I Wish I Could Be Indonesia’s Atatürk

Hosni Mubarak managed to change Egypt’s law of divorce in 2000. The German once used deutsche mark to buy goods until 2002 when the government set Euro as their official currency. People cursed smoking habit until handsome actors lighted up their cigarettes on Hollywood movies in the 80s. These facts have proven that law, currency, and mindset of a certain community are not impossible to change. What about language?


The most difficult shift that may happen to any society, I must say, is a language reform. Most nations prefer to not attempt for such a crazy idea; those who do, usually prefer a gradual approach. However, under this incredibly charismatic guy, Mustafa Kemal (later named after Ataturk, meaning the father of Turks) Turkey undertook the modern world’s swiftest and most extensive language reform in 1928. The exact same year when our youths vowed in Sumpah Pemuda to speak with a single national language, Bahasa Indonesia. Although we aimed for what Ataturk also did,
the final output was not any similar.

What happened in Turkey?

1) Ataturk replaced Arabic scripts with Latin ones.
The letters had been used by the Turks for a thousand years, yet within merely FIVE MONTHS, Ataturk accomplished this major breakthrough. Talking about, uhm, ambitious guys. As the 1920s came to an end, Turkey had fully and functionally adopted 29 (adjusted) Latin alphabets without the complexities of the Arabic script. Children and adults were then able to read and write within a few months, and studying English became more effective than ever.

2) He eliminated borrowed grammatical devices from the Arabic and Persian.
Which used to hold a tight grip over the Ottoman Turkish. He (and his team, I believe) incorporated a whole new 4-tenses grammar system: geçmiş zaman, şimdiki zaman, gelecek zaman, and geniş zaman.

3) Thousands of vocabularies.
He substituted the loan words from foreign languages with a large number of original words, introduced provincial expressions, as well as revived the almost-extinct old Turkish phrases.

The transformation met with unparalleled success:
In the 1920s, the written language consisted of more than 80 percent Arabic, Persian, and French words; by the early 1980s the ratio had declined to a mere 10 percent. WHAT THE, MAN, WHAT THE!

Ataturk’s language reform–and that includes all the three instruments–has been one of the most far-reaching in history. It has overhauled Turkish culture and education. So yeah, people, you may now start worshiping this cool guy.

What about Indonesia?

I was lucky to have stumbled upon “Bus Bis Bas: Berbagai Masalah Bahasa Indoensia” by Ajip Rosidi which gives me a lot of I-thought-I-was-the-only-person-on-earth-who-believed-so! moments. If I may excerpt the whole book into a single sentence, then it should be this: He criticizes Indonesian ruler’s lack of consistency in creating the system of Bahasa. What Mr Suwandi and his fellow Balai Pustaka friends tried to do was, more or less the same like what Ataturk’s squad attained, yet resulted an utterly different product for their blurred intentions.

First of all, we have to acknowledge that–unlike our Turk brothers whose aim was to ‘purify’ their language from borrowed terms and help new learners–Indonesian people comprises hundreds of different tribes and their regional languages (not to mention dialects). EYD (Ejaan Yang Disempurnakan) was then invented to unify voices and ideas of the whole country. Then what’s wrong in this perfect scheme? Consistency, my friends, consistency.

1) Okay, they turned all ‘tj’ into ‘c’ and ‘oe’ into ‘u’ (ejaan Suwandi, a replacement to ejaan Ophuysen). This is basically easy and acceptable, right? But then, they left a flaw by creating an article on the rules which says that ‘name-spellings are based upon the owner’s discretion’. This leaves Mochtar Lubis, Suwardi Tasrif, Asrul Sani, Usmar Ismail, and Maria Ulfah voluntarily changed their names, but Roeslan Abdulghani and Pramoedya Ananta Toer sticked to their old spellings. Now many people are confused in writing down ‘Soekarno’/’Sukarno’, ‘Nasution’/’Nasoetion’, etc.

2) There was a notion to adopt both e (weak-e in elang) and é (strong-e in ember) in the Bahasa in order to not mislead people since Indonesian letters are basically set to be read in the way it’s written. The idea was then tabled-off for a silly question of ‘tidak ada mesin ketik yang berhuruf demikian’. Err–okay, Sir, we’re talking about setting a language which is gonna be used by hundred millions of people, and you worry about what? Typing machine? Turkish and Vietnam people, for comparison, are proud to have their own keyboards with extra letters as long as it does not hamper the way they use their language. Today, people hardly know if telepon should be pronounced telepon or télépon and if ide should be pronounced ide or idé.

3) They insisted on adopting foreign words in Indonesian-yet-based-on-English spelling. The case of ‘sistem or sistim’ has been very intriguing to my eyes. ‘Sistim’ was derived from a Dutch word ‘systeem’, yet it’s now converted to ‘sistem’, reflecting on how the English spell it. Weird. It’s like you’ve adopted a child to your family and then gave him back to his family because you didn’t like the family? What, again?

There are still a lot of incredible thoughts which he kindly shares through the book, but I guess I’ll have to rest the case here. The point is, I wish our Balai Pustaka people could’ve been a little more serious and effortful in doing their duty to set rules and guidance for our baby language, and I’m pretty much disappointed to the fact that they didn’t.

I wish I was born way earlier, became a great linguist, hired as one of those EYD setters, and created history like Ataturk did. I wish.