Beyond Jawi, a plan to address cultural bankruptcy among Malays

Five decades ago, Jawi, the Arabic script which was once the main written medium for the Malay language, was replaced by the romanised script.

The Malay language progressed after this conversion. It synchronised with Bahasa Indonesia in the 1970s, giving Bahasa Melayu its value and credence, becoming one of the most spoken languages in the modern world.

Like learning Latin and Sanskrit, learning the Jawi script and knowing how its letters are strung together is additional knowledge. But that’s all to it.

I learnt Jawi in primary school. I believe I still can read and write Jawi, though there has been no need for it in the last 50 years!

Even when I was living in the Middle East, there was not a single occasion that my knowledge of Jawi had been helpful. Most locals were happy to communicate in English.

That’s an indication of how useful Jawi has been for me. As such, I fail to understand the Ministry of Education’s move to introduce Jawi, to the extent that it has now become entangled with issues of national unity.

I have no objection if the ministry is really serious in reviving Jawi writing for whatever nostalgic reasons.

But why not bring back the rest of the Malay cultural components. It would also mean lifting the ban on other forms of Malay culture and traditions.

Culture is a life experience.

Although I was born into a Pakistani family, I grew up in a Malay society, steeped in Malay traditions, practices and beliefs.

In Terengganu, I was fascinated by the “Main Pantai” festival, which had great Terengganu dishes.

The festival is held annually in May by farmers after their rice harvest.

For three nights in a row, Main Pantai would feature traditional shows such as the wayang kulit (shadow play), mak yong, menora, dikir barat, as well as Chinese opera.

My favourite was ‘Rodat Terengganu’, a show similar in its splendour and costume designs to gamelan.

The most fascinating was a troupe of bare shouldered maiden dancers.

Musical beats of rodat were much faster than gamelan and songs were rather cheeky and funny.

While the gamelan displays seriousness, both in the dance movements and lyrics, rodat is entertaining.

It is beautiful, creative, educational and motivating – all of which form an integral part of our education system.

But today, these art forms cannot be found anymore, whether in Terengganu, Kelantan or Pahang.

Gone are the people who were once masters of the arts, music and compositions. There are no more prima donnas, music schools, dance academies, theatre labs, let alone halls where cultural performances could be held in these three states.

And yet, the East Coast is referred to as the Malay heartland, where Malay heritage, including Jawi, had thrived.

The younger Malays are not exposed to these art forms anymore, and probably have never heard of them.

As a result, they would not be able to handle any complex form of artistic shows such as scripting, stage production, lighting, stage management, direction and recording.

These modern day requirements evolved from people who have a passion in artistic values.

We have totally abandoned Malay art forms. And yet, today, MOE wants to revive Jawi. It does not make any cultural sense.

MOE should study what has been lost and try to revive some of the elements that have been officially banned.

The culprit for this cultural bankruptcy are our politicians, our top civil servants, the bulk of whom are Malays.

PAS politicians, for example, cannot appreciate Malay arts, culture and traditions, and so they banned cultural shows when they took over the Terengganu state government in 1999.

Kelantan had then already banned many forms of Malay cultural shows.

Sadly, the Umno-led Barisan Nasional also followed suit.

Many present-day MPs are equally guilty of this cultural assassination. Many had been among those who campaigned heavily with a religious agenda by declaring that the Malay arts, culture, heritage and traditions are all un-Islamic.

When Dr Mahathir Mohamad assumed office in 1981, he brought in Anwar Ibrahim into Umno.

In their eagerness to trump PAS, they carried out their brand of Islamisation.

Important aspects of the Malay arts and culture were erased, some repackaged into the half-baked religious education system.

This led to the rise of superficial Malays who are not only poor in both English and Bahasa Melayu, but also ignorant about their culture and heritage.

Soon, many Malays try hard to ape the Arabs. The result is the political horror that we see today.

Malays no longer have artistic abilities and cultural skills compared to the older generations. Against this background, MoE wants to bring back Jawi.

It may be asked, why is this cultural aspect of the Malays important? As a race, we cannot escape from our own culture, traditions and heritage. The Indonesians never abandoned their culture; they are still very talented and skillful.

The future of this country lies in a cultured majority. And that group happens to be the Malays, who sadly, have been stripped bare of their own traditional values.

I’m talking about original cultural heritage, songs, dance. And yes, kebaya without headscarf, tapai and tuak.

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