It’s not hard to spot Hafiz in a crowd. On any given day, the 25-year-old can be seen sporting a blangkon, a sarong, leather sandals, and sometimes, a keris at the waist — the usual attire. I’d like to think that the cohesiveness of the medley of Hafiz’s cultural motifs, garments, and accessories mirrors that of his linguistic background and interests. There is a Javanese saying that Hafiz personifies: Bhinneka tunggal ika (unity in diversity).
His passion for all things Austronesian has earned him some choice appellations from friends: “Austronesian Otaku”, “Abdi dallem Singapura” (royal servant of Singapore), and “Austronesian Cosplayer”. It’s not hard to see why. Immersed in a linguistic landscape in a country with four official tongues and dozens of unofficial ones, situated in the ASEAN region that is home to about 1,000 languages and dialects (Lim, 2017), Hafiz has grown to be confident enough to hold a conversation in six languages and manifests his pride in those respective cultures through his dress. His linguistic repertoire includes English and Malay, which are taught in school and used in the home domain; and foreign or heritage languages of interest such as Javanese, Tagalog, Kristang, and Baweanese (also known as Boyanese).
The Austronesian Otaku
How did Hafiz pick up four languages that aren’t offered in mainstream schools in Singapore? He recalls one of the first precious moments when he identified a sister language of his first language: “In Primary 1, when I first listened to the song ‘Anak’ by Freddie Aguilar playing on an English-language channel, I thought it was Malay because it sounded like Malay.”
Turns out, the language was Tagalog. Wanting to learn this curious language, Hafiz read books and dictionaries, listened to songs, interacted with Filipinos, and watched Filipino dramas subtitled in Malay (on Malaysian television channels) with his mother.
But why did spoken Malay and Tagalog sound so similar? Could they have been the same language dozens of generations ago? Perhaps! These two languages stem from the Western Malayo-Polynesian branch of the Austronesian language family tree. Such historical links captured in the language history of modern-day languages fascinate Hafiz.
He gives the example of one of his favourite cognate (or word with similar meaning and sound that indicates shared linguistic ancestry) roots: taŋis. This concept is common throughout Formosan and Malayo-Polynesian branches of the Austronesian world, to indicate the verb ‘to cry’. Why is this so? He hypothesises that with the early days of world trade, opportunities for a better life were abundant and so “separation was a constant, even reflected in some of the melancholic songs of the homeland heard during Hari Raya.” According to the Otaku, the meaning had also expanded to take on specific connotations, such as the Malay tangis ‘weeping’, to Tagalog tangis ‘lamenting’ or ‘mourning’, and Malagasy faratani ‘the close of funeral ceremonies’.
“The underlying link between culture and languages in the region, the stories behind certain words and cultural motifs, and the relationships between these languages make them worth keeping alive… Our lives would be much duller without this mosaic of cultures and languages.”
Rightly so, for the Austronesian language family is one of world’s largest (including languages like Hawaiian in the US, Maori in New Zealand, Bugis in Indonesia and Singapore, and Rarotongan in the Cook Islands), covering the largest geographical area with 1,268 languages (Thompson, 2016) and counting!
Though languages from the same branch of the language family are more similar and intelligible than others, there are fun exceptions. Hafiz points out Cham as an example. Spoken in parts of Vietnam and Cambodia, “the Cham language, over time has developed tones, unlike other Austronesian languages that are typically non-tonal”. But with influence from other Austroasiatic languages in close proximity, like Khmer and Vietnamese, Cham developed a tonal and monosyllabic word system over time. Even then, there is variation within the language: “Eastern Cham is more tonal than Western Cham, which is more Khmer,” explains the Otaku. But its Proto-Malayo-Polynesian roots are still traceable in some cognates it shares with sister languages like Malay. For example, empat (‘four’) in Malay is pa in Cham and sepuluh (‘ten’) in Malay is simply pluh in Cham.
Closer to home, one wonders, as Hafiz does: “Would the Malay spoken in Singapore have been different if it were still the lingua franca today [instead of English]? Perhaps it might have developed tones as well”, due to prolonged interaction with the Sinitic languages like Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, and Hakka spoken here.
Abdi dallem Singapura
An avid bookworm and history buff, Hafiz spent much of his time at the public libraries, determinedly treading through pages of times past, and uncovering nuggets of trivia related to culture or etymology. On reading about Malacca’s history, another linguistic gem surfaced: Kristang. “I wanted to hear what this exotic language sounded like — was it like Malay?” The critically endangered status of this fairly-unheard-of Portuguese-Malay creole spoken in Malacca in Malaysia and in Singapore piqued Hafiz’s interest, leading him to discover—and later devour—the single reference text published in 2004 on the Kristang language as spoken in Singapore: ‘The most comprehensive Eurasian heritage dictionary: Kristang-English, English-Kristang’, by Valerie Scully and Catherine Zuzarte. In 2017, Hafiz signed up for beginner’s Kristang classes with the non-profit initiative to revitalise Kristang in Singapore, Kodrah Kristang, in an email written in fluent Kristang.
Since then, he has developed friendly relationships with the local Kristang community and, as a museum docent, has even led guided them on tours of special exhibitions on communities of the Archipelago, such as a Malay Heritage Centre exhibition on the Bugis community in Singapore. A half-Baweanese, Hafiz has also taken time to learn languages and scripts with very little materials for new learners, such as Baweanese and the Bugis script: Lontara. Earlier this year, he even led a public workshop on Baweanese to share his knowledge of the linguistic system and snippets on the history of the diaspora community in Singapore.
A notable part of diasporic history was the role of pondoks, which were the communal spaces where Baweanese (from the island of Bawean in Indonesia) could connect, congregate, and live with their fellow immigrant communities in the foreign land of Singapore. These communal houses formed a village that used to line the Rochor River between Syed Alwi Road and Jalan Besar in Singapore (Jalan Besar Heritage Trail, 2012).
Today, the Singapore Baweanese Association welcomes Hafiz as a member. “But I feel like an outsider because I didn’t grow up with the experience of living in a pondok,” unlike many of the older members who did. “And my accent isn’t Baweanese,” he laments. Though that didn’t stop the linguaphile from sharing his passion for lesser known cultures and languages such as Baweanese and Javanese at the Languages of Singapore Trail as part of the Kristang Language Festival, with more than 1,000 members of the public at the Asian Civilisations Museum. Fifteen heritage languages of Singapore, including Banjarese, Bengali, Bugis, Cantonese, Gujarati, Hakka, Hainanese, Javanese, Kristang, Malayalam, Minangkabau, Peranakan, Punjabi, and Singapore Sign Language, were put under the spotlight at the Trail, to showcase Singapore’s underrated and largely unappreciated linguistic diversity.
“Due to intermarriage and pro-Malay state policies that were propagated by the British (such as free education and benefits only accessible to those who were classified as Malays), many people from a range of ethnic groups [such as Banjarese, Bugis, Javanese, and Minangkabau] now considered ‘Malay’ would try to assimilate.” In the past, Malay also had a much larger role to play as a national lingua franca, thus assuming Malay identity and learning the Malay language—often in place of Banjarese, Bugis, Javanese, Minangkabau, etc—did bring about benefits. At the same time, it dissolved much of the drive for parents and grandparents to pass on their traditional heritage language of the home domain, in favour of Malay.
A common problem faced by the volunteer-run Associations and interest groups representing these Austronesian minority groups in Singapore is “the lack of young blood,” Hafiz points out. But “tak kenal maka tak cinta”. You can’t love something you don’t know. The majority of youths today simply do not invest as much time and effort in their heritage tongues when a more common one understood by more people would suffice. The quantity and quality of interaction between grandchildren and their grandparents are thus also affected.
Were there interested Trail visitors who did not belong to these ethnic communities? “Yes! There were many who were interested to understand how other minority groups interacted, such as how the Peranakans used to engage the Baweanese (called Pak Boyan in these contexts) in wedding processions to ward off evil spirits”, Hafiz explained. They also bore “the lanterns adorned with surnames of the two families enjoined in the marriage, and [carried] sedan chairs of the bride and bridegroom” (Roots Singapore, 2011). Many from within these ethnic communities also attended the Trail to learn about themselves and their family histories. “Most people have not heard of the Baweanese, not even within the Malay community, especially those who are middle-aged and younger. And some Indonesian visitors were surprised that there were diaspora Indonesian communities in Singapore.”
The Austronesian Cosplayer
A keen interest in language and culture has also developed in Hafiz a passion for textiles. The portable, wearable, ornamental nature of clothing and accessories allows the Cosplayer to carry with him a piece of heritage with him wherever he goes, allowing him to weave some history, glamour, and anachronism into his guided museum tours and even Kristang classes! In a test-play session of the bilingual Kristang-English board game “Ila-Ila di Sul” (The Southern Islands) pictured below, Hafiz personified the Temenggong character in the game story, adding to the allure of the treasure-seeking game and the history of Singapore’s dozens of southern islands.
Sourcing textiles and pieces from the region and in local ethnic enclaves, Hafiz treasures the story behind each piece of clothing, be it batik or a warp ekat sarong. The latter originated in Vietnam, where the Cham people tie off portions of thread to resist dyes in order to create patterns. “Ekat means ‘to tie’, explains Hafiz, “and a lot of preparation goes into designing such work. Dyeing itself takes 2.5 months!” For the Cosplayer, it’s all about bringing history to the present moment and making culture relevant to everyday life.
“Culture is reworked, just like how Kodrah Kristang suggests new words for the Kristang language”, to fill gaps and to increase the domains in which the language can be used to talk about everyday life.
“One last thing, Hafiz. How young are you?”
“Selawé. In Javanese, it literally means ‘one string’, but indicates a value of 25 — in reference to the value of one string of Chinese coins used during the early days of trading in the region. It shows how connected these cultures were and how connected we all are,” if only we cared to ponder the things we so often take for granted.
One might add another choice appellation to Hafiz’s list of monikers: Penglipur lara — a poetic Malay term, which in English, inadequately translates to one who soothes and enchants through the art of storytelling.
Jalan Besar Heritage Trail. 2012. National Heritage Board.
Lim, L. 2017. Speaking in tongues: why Asean members stick to English. South China Morning Post Magazine. Retrieved from: https://www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/article/2105289/speaking-tongues-why-asean-members-stick-english
Thompson, I. 2016. Austronesian Language Family. About World Languages. Retrieved from: http://aboutworldlanguages.com/austronesian-language-family
 Headcloth. 2011. Roots SG. Retrieved from: https://roots.sg/learn/collections/listing/1259897