July 18, 2015CEBU CITY, PHILIPPINES - The Philippines may just be experiencing its own chapter of Malay nationalism, what inhabitants in the neighboring Malaysia called "Kemelayuan" or "State of being Malay". A study done by the University of Philippines and Mindanao State University found that the interest in learning Malay is drastically increasing among Filipinos, not the Muslim natives of Mindanao, Sulu Archipelago and . . . Sabah (if you still consider it part of the state).
But the majority of interest in learning Malay are now coming from Christian Filipinos, those who bear Spanish names and are descendants of those who collaborated with the Spanish occupation to fight against the various Muslim armies in Mindanao and Sulu.
The areas where the demand students are increasingly showing interest in learning Malay include Visayas, and the Manila areas as well as Pampanga. Coincidentally, these are are where Malay was historically spoken by the majority, Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan had to have his servant Enrique, a native of the Malay Peninsula, to converse with the natives.
The number of Malay speakers in the Philippines, including Sabah, numbers about 25,000,000, about 1/4 of the total population of the Philippines.Enrique Barrantes, a native of Iloilo City stated he is actively taking Malay-language classes at the University of Cebu. According to Barrantes, learning Malay makes him feel proud of his heritage.
The 18-year old student said, "It is the language of my ancestors, and our national hero Lapu-Lapu who fought the Spaniards and Europans conquerers. We have been stripped of our heritage, and it's just my intent to recover it."
Michelle Navarro, a native of Palawan, also a Malay-language student said, "Almost the entire archipelago was Malay-speaking. It's also a matter of practicality, Malay is spoken by everybody else around us. It would ease the lives of Filipinos travelling to countries like Malaysia or Indonesia."
The interest is strong, even some Catholic clergy and priests are learning it, of all groups. Since after all, it is Catholicism that played a huge rule in the "Hispanizing" of the islands. Victor de Esparza, who is a priest from Makati City said that he is also learning Malay.
"The Spanish had to learn Malay to convert to us Catholicism. Why not recover it?"
If even the Catholic clergy, once the stronghold of Spanish influence in the islands, is showing interest in learning Malay, it could mean the beginning something big in the linguistic history of the Philippines.
There is another dialect of Malay spoken as a foreign language in the Philippines, that is the Indonesian language. In Indonesia, the language is not known as Malay, but Bahasa Indonesia. The Indonesian language currently has 300,012 speakers, the overwhelming majority settled in the Muslim-dominated island of Mindanao with some communities in Metro Manila.
Indonesian is also gaining interest among Filipinos, especially amongst members of the Philippine Armed Forces (who fought alongside the Indonesians against Malaysia seven years prior). It is actually the presence of Indonesian that fueled the growing Filipino interest for Malay language. Many soldiers are taught simply Indonesian phrases.
Also, the longest-running noontime TV show in the Philippines, Eat Bulaga! has an international franchise in Indonesia, Eat Bulaga! Indonesia (now known as "The New Eat Bulaga! Indonesia"). When hosts from Indonesia visit the Philippine game show performance, it became extremely common for the show to use Indonesian words, and perform segments with alternating words and phrases between Indonesian and Filipino.
Malay is the third official language of the Philippines, alongside Tagalog (which is registered as "Filipino") and English.But Filipinos weren't alone themselves, if it hadn't been for the efforts made by the Mindanao Nationalist Party, Malay would have remained in the island's ancient historical past. Malay has been the official language of the MNP since the days of its founding by Ahmad Salahuddin, who established a successful de facto Republic of Mindanao.
All efforts to preserve and restore Malay identity was essentially opposed by the MNP's largest political enemy, the Conservative Party of the Philippines. Its members are known as the "Royalists", who has a goal opposite of the MNP: to strengthen Spanish influence, eliminate all non-Catholic religions, make Spanish and Tagalog the sole national languages. The party holds radical political views, wishing to eliminate the current presidential republican system of politics, and install a system similar to Westminster politcs in countries like Canada and Australia. Only this time, the overseas figure-head monarch in charge wouldn't be Queen Elizabeth II, but the King of Spain with a Prime Minister as the active and politically influential Head of State.
Its former President, and former two-time Head, Sancho Abelló y Terrazas was its most radical leader, as he was known for repeatedly making vulgar comments against Muslims, Palestinians and the country of Indonesia itself as well as the natives of Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago. He runs a program, that bribes non-Catholics to convert to Roman Catholicism in exchange for wealth, community support and other "benefits".
Pan-Malay nationalism in the Philippines is nothing knew. José Rizal, the national hero, had tried to learn Malay, but was executed in 1868. The Conservatives however refute this, stating the Rizal never wanted to "rebel" against Spanish rule. Winseclao Vinzons, a Filipino guerrilla during World War II, was also a pan-Malay nationalist.
The Conservative Party gained very strong momentum in the late 20th century, gaining supporters, and having many students interested in recovering Spanish language-usage. In what is the considered the "Conservative Belt", in central and southern Luzon, their schools teach in Spanish.
In 2005, a poll was done by the University of Philippines asking Filipinos nationwide what language they would prefer to see stand as a national alongside Filipino. About 73% chose Spanish, and only 9% answered Malay. Other entries included Cebuano (which is the largest-spoken local language), English, Portuguese and Hokkien Chinese.
Now the tables have been turned, and the Conservatives have been losing support as the Nationalists are seeing success with their agenda. A 2015 poll was done, and a huge increase: a 55% of participants preferred Malay, 30% preferred Spanish, the others submitted English, Hokkien and Cebuano. While most of those who preferred Malay came from Visayas, Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago, a huge chunk came from .... wait for it ... southern and central Luzon, the stronghold of the "Conservative" Bible belt of the archipelago.
Pablo Sanchez de Oro, a native Cebuano-speaker and fluent Malay-speaker (as well as Filipino, Spanish and English) who teaches history at Manila University said that it wouldn't make sense for Spanish, considering the distance between the Philippines and the nearest Spanish-speaking nation which is Mexico.
"We are surrounded by Malay-speaking countries, we should be a Malay-speaking nation, we were, and we will be. If they want to officiate Spanish, that's fine and all for it is a huge role in our history and culture, but it's not practical. The nearest Spanish-speaking nation [Mexico] is an ocean's length away."
But one must also understand that the Philippine definition of who is a "Malay" differenciates from the Malaysian and Indonesian definition. Even if fluent in Malay, Filipinos would not be considered Malay in Malaysia. In Malaysia, being a Muslim is a religious requirement to be considered Malay by law. Consequently, many citizens of Javanese, Buginese or Minangkabau descent (all groups native to Indonesia), are considered Malay. Malaysia's current Prime Minister, Najib Razak is of Buginese descent.
As the discussion over how to handle Sabah still rages on, perhaps this may quell the situation in the former Malaysian state, or not.