or the postpositional emphatic word lah or the clitic form nya and the rootword, or between certain prepositions and the nouns that follow them. In the new spelling, the hyphen in the first set of contexts is removed and the components are written as a complete or whole word; in the second context, the removal of the hyphen results in two distinct words, one a preposition and the other a noun, as here:-

Old Spelling
New Spelling
di rumah
ke rumah
is made
his/her house
at the house
to the house

In the present system, the hyphen is used between components of reduplicated words, e.g. menari-nari 'keeps on dancing', rumah-rumah 'houses'.

9. Agreements on common letter-values.

The second aspect of simplicity lies in the choice of graphemes for the former <ch> in the Malaysian inventory, and the Indonesian <tj> and <dj>. For the Malaysian <ch> and Indonesian <tj>, a new grapheme was agreed on: <c>. Previous to the new spelling system, <c> did not have the status of a grapheme either in Malaysia or in Indonesia. The common spelling system has given it graphemic status. It is not only simplicity that is indicated in the choice of <c>, but also the end of the confusion arising from <ch> for people reading Malaysian and Indonesian texts. In Malaysia, this grapheme stood for the voiceless alveo-palatal affricate while in Indonesia it was for the velar fricative /x/.

As for <dj>, the Indonesians agreed to adopt Malaysian <j> for the voiced alveo-palatal affricate spelt <j> in English. Linked to the Indonesian acceptance of <j> was their acceptance of the Malaysian <y> for the semi-vowel.

Symmetricity in the new spelling system has been demonstrated by the utilisation of the rules of vowel harmony as seen in the choice of <e> for the schwa and for /e/. It is further indicated in the choice of various other graphemes as discussed below.

When the Indonesians accepted <y>, they also accepted <ny> in place of their <nj>, for the palato-alveolar nasal. Arising from this, a new grapheme was created to replace the Malaysian <sh> and the Indonesian <sj>, both of which stood for the palato-alveoler fricative, and this was <sy>. Like <c>, the grapheme <sy> was new to both parties. The decision was made in consideration of the symmetricity provided in the pair <ny> and <sy>, where <y> indicates the palato-alveolar component of the underlying phoneme.

Another symmetricity feature can be seen in the retention of <h> as a component in certain graphemes, and it indicates 'gutturalisation'. Such phonemes mostly occur in loan words from Arabic, and they are represented in the graphemes <kh>, <gh> etc. Here, it is worth mentioning that the Indonesian side had agreed to the grapheme <kh> for /x/ to replace their <ch>.

10. Reduplication.

The writing of reduplicated words can also be included under the rubric of symmetricity. In Malay reduplication is very productive as a morphological process. There are three types of reduplication in Malay: the reduplication of the first syllable of the root, the reduplication of the stem of a complex word, and the reduplication of the whole word, be it a simple or complex word. In the old spelling systems both in Malaysia and Indonesia, the first type of reduplication was spelt in toto, but the character <2> was used to indicate the reduplication of the second and third types. In the reduplication of the whole word, the character <2> was placed at the end of the word, for example, rumah2 was read as rumah-rmaah 'houses', makan2 as makan-makan 'to while away the time eating'.

The writing of the reduplication of the complex word with the character <2> was not neat and consistent. The use of <2> made it possible to write the same word in more than one way. One was to separate the components with a hyphen and place <2> after the component that was duplicated (see i below), and the other was to place <2> at the end of the whole word (see ii below).

'to play'
'to keep on playing'
'to keep on playing'

Both i and ii above should be read as bermain-main.

The first method facilitated reading, but it violated the rule of writing complex words with affixes, viz. an affix should be written together with the stem so that the word appears as a complete whole. As for the second method, while it observed the morphological rule, it caused difficulty in reading. Speakers, especially non-native ones, were prone to reading the second example above as a total reduplication bermain-bermain which is ungrammatical. Although native speakers, with their native competence, may not read bermain2 as a total reduplication, because the total reduplication of forms falling into this pattern does not occur in the language, there are other patterns where native speakers themselves find difficulty in deciding whether the written word with the character <2> represents total reduplication or only that of the stem. An example is sekali2. As a total reduplication, sekali-sekali, it means, once in a while', whereas as a word which undergoes reduplication only at the stem, sekali-kali, it means '(not) ... at all'.

The use of the character <2> was economical in nature. It was a form of shorthand in writing the cumbersome reduplicated word. However, facilitation in reading and mastering the language was the overriding factor in discarding it altogether as a shorthand symbol for reduplication. This makes the physical writing slower but it has brought simplification to the learning system.

11. Consonant clusters in loanwords.

Flexibility is a very important factor in the writing of loanwords, specifically from English. The flexibility factor can be seen in the acceptance of new consonant clusters in all positions in the word, and the schwa in the word final position as well as a nucleus in the closed final syllable of the word.

The old spelling systems in Malaysia and Indonesia did not recognise the existence of consonant clusters at the word-initial and word-final positions. Loanwords which have such clusters are mainly from English. Before the new spelling system was implemented, English loans such as project, process and complex were spelt as perojek, peroses, and komplek. This was based on the established rule of Malay phonology that the syllable structure consists of only a single consonant as its onset and its coda. Therefore, the cluster at the beginning of the word was neutralised by inserting a vowel, usually a schwa, between its components.

There were two ways in neutralising the cluster at the end of the word. One was by dropping off all the components but one, as in the writing of perojek (<t> was dropped off), and komplek (<s> was dropped off). However, in applying this method, there were certain words which showed a difference in the perceptions of the Indonesians and the Malaysians on the clusters concerned, viz. on the component that was more significant and should be retained. This concerned mainly clusters with <r> as the penultimate component, as in passport, import, and export. In Indonesia, these words were taken as <paspor>, <impor>, and<ekspor>, which indicated that <r> was more significant than <t>. On the other hand, the Malaysians, perhaps very much influenced by British pronunciation, wrote and pronounced those words with the <t>, without the <r>; hence <paspot>, <impot>, <ekspot>. In their quest for uniformity, the Malaysians and the Indonesians decided to neutralise their differences by putting back both <r> and <t> in those words. Hence, in the new spelling the words are spelt as <pasport>, <import>, <eksport>.

The second method of neutralising the word-final cluster was to insert a vowel in between its components. An example is the writing of the loanword for film. In Indonesia it was filem, in Malaysia filam. The Malaysian version was guided by the phonological rule of the time which did not admit the schwa in final closed syllables.

With its flexibility rule, the new spelling system has admitted clusters in the initial and final positions of the word. This has facilitated the borrowing of technical terms from English for the various sciences. However, those words which have existed for a long time in the Malay language with one or two components decapitated have been allowed to remain, so as not to cause too much destandardisation. The word filem remains in Indonesia and has been adopted by Malaysia. Among those which did not undergo a change in form by having their clusters reinstated are the Malaysian examples of <komunis> 'communist', <rekod> 'record', <moden> 'modem'.

12. Word-final schwas in loanwords.

As Malay is essentially disyllabic in nature, monosyllabic words with final consonant clusters in English are assimilated by giving them a disyllabic appearance, viz. by placing the grapheme <a> at the end of the word. For example <plasma> from plasm, <kuspa> from cusp, <kalka> from calc.

The acceptance of <filem> by the Malaysians also indicates their acceptance of the schwa in the closed final syllables. Linked with this is also their acceptance of <e> for schwa at the end of the word as in <koine> which has been taken in toto. This has greatly facilitated the work of the various terminology committees of the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, already mentioned, in assimilating loanwords from other languages.

Acceptance of the final schwa does not mean acceptance of something foreign. The pronunciation adopted by the Radio and Television Malaysia (RTM) actualises the final <a> as a schwa, based on the Johor dialect of Southern Peninsular Malaysia. In the northern part of the Peninsula and in Sabah' and Sarawak, <a> is realised as [a], as also in Indonesia. However, the acceptance of this final schwa does not mean that all cases of <a> in the word final position are changed to <e>. Native words continue to be spelt with <a>, and this <a> can have various styles of pronunciation. The final <e> for schwa is meant only for loanwords.

13. Further linguistic co-operation.

The cultural pact between Malaysia and Indonesia has resulted in a common spelling system for the two countries which have the same language as their national and official language. Their co-operation did not end with their common spelling; they have continued with the effort to have a common scientific terminology, and to work closely on matters pertaining to language. This co-operation is directed by a Council, which was officially formed in December 1972, known as the Language Council for Indonesia and Malaysia (Majlis Bahasa Indonesia-Malaysia, or MBIM for short). The Council consisted of a high-powered committee on each side, mostly consisting of language experts. In 1986, Brunei Darussalam officially joined as a member of the Council, and the Council was obliged to take a new name, and that is Language Council for Brunei Darussalam-Indonesia-Malaysia (Majlis Bahasa Brunei Darussalam-Indonesia - Malaysia, or MABBIM for short).

Brunei had been attending meetings of MBIM as an invited member long before it became an official member. The common spelling system and a common scientific terminology were crucial to the successful implementation of the national language policy. The spelling system in use in Brunei before the common spelling system was adopted was the Malaysian Za'aba System. As language developments in Brunei had always been closely linked with those of Malaysia, the decision to adopt the new spelling system was a practical one.

Although Singapore does not use Malay as much as her neighbours, due to her four-language policy (consisting of English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil), it was also a practical consideration on her part to move with the times. There has never been anything official on Singapore's part on her stand on the new spelling, but implementation of this system has taken place as evidenced by publications in Malay produced in Singapore.

14. Conclusion: achievements of reform.

The Malay spelling reform was a success in three ways. Firstly, it resulted in giving a standard norm in spelling the language in place of a situation where many norms existed. Secondly, with its practicality and flexibility it has paved the way for a tremendous growth and development of the language. Finally, it brought together the Malay speaking countries in a close cultural and linguistic network.

15. Bibliography.

Asmah Haji Omar (1975) Essays on Malaysian Linguistics, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, Kuala Lumpur, Essays 6, 8, 9.

Asmah Haji Omar (1979) Language Planning for Unity and Efficiency: A Study of the Language Status and Corpus Planning of Malaysia, University of Malaya Press, Kuala Lumpur.

Mocliono, Anton M, 'A Recent History of Spelling Reforms in Indonesia', in J. W. M. Verhaar (1975), Miscellaneous Studies in Indonesian and Languages in Indonesia, I. Jakarta: NUSA.

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