The khat controversy, like volcanic lava, has either wreaked destruction or enlivened dying things, depending on whom you talk to.
For some, a mountain of stifling debris has been added to Malaysia’s complicated race relations. For others, there’s a new shoot of life in a freshly fertilised soil.
So who are the winners and losers?
This word, when separated from politics, almost loses its usefulness. In the case of the khat debate, it is the clear winner, for the controversy came against the backdrop of a series of events that has gripped the so-called New Malaysia.
The hotel sex romp saga targeting Mohamed Azmin Ali is just one of them. We also have the “secret” meeting between the prime minister and the very people he condemned as thieves and plunderers.
The highway bailout affair, the economic doldrums and, ironically, the failure to transform education, are among those pushed to the periphery thanks to an avalanche of online comments, statements and protests against flowing brush strokes that seem to have cast terror into a section of the population.
The candour with which the fear of a different culture and language is expressed means Malaysians have given up what little trust they have of “the other”. Despite the claims of a new Malaysia, we are still stuck in our little cocoons, convinced that there are attempts at cultural colonisation in the age of the internet, where the phrase has lost its sting.
Winner: The right wing
Whether they live in the gated comforts of Hartamas or behind the sticky walls of a mechanic’s shop in Ipoh, right-wingers have been given a new lease of life. We have seen banners carried by one-man “NGOs” with names as suspicious as some Bumi-certified company names and statements written entirely in symbols that practically spray mandarin juice into our eyes.
DAP has been in the sort of fix that is perhaps the mother of all dilemmas in its 11 years or so of being in the good books of its Chinese supporters. Accept khat in vernacular schools and damnation awaits from “we who voted for you”. Reject khat and your alleged pretensions to openness are confirmed.
Hitherto, those unfamiliar with this Arabic calligraphy have seen it on mosque signboards or when sending Hari Raya greetings using ready-made emojis. Today, khat has been given a new boost, not an easy feat for a dying art in an age obsessed with catchwords such as Industry 4.0, eco-system and artificial something-something. Perhaps, like the backlash from 9/11, more non-Malays and non-Muslims will google it up and learn the art.
While khat is a specialised field which appeals to those who appreciate calligraphy, Jawi, once the main script of the Malay-speaking world and an important aspect of the language, appears to have become collateral damage.
Groups have suddenly surfaced, claiming to defend Malay history with a narrative that goes back to the day the first Proton was rolled out. They say Jawi is not part of the Malay language and have practically called for the banishment of a script that could have opened them to a side of the Malay world’s liberal past they never knew.
To these groups, perhaps Jawi should be relegated to yellow packets in supermarkets to allay the fears of fussy Muslims who love noodles.
This list is not exhaustive. But here we are, closing another noisy chapter in contemporary Malaysian history, ready as ever for the next debate. Malaysia boleh!
Abdar Rahman Koya is editor-in-chief of FMT.