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Insisting that khat (a form of Malay-Arabic calligraphy) is suddenly “an integral part of Malaysia’s national identity and Bahasa Malaysia which is the national language and the language of unity,” the Ministry of Education (MOE) has confirmed that khat will be part of the Year 4 Bahasa Melayu syllabus from next year.

The ministry’s decision has drawn protests from non-Malay educationists who argue that it has nothing to do with the national language and worry that such a move would further burden students and teachers.

The khat issue now has the potential to quickly turn into yet another contentious political issue with strong racial and religious undertones. As well, it demonstrates, once again, why many believe that Education Minister Maszlee Malik is simply the wrong man for the job. 

A needless controversy

As education minister, Maszlee has essentially been charged with two main tasks: (i) transform our current dismal and dysfunctional education system into a world class one, and (ii) restructure our education system to promote national unity.

Khat will do neither.

Arbitrarily introducing a subject like khat without proper consultation – especially at the political level – has created disquiet particularly among non-Malays who fear that this is part of a wider scheme to Islamise the education syllabus and impose a narrow sectarian agenda on non-Malay students.

What Maszlee failed to recognize was that after years of race-baiting and religious extremism, there’s a huge trust deficit among non-Malays; it does not take much to spook them. If he really believed that khat is important to the reform agenda, he should have initiated an honest dialogue both with educationists and political leaders with a view to seeking consensus and preparing the ground for its introduction.

Isn’t that supposed to be the PH spirit – cooperation, consultation and consensus instead of rule by fiat?

By giving priority to khat ahead of more substantive and much needed reforms, Maszlee has now convinced many Malaysians that PH has neither the political will nor the intellectual capacity to truly reform our education system. Instead of halting the decline in our education system, Maszlee has only accelerated it alongside with the exodus of both Malays and non-Malays from national-type schools.

Divisive & unhelpful

In the process, Maszlee has also given UMNO-PAS a new and potent weapon with which to hammer PH and further divide its Malay and non-Malay base. UMNO president Zahid Hamidi, already sensing the huge potential to inflame passions and stoke tensions, is now demanding that all PH Malay leaders take a stand in support of khat. Expect UMNO-PAS to call for a new round of demonstrations to protest the threat to the national language, Malay rights, and everything else they can think of.

Perhaps to head off UMNO-PAS, Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad quickly came out in support of khat while Amanah’s Mahfuz Omar, in order to mollify Chinese concerns, suggested that Chinese calligraphy could also be “highlighted.” Highlighting it, however, is not the same as introducing it into the school curriculum.

DAP supremo Lim Kit Siang, also sensing the potential for trouble, broke ranks with many in his own leadership to swiftly express support for the khat initiative saying that he had learned Jawi (in prison) and it didn’t make him less Chinese. I, too, signed up for Jawi (in my first year at the University of Malaya in 1969) but that is not the point.

Aren’t there far more important issues that we need to focus on right now than calligraphy, whether Jawi, Chinese or Tamil? Haven’t we spent years, for example, moaning the declining standards of English and how it is hindering Malay graduates in particular from finding good jobs? Hasn’t Mahathir himself complained that too much time is being spent on religious education instead of key subjects like English, math and science? Shouldn’t we focus on issues like that instead of arguing about peripheral issues like calligraphy? In the interests of national unity, shouldn’t we focus on the things that bring us together rather than creating new issues to drive us further apart?

No passion for reform

The khat issue also serves to underline one of the key challenges facing the PH administration – incompetence, poor political acumen, the absence of vision, and a lack of real passion for the reformasi cause. This is particularly evident among Bersatu leaders who are mostly ex-UMNO men or candidates picked up just before the last elections in a desperate bid to contest as many seats as possible. Maszlee, for one, never cut his teeth in the reformasi struggle and was simply a last-minute add-on who rode Mahathir’s coattails to victory.

Unsurprisingly, given his background, he seems more enthusiastic about promoting an Islamic agenda rather than the kind of reforms that premised PH’s rise to power. We are simply expecting too much from him if we think he can bring about the change that is so desperately needed. Mahathir does us all a great disservice by keeping him at a post he is clearly unfit to hold.

[Dennis Ignatius |Kuala Lumpur |4th August 2019]