Celebrating 40 Years of MABBIM

[I wrote the following article for my column, The Golden Legacy on The Brunei Times 9 April 2012]


Celebrating 40 Years of MABBIM
by Rozan Yunos

Launching 40th Anniversary of MABBIM, 3 April 2012 at Rizqun Hotel

THE Language Council of Brunei Indonesia Malaysia (MABBIM) recently celebrated its 40th Anniversary in Bandar Seri Begawan. Many in the Malay literary world know that MABBIM (Majlis Bahasa Brunei Indonesia Malaysia) is responsible for the coordination of the Malay/Indonesian Language but not many know how it was formed, the history of the organisation and its effect on the Malay language.

It was His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah himself in September 2011 during the 50th Anniversary of the Language and Literature Bureau, who pointed out that in the 7th to 13th centuries, the Malay Language was so important that it was the "lingua franca" throughout the Malay Archipelago. From 1603 to 1708 at least twelve Malay dictionaries were known to be published by non-Malays so that Europeans could learn the language while trading in the region.

It was also in the 16th century that the Malay language was enriched with new vocabulary from Arabia, Persia and Hindi. Other changes were undergone at the same time with the introduction of the Arabic rhetorical style and changes in grammar based on oral speech.

From 1850 to 1957, the Malay Language saw the incorporation of more loan words from Portuguese, Dutch and English. By then, the state of the Malay language in the two largest Malay countries (Indonesia and Malaysia) in the region had gone beyond just incorporation of loan words.

The 1824 Agreement between the British and the Dutch saw the separation of the region into English and Dutch colonies. By the end of World War Two, the Malay Language had separated with Indonesia's romanised writing influenced by the Dutch whereas Brunei's and Malaysia's were influenced by the British system. The spelling of the words in both countries had also changed.

After independence from the colonial powers in the early 1950s, the Malay speakers in the region realised the need to standardise the various divergences in Malay in the region.

The Third Congress of Malay Language and Letters (Kongres Bahasa dan Persuratan Melayu) meeting in September 1956 attended by 500 delegates from Malaysia and Indonesia agreed among others that there should be formed a Language and Literature Bureau that can act as the custodian of the Malay language as well as the need to unify the spelling between Malaysia and Indonesia.

By December 1959, a committee of Malaysia and Indonesia experts was established to work on unifying the Malay language. A meeting in December 1959 established the Malindo Spelling System with January 1962 as the target date for its launching. However the Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation postponed the implementation until September 1966.

Asmah Haji Omar in her article "The Malay Spelling Reform" published in the Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1989, noted that "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."

On May 23, 1972, a Joint Statement was signed by the two countries represented by their Education Ministers and it was in August 1972 that a common spelling system was to be adopted by the two countries. It was announced simultaneously in Indonesia and Malaysia on 16 August 1972, the eve of the anniversary of Indonesia's Independence. In Indonesia, the announcement was made by President Soeharto, while in Malaysia it was by the Prime Minister, Tun Abdul Razak.

A grace period of five years was given for the Indonesians and Malaysians to get used to the new system. In the meantime the two governments undertook a rigorous programme to implement the new spelling system. This included giving special classes to the people, especially teachers and administrators, on how to spell according to the new spelling system. In December 1972, the two countries agreed to form the Language Council of Indonesia-Malaysia (MBIM - Majlis Bahasa Indonesia Malaysia). This council consisting of language experts from Indonesia and Malaysia is tasked to be the main body which will coordinate all meetings pertaining to the Malay language including grammar, definitions, spelling and anything related to the language.

When Brunei joined in November 1985, the acronym MBIM changed to MABBIM (Majlis Bahasa Brunei Indonesia Malaysia or the Language Council of Brunei Malaysia Indonesia. Singapore joined as an official Observer in the same year.

In the last 40 years, what has MABBIM achieved?

The most important obviously is the common spelling in the region. There was this change to the consonant Malaysians "ch" and Indonesians "tj" to be spelled as "c" which for example "contoh" instead of "chontoh", "cuaca" instead of "chuaca" and "percaya" instead of "perchaya". In Indonesia, place names such as "Atjeh" and "Tjirebon" became today's more recognisable "Aceh" and "Cirebon".

The Indonesians "dj" became plain "j" for example Jakarta used to be spelled Djakarta. The Indonesians "sj" and Malaysians "sh" became "sy" such as "sharat" becoming "syarat".

There used to be a special "e" with a tilde above it. All diacritics were removed and only standard characters were used. Apostrophes and hyphens were removed. Reduplications using the figure "2" were removed such as "bermain2" became "bermain-main".

In the pure sciences, more than 21,000 new entries have been prepared with 6,480 entries for Chemistry, 5,257 entries for Physics, 4,289 for Biology and 58,017 for Mathematics.

In Social Sciences, 2,500 new entries for Anthropology, 2,750 for Photography, 400 for Golf, 58,071 for Culture and the Arts, 4,315 for Literature, 3,741 for Linguistics, 2,484 for Tourism, 4,971 for Education, 1,274 for Films, 5,439 for Political Sciences, 1,096 for Sociology and 1,816 for Legal.

In Applied Sciences, 1,985 new entries for Aeronautic, 901 for Archaeology, 2,325 for Automotive, 6,648 for Economic, 2,750 for Photography, 230 for HIV, 18,295 for Engineering, 4,513 for Finance, 4,497 for Livestock, 1,347 for Taxation, 1,274 for Films, 2,813 for Dentistry, 297 for Forestry, 4,178 for Fisheries, 8,315 for Agriculture, 21,249 for Medical, 14,773 for Information Technology and 3,845 for Veterinary.

Many dictionaries have been published for the above categories as well as one main dictionary comprising all the words of the three MABBIM countries called "Kamus Nusantara".

Most importantly MABBIM has been the venue and the catalyst for experts of the Malay language in various fields such as science, technology, social science and the humanities to meet and discuss new vocabulary which can further enrich the Malay language and make the language a dynamic one and adapted to suit the needs of a changing world.


Sometimes there is confusion between MABBIM and MABIMS. MABBIM stands for "Majlis Bahasa Brunei Indonesia dan Malaysia" (Language Council of Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia) whereas MABIMS stands for "Mesyuarat Tidak Rasmi Menteri-Menteri Agama Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia dan Singapura" (Informal Meeting of the Religious Ministers of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore).


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