To speak English or cakap Melayu?*

*cakap Melayu = speak Malay

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“I feel disgusted with these types of people,” the Malay pakcik (uncle) lashed out. “Especially the girls… Those girls from universities. What, just because they’re in universities, they can’t speak Malay?”

I was in a cab, and the conversation was naturally in Malay. Amidst his tirade, the driver may have a point when he implied that higher-educated Malays are getting more alien to their native language (I’m not sure about the female comment). His concern is not isolated; for quite some time now in the Malay news, there have been debates over the decline of Malay usage among Malays, and the general perception is that the higher-educated Malays are the main culprit. It comes to no surprise though, as the same issue is also faced by the Chinese community in Singapore.

Initially, I’ve never thought that of language to be that much of an issue. I’ve always regarded language as a mere medium of expression; so whichever one you choose, as long as the intended objective is achieved it doesn’t matter. To me what mattered most is how a person acts. So in our Malay-Muslim society, religion is more of a priority than language.

To me, a good Muslim is better than anything, no matter what the language spoken. It’s a no-brainer if you have to choose, for instance, between Malay gangsters who know their language, or pious Malay doctors who don’t know Malay.

So I didn’t really care about the “great Malay language debate”, until more recently. I had an encounter with two young tertiary-educated Malay ladies near a restaurant. They were complaining about something in English – boys, I think. I cannot recall the exact conversation, but weirdly enough, from the way they are dressed and they way they talk, the imagery that immediately comes to mind is that of American college girls that you often see negatively depicted on TV. Only this time it’s the Malay version.

At that very moment, I actually felt disgusted.

Proud to sound and act like ang moh

The thing about language is that one does not only learn how to say/read/write only, but the associated culture as well. Understandably when learning English, one has access to English movies, music, news, information, and many more. Unfortunately, most of these are popularized by the media through pure sensationalism.

What bugs me is when Malays – or Asians for that matter – subsume negative Western culture as their own. If it’s positive, I’m all for it. But the negative ones, such as immodest attires and uninhibited social norms, are those which directly undermine our own cultural values.

In this respect, Malay language has provided a layer of protection against the barrage of foreign values. Of course in this day and age, it is impossible to survive solely on the Malay language, as English is the established medium for work and school. So a healthy balance needs to be struck. Malay language still play a vital role as a conduit of  good Malay/Asian culture, one that instills emphasis on respect and the traditional family structure, to temper against the overwhelming Western norms that most blindly adhere to.

Best of both worlds

Not only culture is under siege, but also religious principles. Here in Singapore, English is used the very moment you step out of the house. Schools and workplaces are not exempt from this, though mosques and Islamic institutions generally still use Malay language in daily affairs. At the same time, while there are increasingly more sermons and religious lectures being delivered in English, here in Southeast Asia, Malay remains to be an indispensable language to study the religion. Structured religious education provided by major local Islamic institutions such as Pergas and Perdaus is still being delivered in Malay (correct me if I’m wrong). Even less structured lectures in mosques is generally delivered in Malay.

As religious values should be inculcated from a young and tender age, especially with the weekly dose of Friday sermons, it is worrying if our future generation cannot appreciate its content. And since Friday sermons provide the window of opportunity to ditch or bridge the connection with those who rarely step foot in the mosque, the understanding of Malay is – the way I see it – synonymous with the introduction of religious guidance.

As highlighted in a recent newspaper commentary, a writer at first thought that – based on facial expressions – the young participants in a religious talk were engrossed by the speaker who delivered in Malay. But later when he spoke to them, he found out that while they were indeed impressed by the speaker, they were also confused by the Malay terms being used.

This is something that deserves attention. On a larger scale, limited comprehension of the language may affect the understanding of religious instructions. If Malay language understanding continues to deteriorate, the impact in the future may not only be cultural, but also a religious one.

Why oh why?

Perhaps more pertinent to the discussion is the “why” behind it. Why do Malays not want to speak Malay? Based on my expertly-derived rocking-armchair analysis, it boils down to two factors. Firstly and bluntly, English-speaking Malays are intentionally suffering from post-colonialism inferiority complex, symptoms of which include the delusion that speaking English means that you are clever, and speaking Malay means that you are stupid and of some lower caste. This is further compounded with what the “new Malays” perceive as Malay being the exclusive language of the mats and minahs; by conversing in English, not only are they “proving” that they are “successful,” but that they have “broken out” of the “Malay stigma.”

In refutation of this, I have to say that “high education” compares zilch to good upbringing. Just because one speaks English peppered with six-syllable words doesn’t mean he’s “better” or “smarter”. They’ve quickly and conveniently forgotten the MBA holders who are responsible for the global finance calamity. Yet I must admit, our education system is one that we can be proud of. A system which, against all odds, has successfully produced minahs who spew English expletives amidst their Queen’s English over a cuppa. Seriously, go to Starbucks and you’ll know what I mean.

Malay at home ≠ Failure at school

The second one is more easily digestible: parents want their kids to excel in school. But in order to do so, they believe that their English must be honed at home. Initially I was supportive of this, as I thought the Malay student may have an advantage over his peers if his English is good. But then looking at many many examples around me, of those who manage to read, write, and speak English well, they were mostly brought up in Malay-speaking home environment. Yes, even those so-called “new Malays”, we all know they grew up in Malay-speaking households too.

Then I realize how many people that I personally see and know, who were brought up in Malay-speaking homes. They went to Malay-speaking schools, studied in foreign universities which doesn’t use English, and yet are proficiently fluent in English. Some are even – while admittedly verbose – established English orators. At the same time, they are also able to seamlessly switch between the two languages fluently.

So why the need to speak English at home?

Speaking Malay at home

Thus far, I have decided that my home will be a Malay-speaking one.

Our kids will speak English almost every second when he’s out of the house. So it’s unfounded to worry about him not learning English, the worry should be placed on him growing to be a person who’s not proud of his background.

We should aim for that balance to allow Malay to blossom in the house. Not through corny Malay TV dramas, but through conversations, newspapers, and good books. Doing so will protect our precious cultural, and as a bonus, religious values.

There’s nothing to lose; your kids will still do well in school, and when he’s all grown up, he’ll still remember to kiss the back of your hand.

Nota: Bagi mereka yang bertanya kenapa blog ini tidak ditulis dalam bahasa Melayu, ini adalah kerana blog ini ingin ditujukan kepada mereka yang tidak berbahasa Melayu.



Best Qur’an Translation in English?

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Most English-speaking Muslims are familiar with the translations by Yusuf Ali, Muhsin Khan, MH Shakir, and Pickthall, as they are usually condered the “classics” in English Qur’anic translations.

But which is the best one? I’m sure everyone has their own favourites. For me, I find the “classics” a safe choice choice, though the detailed translation may be regarded by some as being wordy, and not easily comprehensible to younger Muslims or even non-Muslims. Another thing to note is the time when which the “classics” was written, of which is evident in the writing style.

Personally I crave for translations which doesn’t restrict the flow of its original Arabic texts, yet manage to capture the as much of the meaning as possible. For  those who understand Arabic, the Qu’ran is a very poetic and sublime piece of literature. And translating the masterwork – or Master’s words – in English is no easy feat. The translator may focus on elaboration at the expense its fluidity and artistry.

Before you choosing a translation, make sure you do your homework. – you wouldn’t want to grab a bad translation or one which may carry the biased undertone of orientalists or Shiites, for instance.

Below are comparison of some popular translations based on surah al-Fatihah. When in doubt, always stick to established authors and publishers.

My personal preference is the first one listed: “The Majestic Quran, a New English Translation”. Like its meanings, I find that even the poetic beauty of the Qur’an is not lost in translation.

The Majestic Quran, a New English Translation (Ibn Khaldun Foundation)

Trans. Abdal Hakim Murad, Mustafa Badawi, et al

In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful.

Praise be to God, the Lord of the Worlds,

the Compassionate, the Merciful

King of Judgment Day!

You alone we worship, and to You alone do we turn for help.

Guide us to the straight path;

the path of those whom You have favored; not of those with whom You are angered, nor of those who go astray.

The Qur’an (Oxford World’s Classics)

Trans. M. A. S. Abdel Haleem

In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy

Praise belongs to God, Lord of the Worlds

the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy

Master of the Day of Judgment

It is You we worship; it is You we ask for help

Guide us to the straight path:

the path of those You have blessed, those who incur no anger and who have not gone astray.

The Quran: A New Interpretation: In English with Arabic Text

Trans. M. B. Behbudi

In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful

Praise belongs to God, Nurturer and Sustainer of all worlds

God Most Compassionate, Most Merciful

Lord and Master of the Day of Judgment

King of all creation! It is You Whom we worship; it is You to Whom we turn for help

Guide us to the Straight Path –

The Path of those upon whome You have bestowed the bounty of true guidance; not the path of those who have turned away from You knowingly and thus incurred Your wrath, or those who have unwittingly gone astray.

The Noble Qur’an: A New Rendering of its Meaning in English

Trans. Abdalhaqq and Aisha Bewley

[Note that the translation below is obtained from here. As such I cannot ascertain whether it’s the same one in the book.]

(1) In the name of Allah, All-Merciful, Most Merciful

(2) Praise be to Allah, the Lord of all the worlds,

(3) the All-Merciful, the Most Merciful,

(4) the King of the Day of Judgement.

(5) You alone we worship. You alone we ask for help.

(6) Guide us on the Straight Path,

(7) the Path of those You have blessed, not of those with anger on them, nor of the misguided.

The Noble Qur’an

Trans. Muhammad Muhsin Khan

1. In the Name of Allâh, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful.

2. All the praises and thanks be to Allâh, the Lord of the ‘Alamîn (mankind, jinns and All that exists).

3. the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful.

4. the Only Owner (and the Only Ruling Judge) of the Day of Recompense (i.e. the Day of Resurrection)

5. You (Alone) we worship, and You (Alone) we ask for help (for each and everything).

6. Guide us to the Straight Way

7. the Way of those on whom You have bestowed Your Grace, not (the way) of those who earned Your Anger (such as the Jews), nor of those who went astray (such as the Christians).

The Holy Qur’an: Text, Translation and Commentary

Trans. Abdullah Yusuf Ali

1. In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.

2. Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds;

3. Most Gracious, Most Merciful;

4. Master of the Day of Judgment.

5. Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek.

6. Show us the straight way,

7. the way of those on whom Thou hast bestowed Thy Grace, those whose (portion) is not wrath, and who go not astray.

The Holy Qur’an (Tahrike Tarsile Qur’an)

Trans. Muhammad Habib Shakir

In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful.

[1.1] All praise is due to Allah, the Lord of the Worlds.

[1.2] The Beneficent, the Merciful.

[1.3] Master of the Day of Judgment.

[1.4] Thee do we serve and Thee do we beseech for help.

[1.5] Keep us on the right path.

[1.6] The path of those upon whom Thou hast bestowed favors. Not (the path) of those upon whom Thy wrath is brought down, nor of those who go astray.

The English Translation of the Qur’an

Trans. Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall

In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful.

Praise be to Allah, Lord of the Worlds,

The Beneficent, the Merciful.

Master of the Day of Judgment,

Thee (alone) we worship; Thee (alone) we ask for help.

Show us the straight path,

The path of those whom Thou hast favoured; Not the (path) of those who earn Thine anger nor of those who go astray.

Online Translation

For online translation, the best one is the one that came up most recently, which is Very readable, tremendously accessible, and even linking particular verses (especially to verify on what you read elsewhere) is made easy. For instance if you want to link surah 5, verse 82, just type it as

Its translation is by default from Sahih/Saheeh International, a pseudonym for an Umm Muhammad which I am unfortunately unfamiliar with. The only information I have is:

The Translator is Umm Muhammad known under the pseudonym of Saheeh International, Umm Muhammad accepted Islam [in] 1974 while in Syria following an intensive study of Arabic. In 1981 she moved to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where she continues to teach tafseer and fiqh and translating and editing English books for Saudi publishers. (Source)

Nevertheless it has received positive reviews on Islamic forums over the internet. Of course, there are also other translations to choose from.

Aside from translation, each verse comes with concise explanation from Tafsir al-Jalalayn, the established mini-tafsir.


Read more:

Assessing English Translations of the Qur’an by Khaleel Mohammed, Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2005, pp. 58-71

Translating the Untranslatable: A Survey of English Translations of the Quran by A.R. Kidwai, The Muslim World Book Review, Vol. 7, No. 4 Summer 1987

Online translation:

Why pick on only Indian accent for cheap laughs on radio?

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A complaint from the national daily:

I WOULD like to hear from Harvey Norman, the sponsors of the traffic update on the English-language radio station Class 95FM, about what it thinks of yesterday morning’s deejays reading a large portion of traffic news just before 10am in a mock-Indian accent.

The deejays seemed to find it very funny to mimic the way Indians speak. And they have done it lots of times.

In fact, for most of Singapore’s modern history, radio deejays who are not of Indian descent have enjoyed doing mock-Indian accents on English radio.

…As someone interested in media, I also listen to Chinese, Malay and Tamil stations, and I am grateful to the deejays on Chinese and Malay stations for avoiding this easy path to cheap laughs.

The defining factor is that I have never heard radio deejays on English stations mock Chinese or Malay accents.

Is it that they think people of ethnic Chinese and Malay descent have less of a sense of humour than those of Indian descent?

Perhaps the reason to solely mimicking the Indian accent is more primitive than racism. Indian accents are seemingly one of the easiest to replicate, and the local deejays simply do not have the talent capacity to mimic other accents. In addition to the fake Westernized accents which they talk in, Chinese accent will only sound boringly similar Singlish (maybe Hongkong accent will more entertaining), and Malay accent is too difficult.

Maybe they can learn a thing or two from this French guy. I can vouch for his Arabic and Indonesian Malay, and it’s total nonsense. But the accent is perfect. In the video, he also attempted to fake Hebrew, Cantonese, and Japanese, among others.


Quirks of Google Translate

I know many people who have been using Google translate to get quick answers and gist of articles, and it seems that it is currently the best translation tool out there for the masses.

But of course, getting the gist of an article, and trying to pass it off as professional/expert translation is not the same thing. So your best bet around is still a person of sound knowledge.

On the other hand, quirks of automated non-human translation may also throw you off course into the oblivion of speculation and presumption.

1. My history may be bad, but I don’t think Pakistan even once invaded Malaysia.

2. Google cleverly deems that anything “mental” refers to mental health.

3. And forget about translating cheques.

4. Finally, some enlightenment! Who knows that the letters aliflaamDaad (الض) is abbreviated from a truly meaningful phrase?

So, caveat emptor, even though such service is free of charge.


Cross-Cultural Influence

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Compared to most other languages, Malay is a very easy language to learn. No gender distinction, meaning no he nor she, just a dia suffice to refer to both male and female.

Arabic meanwhile, according to some, is one of the hardest languages to learn. Not only is there the gender distinction such as he/she, but also a dual form of nouns to make the categorization effectively singular-dual-plural.

So, there are specific pronouns referring to two of he, or three of she, and so on.

In essence, there are 8 pronouns for English (I, he, she, you, etc.), vis-a-vis 5~ for Malay. Compare this with 14 for Arabic.

This is a real conversation had in an Arabic language class between a teacher and a student. The student is a foreigner who understands very little Malay.

Teacher: …The gender distinction in Arabic makes it quite a challenging language to be learnt, unlike, for instance, Malay.

Student: But I heard that some of my Malay friends using gender-specific words sometimes.

Teacher: Really? In Malay? How?

Student: Usually when they receive bad news… Or shocked or surprised.

Teacher: Hmm, I’m a native Malay speaker, but can’t say I’ve heard of that. How does it sound like?

Student: I cannot remember exactly. Something like, “na-jo-go” for a girl. If it’s a male who is shocked, he will say something else.

Teacher: Really? I’ve never heard of that before. Then what does the male say?

Student: (Sounding pleased) Ah, I remember! my friend taught me that the male will say “na-jo-boy” if he is shocked.

Teacher: (Confused) Na-jo-boy for male? Sounds like English to me.

Student: Yes. My Malay friend taught me to say that in Malay if I’m shocked.

Silence ensued.

Teacher: Only if shocked or surprised? Na-jo?

Student: Urmm, or an-jo.


Teacher: Of course!

Student: What?

Teacher: Anjat-boboi and anjat-gegerl!

Student: Yes! That’s it!

Teacher spends the next hour explaining the different usage of Malay slangs, and its bastardisation, including among gangstah-aspired Malays.

Never underestimate the influence of black-attired, trucker-hatted, tapered pants (still?), swearing-suffixed speech patterns of the  mats and minahs on the Foreign Talent.


Further reading:

The Mat Dictionary