We’re khat in yet another controversy

Lim Kit Siang is right of course. Learning anything good from any culture will benefit us.

In this case, the DAP supremo was talking about the introduction of khat (Jawi calligraphy) in the Year 4 Bahasa Melayu syllabus in vernacular schools next year.

Some Chinese and Indian educationists and politicians are opposing the move, and I can understand why.

Chinese educationist groups Dong Zong (United Chinese School Committees’ Association) and Jiao Zong (United Chinese Schools Teachers’ Association) and 10 other Chinese and Tamil groups want it to be delayed until a proper explanation is given about its implementation, including whether it will be a test subject. They feel khat is not going to help Chinese and Tamil primary pupils improve their Malay language skills.

Sabah, too, wants consultations before khat is introduced as a subject.

On Aug 4, Lim gave an excellent example of why learning something of another culture doesn’t mean we lose our identity. He said he learned Jawi while in detention under the Internal Security Act in 1969.

The Iskandar Puteri MP added: “It did not make me any less of a Chinese, and may have helped in making me more of a Malaysian.”

We are not “betraying” our race if we learn Jawi or khat or, for that matter, the joget. Just as we are not betraying our race if we learn the lion dance or Chinese calligraphy; or if we learn the Tamil language or the Bharatanatyam; or if we learn the ngajat (Dayak dance) or learn to weave the Iban Pua Kumbu.

Knowledge and new skills are to be welcomed always.

However, I understand the reason for the resistance to learning khat, too. The Chinese, and to a lesser extent the Indians, are always wary of any new “Malay” field of study being incorporated into the vernacular schools syllabus.

There is fear that it might be the beginning of a strategy to slowly replace Chinese schools or “take over” the managements of these schools.

I believe many Malaysians still remember the education ministry’s move to post about 100 non-Mandarin speaking senior assistants to Chinese schools in 1987. Many Chinese educationists and politicians felt this would change the character of their schools and that it was the beginning of what they saw as direct encroachment into vernacular education.

About 2,000 Chinese, led by the two Chinese educationist groups leading the current khat protest, and politicians, gathered on Oct 11, 1987 to demonstrate against the decision to send non-Mandarin speaking teachers to Chinese schools.

On Oct 17, Umno Youth, led by a young man by the name of Najib Razak who was then trying to make his mark, responded with a large rally, often estimated at 10,000, to support the education ministry’s move and condemn the earlier group of Chinese protesters. There was talk that Najib uttered some inflammatory words that day but no one has proved this.

However, according to Lim, the government White Paper entitled “Towards Preserving National Security” tabled in Parliament on March 23, 1988 “recorded that in the Umno Youth rally led by Najib on Oct 17, 1987, banners bearing strong words were displayed, including one which said: “Soak it (the keris) with Chinese blood.”

Umno secretary-general Sanusi Junid was later reported as threatening to hold a larger gathering on Nov 1.

But on Oct 27, the infamous Ops Lalang took place. Initially, 19 people were arrested, but by mid-November, a total of 106 people had been detained under the ISA, including Lim and his son Guan Eng, Karpal Singh, V David, Ibrahim Ali, Kua Kia Soong, Muhamad Sabu, Khalid Abdul Samad and Dr Mohd Nasir Hashim.

But that was in the past. Why should the Chinese educationists and politicians worry about something as innocent as khat?

One reason could be that Dr Mahathir Mohamad was prime minister then and he is prime minister now, and Anwar Ibrahim was education minister then and prime-minister-in waiting now.

Although Anwar has since suggested the move to send non-Mandarin speaking teachers as senior assistants might have been ill-conceived and that vernacular schools should remain, Mahathir is saying a single-language system would better promote unity. Since becoming prime minister again on May 9, 2018, Mahathir has said a couple of times that vernacular schools are a stumbling block to unity.

But he has never called for vernacular schools to be shut down.

In April this year, Mahathir spoke about housing national and vernacular schools on a “single campus” to enable the pupils to mingle, so that unity can be improved.

There is also the fear among Chinese educationists that what happened to national schools could happen to vernacular schools. Today everyone, including Mahathir, acknowledges that national schools have become almost Islamic schools. This, of course, did not happen in a year or two; it happened slowly, starting with one or two moves that looked innocent enough.

That is why, I believe, these groups want clarification. It is unfortunate that the education ministry did not engage educationist and parent groups before announcing the decision to introduce khat. It goes to show that the education ministry – no matter who is governing – does not learn from the past.

Some politicians have suggested that khat lessons be held as a co-curricular activity. That is one way to seek a compromise.

Education Minister Maszlee Malik offered another. He said on Aug 4 that he was open to proposals for the introduction of other styles of calligraphy in the school curriculum. So, why not? Let’s also include something from Chinese, Indian and Dayak culture in the syllabus. That’ll be good for unity.

Lim, in talking about learning Jawi, also called for an end to the siege-mentality, warning that this “extraordinary situation” could further erode unity.

“This extraordinary situation is one where the Malays feel threatened, the Chinese feel threatened, the Indians feel threatened, the Kadazans feel threatened and the Ibans feel threatened. Every community is made to believe that its culture and ethnicity is facing an existential threat.”

So true. This fear has to go. We have to learn to trust each other and work for our common good, for this is our shared home.

A Kathirasen is an executive editor at FMT

The views expressed by the writer do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.