The fuss over khat in vernacular schools

The fuss is not about learning Jawi writing. The central issue is that education has opened the gateway for politicians, religious political parties, including ulamas and the so-called Malay nationalists, to advance their political and religious agenda.

Secondly, the inclusion of Jawi-writing called khat in the national-type school (SJK) curriculum is against the basic principle of professionalism in education, which is that schools must be safeguarded from the intrusion and influence of politics and religion.

Look at the coercion and threatening reaction taken by the 90 Malay and Islam NGOs in the social media, including PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang and individual ulamas. How can such behaviour command the confidence of the minority Chinese, Indians, Sikhs and Orang Asli communities to accept such “civilised” education?

Thirdly, our education curriculum has become a platform to infiltrate the national ideology in the name of so-called “patriotism”, that is namely the supremacy of one race, one religion and one language.

Despite being dressed in the most conservative manner, my Malay Muslim students confided in me their fear of going downtown to Kuala Lumpur alone. And in the presentation and discussions on Malaysian education policy, almost all these students conclude that the May 13 incident was the result of the demands of one race.

Seemingly, their simplistic generalisation illustrates the success of the government’s use of fear, race and religion to shape the uniformity of thinking among the ignorant learners.

Fourthly, the education curriculum and practices in Malaysian schools is best reflected through its most renowned edict – “ada tambah, tak ada kurang … mengapa tambah berterusan?”

The reason is simple. The Malaysian education curriculum has become a platform for ministers to impose whatever ideas that come to mind while bypassing professional review for an integrated and holistic curriculum.

Is it thus not beyond predictions that the inclusion of Jawi writing/khat in the SJK Malay language curriculum commencing in Year 4 (in 2020) followed by implementation at the secondary school level, has its political claim on the national ideology.

Fifth, it is claimed that Bahasa Malaysia, the national language, is the medium for national unity. Has it produced the desired effect?

This has a strong bearing on the “worrying” deterioration in our country’s education standards (“merisaukan” as decried by the progressive group of Malays) in Maths, Science, and English, as revealed by the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) and TIMSS (Trends of Survey in Maths and Science) at the world level.

Quality of education system

According to a World Bank economist, ” … poor quality of Malaysia’s education system is more worrying than the level of debts in its household”.

This is because “the substandard education system” would affect the pool of skilled talents to grow its economy.

He said that Malaysia should be alarmed that Malaysian children are doing worse than those in Vietnam. Such analysis finds its truth in the statistics. In the 2013 PISA assessment, Vietnam was ranked 10th while Malaysia was ranked 52th out of 72 participating countries.

The performance of our 15-year-old students in Maths and Science is three years behind Singapore, Shanghai and Hong Kong, as revealed in the 2015 TIMMS survey.

How has the emphasis on the Malay language helped unite the Malays and all Malaysians? About 70% of the younger generation of Chinese, including those from the UEC system, do not have problems in their command and use of the language.

This is clearly proven in the performance of school teachers and specifically representative members in the Parliament and state legislative assemblies.

Instead of reaffirming the status of the Malay language as a unifying language and sincerely helping SJK pupils to enjoy the beauty and fun of learning the Malay language, while helping upgrade the pedagogy command of teachers in teaching the language, the content syllabus or textbooks produced by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka for SJK students is getting tougher and tougher.

The learning content has gone beyond the social and cognitive development of the learning experience of the primary school kids while the UPSR exam standard is made more difficult as years go by.

And now the education ministry is imposing another element, namely the classic component of the language, that it claims has been done since 2014, to be included in the school curriculum.

To me, it is fine and relevant to introduce a chapter on the relevance of Jawi to our country or the national language, including championing Za’aba as “Bapa Bahasa Moden”.

However, the curriculum now requires non-Bumi students to learn Jawi writing (khat) progressively from Year 4 to 6 and continue onwards to the secondary school level. There is a big concern that such a policy will ultimately lead towards the imposition of Jawi as part of Malay language in the SPM exam.

To me, this is not an allegation or baseless imagination. Look at the series of recent developments taking place in the country where even road signs have been replaced with Jawi writing.

The multiplying effect of the intrusion of Jawi writing curriculum in the SJK has instilled fear, suspicion and crisis of trust among the minority races about the trustworthiness of the present government to restore the role of education, that is to advance national aspirations, social sustainability and inclusiveness of all races to enjoy the beauty of diversity that constitutes the resourcefulness and competitiveness of the country.

Policy formulation and policy implementation must be aligned with the bigger education goals and aspirations to enable upward social mobility for individual students as well as ensure global competitiveness of the country.

Education blueprints

I could not help wonder whether both the education minister and the prime minister are aware that the country has had already two good education blueprints put in place to pave way for Malaysia to be a developed, progressive country, as contained in the Vision 2020.

At the system level, the focus of the Malaysian Education Blueprint (for schools, 2013-2025) is to realise the noble objectives involving issues of equity, equality, quality and efficiency of each of the ringgit spent on every student, regardless of race, social-economic class status and religious belief.

At the student level, the relevancy of the reforms has to be reflected in producing students who are knowledgeable, bilingual (or multilingual), digitally competent, critical in thinking, and imbued with good morals.

They must have a Malaysian identity based on respect and appreciation for the diversity in races, culture, language, religious beliefs, with Bahasa Malaysia as the national language and Islam as the official religion.

Just do a quick review of the education reforms that have taken place under the new Pakatan Harapan government towards this direction.

Taking a deeper look, our minsters’ insistence on implementing a policy of “getting to know and appreciate khat” in the Malay language curriculum has already violated the spirit and principle contained in the country’s constitution and the Rukun Negara.

It is essential that the spirit of respect and adherence be upheld by the education minister and our PM. This is the cornerstone to safeguard the respect and social harmony among the various ethnic groups in the country.

Schools have to be safeguarded from political and religious influence, be it Jawi (regarded as a language) or khat. It is still closely associated with the glory of Islam and is a scripture closely related to Islamic teaching and the Quran.

Tan Ai Mei is an FMT reader.

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