Some successful modern reforms of writing systems

Spelling reforms in Indonesia and Malaysia

Matching language and writing systems

Indonesian and Malaysian writing system reforms are remarkable.

They are a remarkable example of two different countries agreeing on the same spelling reform - only paralleled by Spanish and Portuguese orthographic agreements with their ex-colonies of the New World.

They are remarkable for the commonsense nationalism that enabled them to take on the sensible though 'foreign' roman alphabet for their writing systems.

It was remarkable because they made their roman alphabet spelling system official at a time when they were still jubilant at their postwar expulsion of their enemies, the Dutch and English, the two colonial powers who had introduced that alphabet into their respective colonies.

Rather than reverting to pre-colonial scripts, they set a principle of 'treasuring but not clinging' to the old scripts of Arabic or Hindu derivation. Not that it was easy. Omar (1989) gives an an account of the difficulties and final success of the moves to reform.

The roman alphabet suits the two very similar languages very well, since they have simple vowels, which are readily represented.

The Bahasa Malaysia and Bahasa Indonesia common spelling system is almost perfectly adapted to represent the common features of their languages. This simple, consistent common orthography fosters Malaysian and Indonesian ethnic unity and their participation in the international world

It has been claimed to be an important factor in Indonesia's rise to an estimated 70% literacy despite still limited schooling - although there have been reports (eg Indonesia's New Illiteracy, Hull, 1981) deploring lost enthusiasm - perhaps as individual students discovered they were not benefiting personally from its promise of better employment and conditions.