“Sebutan Baku and the need to redefine the limits of culture”
Efforts to standardize the Malay language have generally revolved around the introduction of standardized pronunciation, commonly referred to as sebutan baku. Operating on the phonemic principle, sebutan baku prescribes that words be pronounced according to how it has been spelt. In 1992, the Singapore government decided that standard Malay (bahasa Melayu baku or in short, bahasa baku) would serve as the official vernacular language for Malay language users. Furthermore, sebutan baku became the standard pronounciation for several domains such as formal educational institutions, formal public speeches, lectures and seminars, formal modes of communication and discussion in the public sphere, including the media. This essay however argues that the fixation with sebutan baku reflects a narrow understanding of culture that unnecessarily privileges uniformity and homogeneity.
The standardization of Malay language presents various objectives. One of them is to enhance the learning of the Malay language. The implementation of sebutan baku is said to offer certain pedagogical advantages. It presumably helps students in reading and spelling, especially in the earlier stages of Malay language education, since there is no difference between written and oral communication under sebutan baku. This point was mentioned during the Sebutan Baku Seminar in 1992, which affirms how sebutan baku can aid in the learning and teaching of Malay language.
However, the impulse for standardization through sebutan baku is also driven by the desire to consolidate a pan-regional Malay identity. The supposition was that by coming together to implement sebutan baku, the Malay-speaking countries of the region (Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and Brunei) would have an opportunity to craft a shared culture and identity through language.
Singapore Malay Language is in the context where it belongs to the same family with Bahasa Malaysia, Bahasa Indonesia and Brunei’s Malay Language, thus there is a need to have one standardized language because, 1) Singapore and Brunei’s Malay language users is an estimated 380000 and 150000 respectively and thus their language is unable to stand on its own, 2) the four languages is different only in name but will be a unifying language that is well-known and beneficial to its users when the number reaches 130 million, 3) these languages when unified would be more functional and 4) these languages would provide a sense of identity to its users.
Sebutan baku is deemed as a platform to bridge Malay language speakers in Singapore with their counterparts in the wider region. This forms one of the main thrust of the Malay Language Council’s (MLCS) proposal to adopt sebutan baku in the early 1990s, a decision that was supported by the Ministry of Education. The initial aim of MLCS in arguing for sebutan baku was to align Singapore with its Malay-speaking neighboring countries so that they could share a common identity through Malay language.
For its advocates, sebutan baku holds the promise that the sounds in Malay language could be made uniform in a systematic and consistent manner. More importantly, the idea of a bahasa baku, which also consists of standard pronunciation (sebutan baku), was supposed to function as an ideal standard that could potentially be applied across the region. Hence, the implementation of bahasa and sebutan baku (i.e. a standardized Malay language) was expected to create a shared culture among Malay language users in this region.
The expectation was (and still remains today) that the standardization of sebutan baku would help in reducing confusion and misunderstandings among users of the language, thus improving communication and possibly strengthening the cultural identity of the region. Besides fostering closer intra-regional cultural ties, there is an economic motivation to the standardization of the Malay language too. The standardization of the Malay language would allow it to serve as a principal medium for economic links in this region, which could then yield positive effects on the future development of Malay language and culture. 
However, assuming that a shared culture can be formed simply through the standardization of pronunciation reflects an unduly narrow understanding of culture (and by extension, language). Trying to bring together Malay language users in the region through sebutan baku reveals a fixation with uniformity that is neither realistic nor feasible.
For one, the advocacy of sebutan baku reveals the (inaccurate) presupposition that the Malay community in this region is (or is supposed to be) homogenous. The organic development of Malay language in the countries of this region reflects the variety of influences that the respective communities are exposed to. There is thus no way that a systematic pronunciation of Malay language can be imposed to the entire region; there is no shared culture to be found beneath the facade of language standardization. This is especially so as Malaysia has stopped emphasizing on the sebutan baku pronunciation and Bahasa Indonesia has continued to infuse words from other languages such as Javanese and Sundanese.
Ultimately, what underlies the advocacy of sebutan baku is the pursuit for uniformity stemming from the idea of standardization. The over-emphasis on uniformity spells a non-inclusive attitude towards the possible variations in language discourse. However, one needs to understand that standardization does not require total uniformity. As such, it is possible and permissible to have and accommodate different varieties, which is inevitable and normal, existing in a language. As Asmah Haji Omar argues:
“Standardization does not seek a complete uniformity. It allows the existence of variations of single codes. This means that if the trend in the speech community shows that there are two widely ways (instead one) of pronouncing a particular word, so be it. Standardization admits what are acceptable to the community as a whole, and with it goes the stark reality that it is next to impossible to make a community of speakers speak the same way in all situations…”
Thus, the pursuit of uniformity through sebutan baku is an instance of a misconstrued approach towards standardization, and this is attributable to a narrow understanding of culture that expects the culture to manifest in a homogeneous manner. This implies that the non-inclusive attitude has perpetuated and imposed the notion of uniformity on all Malay users, without any regard for specific and genuine cultural experiences. This clearly portrays the inclination to ensure that people can be categorized into specific domains and under selected labels, including the definition, role, characteristics and status of language and culture, as though one singular category can be said to be representative of everyone else and provides sufficient representation. The persistence in pursuing sebutan baku only serves to underlie insecurities which seem to prefer the rigidity of a prescribed manner of speech, rather than having the confidence for a dynamic language constantly reshaped by local vernaculars.
Annaliza Bakri is an educator and translator. She obtained her B.A, from the Asian Languages & Cultures Department, Nanyang Technological University and her M.A, from the Dept. of Malay Studies, National University of Singapore. She led a cultural-literary seminar series (CITA@The Arts House) in 2012 and 2013. She represented Singapore in the MABBIM Seminar 2012 and performed her translation of an award-winning novel, Batas Langit at the Singapore International Storytelling Festival in 2014.
 Seminar Sebutan Baku BM, 8-10 September 1992, Pusat Islam Singapura, p.11.
“Namun demikian, pelaksanaan tersebut juga berdasarkan: 1. Usaha yang berterusan dalam proses pembakuan bahasa Melayu setelah menangani proses pembakuan dari segi ejaan, tata bahasa dan kosa kata, 2. Keperluan pengajaran dan pembelajaran bahasa Melayu terutamanya dalam bidang bacaan asas yang didapati akan lebih mudah diajarkan dengan menggunakan pelbagai kaedah suku kata dan ‘sebutan baku’ pula dapat mengurangkan masalah hafalan atau sebutan yang berdasarkan ejaan ini, 3. Keperluan kerantauan yakni keperluan menyeragamkan sebutan setelah Malaysia mengumumkan penerimaan sebutan baku di dalam kurikulum sekolahnya sedang di Indonesia pula, penyebutan berdasarkan ejaan ini telah lama berlangsung.”
Sekata, Disember 1987, p 16.
“Bahasa Melayu Singapura dalam kontek dengan bahasa-bahasa serumpun dengan bahasa Malaysia, bahasa Indonesia dan bahasa Melayu Brunei Darussalam, maka keempat-empat bahasa itu perlu mempunyai satu bahasa baku kerana: (1) bahasa Melayu Singapura dan bahasa Melayu Brunei yang pengguna bahasanya masing-masing dalam lengkongan kira-kira 380,000 dan 150,000 tidak mampu untuk berdiri sendiri-sendiri, (2) keempat-empat bahasa yang berlainan nama akan tetapi sebenarnya satu itu, akan menjadi satu bahasa kesatuan yang terkenal, dan akan menguntungkan pengguna bahasanya itu sendiri apabila nanti digunakan kira-kira lebih 130 juta manusia, (3) bahasa-bahasa tersebut yang telah menjadi satu itu, akan lebih berwibawa, dan (4) bahasa-bahasa tersebut akan menjadi penanda keperibadian penggunanya.”
 However, Indonesia and Malaysia have pulled out from the standardized language agreement, which is to have one standardized language for this region, namely, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei Darussalam.
 Asraf, “Sebutan Baku Bahasa Melayu Berdasarkan Prinsip Fonetik” in Awang Sariyan, Kongres Bahasa dan Persuratan Melayu, p. 12.
“Dengan prinsip fonemik yang dijadikan dasar sebutan baku, maka bunyi bahasa Melayu dapat kelak diseragamkan secara sistematis, tekal (consistent) dan mantap bukan hanya di daerah Malaysia saja, tetapi juga di seluruh dunia Melayu se-Nusantara, sehingga dengan demikian bahasa Melayu dapat benar-benar menjadi bahasa internasional (Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Singapura).”
 As stated in 1992, “First and foremost from the region perspective, it is aimed to narrow down the differences in the use of Malay language in Malay-speaking countries.” As such, it is assumed that with no standard Malay language, users of the language will face difficulties in selecting and using terms from all the Malay language varieties.
[“Pertama-tama dari segi kerantauan, ia bertujuan memperkecil perbezaan penggunaan bahasa Melayu di negara-negara berbahasa ibunda ini.”.]
Read Mohamed Pitchay Gani Bin Mohamed Abdul Aziz, Legasi Bahasa Melayu. (Singapore: ASAS 50 Press, 2009), p. 118.
Sekata, Jilid 8 Bilangan 1 Jun 1990, p.4.
“Jika benar bahasa Melayu akan menjadi jambatan emas titian pemakmur ekonomi di rantau ini, maka alangkah bahagianya jika pada masa itu kita semua telah dapat menguasai bahasa Melayu baku secara total – baku tatabahasanya, baku ejaannya dan baku sebutannya – sama seperti pengguna bahasa itu di daerah-daerah lain.”
 Asmah Haji Omar, Language and Language Situation in Southeast Asia: With a Focus on Malaysia. (Kuala Lumpur: Akademi Pengajian Melayu, Universiti Malaya, 2003), p.178.