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  • Taming Babel: Language in the Making of Malaysia by Rachel Leow
  • Chor Swang Ngin
Taming Babel: Language in the Making of Malaysia, by Rachel Leow. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 261 pp. ISBN 978-1-107-14853-6.

Taming Babel by Rachel Leow begins with a fundamental question of the crisis of governmentality for empires: How 'does a monoglot state govern a polyglot society to which it cannot reliably speak?' (p. 3). She explores the colonial and postcolonial management of linguistic heterogeneity in Malaya/Malaysia across the long century of change from 1877 to 1967 through the early years of British rule, the Emergency period fighting against the Communists, and the years after Independence. In the postcolonial years after independence, Leow tries 'to make visible an often invisible history of state anxiety over languages' (p. 3) by meticulously digging into the language technocrats and nationalist politicians' struggle against the adoption of English as the official language for a new nation; the 'invention' and the standardization of the Malay language; the shift from manuscript to print; the cultural transition from orality and aurality to writing; and the orthographic transition from Arabic to Romanized script' (p. 92). [End Page 189]

Using the example of the slogan used by the House of Language (Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka), bahasa jiwa bangsa (language is the soul of the nation) (p. 189), she posited that the technocrats glossed over the multiple nuanced meaning of the word bangsa with the result that the word has come to mean race, and not nation, thereby creating the supremacy of the Malay language over others in a plurilingual nation.

Similar to the social construction of the notion of 'race' in the English language, colonial and postcolonial bureaucrats also constructed the concepts of 'Cina' and 'Melayu' which became essentialist labels that categorize and subsume a great diversity of peoples and cultures, and come to be imbued with ambiguous meanings related to, and overlapping with, the ideas of language, nation, and state.

In Malaysian politics, the Chinese and Indians' push for multilingualism and equal citizenship came to be perceived as cultural chauvinism. A postcolonial hegemonic monolingual state order has now created in essence multiple ethnolinguistic nations within one nation state (pp. 188–9), with endless contestation over the meanings of 'race', nation, and belonging.

Leow suggests this new social reality of the country's attempt to maintain Malay's linguistic supremacy, and to manage today's ethnolinguistic tensions, is also the result of 'a crisis of hybridity proliferating at anxiously policed borders' (p. 221). This linguistic hybridity also threatens 'to create an audience for whom the racially bordered state order is no longer relevant or meaningful' (p. 221).

In the Preface, Leow asks how the 'language of race (is) kept afloat in a mire of corruption, religious, fanaticism, state repression, and systemic fearmongering' (p. x). She wonders if there is hope for a new post-racial political order, and how the 'book might help to clarify for Malaysians where they have been, where they could yet go, and perhaps, how they might get there' (p. x).

With her fine-grained ethnography of cultural politics on the ground, especially through the untamed polyphonic Babel experiments of artists and comedians, as in the examples from That Effing Show, which were deliberately 'unapologetically plurilingual', she invites us to listen to other possibilities, disseminated through the internet and easily accessible on YouTube.

As Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot reminded us, 'The ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility; its ultimate challenge, the exposition of its roots'.6 In Taming Babel, Leow has succeeded in making the invisible visible (p. 3), and points at the space where a more inclusive sense of community can be examined and considered. [End Page 190]

Chor Swang Ngin
California State University, Los Angeles


6. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press.1997), p. xi.



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pp. 189-190
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