The languages of Singapore are hugely diverse. English is the lingua franca and the main language of education and administration. Mandarin and Tamil are official languages too. Yet the Malay language holds a special place in the island nation. 

Malay’s role in Singaporean culture is at least partly symbolic. This is because it has played a unique role in the nation’s history – and, perhaps like Singlish, its modern cultural identity. 

This history and Singapore’s bilingual policy (every school student studies their “mother tongue” and English) ensures the Malay language continues to be used. Yet the dynamic linguistic culture of Singapore – and its future – is rife with challenges as well as opportunities. 

One of the greatest is how languages – especially Malay – need to adapt in a technologically advanced country where the expanding digital sphere meets a truly multilingual populace: 

The historical context of Malay in Singapore 

To understand what the Malay language means to Singapore, we need to understand the historical context. 

The Malay spoken in Singapore is a blend of mutually intelligible Malayic and other Austronesian languages that were once spoken across the Malay Archipelago combined with the Malay of the time (a regional trade language). 

Partly because British colonial free trade policies made the Malaysian peninsular an attractive place to do business, people from diverse communities across the Malay archipelago built a new community and a new way of life in what would become Singapore. 

When members of these communities first arrived, they saw themselves as Javanese or Minangkabau or Banjar. But over time – partly in opposition to colonial powers’ increasing encroachment – eventually a pan-Malay identity and pan-Malay language grew. 

But this process was by no means immediate or even total. Even today, Singaporeans who might identify as ethnically Malay might have ancestors who were, for example, Javanese and use surviving loan words in their Malay almost without realising it. 

Modern Malay in the digital age 

Malay is only one language in Singapore’s rich linguistic tapestry. But it’s a thread that spans Southeast Asia thanks to its widespread roots. It’s also an official or national language in Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia and spoken in numerous diaspora communities worldwide. 

Altogether, around 300 million people around the world speak Malay in one form or another. This gives it a huge base to launch itself from in the digital age. 

And make no mistake, from social media platforms to mobile apps, the digital revolution is coming to the Malay language. Meta’s offerings are incredibly popular – WhatsApp Messenger is the dominant app, but Facebook and Instagram are also common – as is LinkedIn. 

But Singapore society as a whole is above-averagely tech-forward. There are many popular apps in which the influence of Malay can be felt that have become an integral part of the city-state’s landscape: 

1) Food apps 

In Singapore, Deliveroo and some other globally famous food delivery apps rub shoulders with others less well-known in the “West”. One of these is Chope. 

Similar to OpenTable, Chope lets you book tables at restaurants (Chope might be smaller than Deliveroo, but it serves Hong Kong, Bangkok, Shanghai, and several other gigantic cities). 

The Chope app is named after a common Singaporean Singlish slang term. To “chope” or “chop” a seat at a restaurant, drink stall, or what are called “hawker centres” (open-air street food markets), you drop an item – traditionally a packet of tissues, but also your bag – on it. 

This act of reservation is incredibly widespread in the low-crime city-state, but still a bit risky depending on the item you use to chope your spot! 

This app is a great example of how long-standing local customs and language are coming together in Singapore (“chop” comes from the Malay cap, meaning a stamp in the medieval sense, originally from the Hindi ćhāp). 

2) Banking apps 

Singapore society is going cashless in a big way. Two of the banking apps driving that change are PayNow and PayLah! 

PayNow is probably the more omnipresent of the two, but PayLah! has the more interesting name from a linguistic point of view. 

“Lah!” is another slang term commonly used in Singaporean English, arriving this time by way of Malay and Mandarin. It has also spread as a loanword to other Singaporean languages, such as Tamil, and even in Manglish (the Malaysian-English creole spoken in Malaysia). 

Interestingly, “lah” doesn’t mean anything per se. But it is used every day by millions of Singaporeans in a wide variety of contexts, including: 

  1. For emphasis, somewhat similar to adding “very” in English but more equivalent to an Australian using “mate” to draw attention to a statement 
  2. As a way of being polite or to take the edge off a comment
  3. To indicate agreement or friendliness 
  4. To turn a request into a plea (a polite way of emphasising importance) 
  5. As a filler word, equivalent to “erm” in British English 

The challenges and opportunities the digital age brings 

None of this is to say that the Malay language is not facing challenges in the digital sphere. However, there are also ways in which these challenges could represent opportunities for language preservation and more: 

1) The opportunities for collaboration are global 

The Malay language is spoken by hundreds of millions of people in one form or another. But many of these people are separated by national borders and geographic features like seas and mountains. 

The spread of Malay online is a wonderful opportunity for Malay speakers to communicate in the language they prefer, share knowledge and ideas, and collaborate virtually on all kinds of projects. 

2) English is a potential threat to diversity and linguistic expertise 

Though this may not always be the case, English is still the most popular online language. 

This represents a potential problem for the rich linguistic culture of Singapore. Mainly because English is already the lingua franca of the Lion City. It’s the main language used in business, in the law, and in education. Government legislation is written in English. 

It’s feared in some circles that the overwhelming presence of English online may lead to reduced opportunities, desire, and even ability for Singaporeans and others to digitally converse in Malay. 

This is a potential problem because of the immense asset that its citizens’ bilingual or multilingual skills represent both to themselves and the country as a whole. 

3) Malay is evolving in the digital world 

Like almost every language that comes into contact with a digital sphere dominated by English terms, Malay is evolving to include new words and phrases that encompass new technologies. 

Some, like muat turun and pautan (“link” and “download”, respectively), show how the language is developing. 

However, the existence of words like “mesej” (the English “message” rendered phonetically) may be a sign that Malay – like many other languages – is in some kind of danger of digital dilution. 

Malay’s cultural influence and integration 

Retaining a strong cultural identity is often seen as vital in a globalised world. In Singapore, Malay is a strong source of cultural links and identity, particularly across generations. 

Technology offers ways to improve this cultural integration and preservation. Numerous Malay blogs, websites, and social media posts popularise Malay stories and folklore. There is also the global phenomenon of language learning apps. 

Malay is still notably absent from some of the most popular language-learning apps like Babbel and Duolingo. This might be because of the comparative popularity of Indonesian, a language similar to Malay in many ways. 

There are many apps (such as Mondly, Ling, and 17 Minute Languages) offering alternatives though. This will hopefully continue to allow interested international learners and native speakers to explore this exciting language. 

Government and community language initiatives 

The Singapore government places a high value on the ability of Singaporeans to speak what is often termed their mother tongue (of the ethnic group in Singaporean society they identify as belonging to) as well as English. 

The government – as well as many community organisations – have started several initiatives to promote the Malay language in order to preserve and strengthen it. 

Several of these use technology in one way or another, with Malay digital content creation being highly prized – as well as online discussions in Malay and language-focused groups, events, and communities on Facebook and others. 

However, the efforts to promote the Malay language in the digital sphere will need to continue if the language is to thrive there. 

The future prospects of Malay 

If current initiatives continue to achieve success and the cultural power of Malay to create unity and identity continues to be realised, the future of Malay in Singapore’s digital landscape has great potential. 

Taken together, the way the Malay language and Singapore’s growing integration with digital technology in all walks of life combine is a brilliant display of linguistic evolution. 

As the island city continues to advance, the Malay language is likely to continue to adapt. This will ensure it will continue to be vital and relevant long into Singapore’s future too. 

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