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In an ultimately vain attempt to quell the storm within his own ranks over the khat controversy, DAP’s Lim Kit Siang remarked that he had studied Jawi and it didn’t make him any less Chinese. The more pertinent question, however, is will learning khat make us any more Malaysian?

It is a relevant question since the Ministry of Education (MOE) itself used the national unity argument to justify the inclusion of khat in the school curriculum. Indeed, a ministry statement noted that “khat is an integral part of Malaysia’s national identity and Bahasa Malaysia, which is the national language and the language of unity.”

Khat & national heritage

No matter how the ministry tries to spin it, there is no escaping the fact that khat is a form of Arabic calligraphy closely associated with Islam. Making it part of the syllabus for all schools, including vernacular schools, is bound to be viewed with suspicion, particularly as the ministry has not been able to make a compelling case for it other than to hide behind the heritage argument.

In a multiracial society like ours, however, not everything that is part of Malay heritage ought to automatically become the common heritage of all Malaysians.  Some things like the Malay language have been accepted by all and is today the lingua franca of the nation. The same cannot be said of religion or other aspects of Malay culture. Khat may be part of Malaysia’s Islamic heritage – and should be respected as such – but it is not something that is shared by other religious and ethnic minorities.

And what happens when other faiths start using khat to depict their sacred scripture as Arab Christians now do in the Middle East? Will Islamic groups protest that khat is exclusive to Islam (like they did over the Allah issue), that it would confuse Muslims, and forbid other faiths from using it?

A deeply polarized society

Context is also important. The khat controversy comes at a time when the nation is already deeply divided. After years of polarizing actions and policies, of racial and religious taunting, of highly controversial cases involving the conversion of minors, of attempts to impose dress codes in government offices, etc., there is an almost instinctive response to anything which is seen as further eroding minority rights. Are our minorities supersensitive? Of course. And who can blame them?

Even now as we grapple with the khat issue, another storm is brewing – a proposal being discussed in the Selangor State Assembly that could pave the way for the unilateral conversion of minors.

What motivates our policy makers to keep coming up with such needlessly provocative policies that alienate minorities and further deepen the racial and religious divide? When will our policy makers learn to respect Malaysia’s minorities enough to consult with them and seek consensus instead of simply foisting controversial policies on an already sullen and suspicious population? Is it ignorance or arrogance?

National unity smoke & mirrors

Whatever it is, there is a growing conviction among Malaysia’s minorities that all this talk about national unity is nothing but smoke and mirrors. In the end, nothing they do or don’t do will make them more acceptable to the Ketuanan Melayu ideologues that are driving most of these contentious issues.

When the national language policy was first promoted, it was also premised upon national unity. Decades later, most Malaysians are fluent in Bahasa Malaysia but has it made them less pendatang, less of a perceived threat?

Will mastery of khat convince people like PAS president Hadi Awang that non-Malays, as citizens of this country, have as much right to hold senior positions in government, the judiciary, the civil service as everybody else? Of course not. In their eyes, non-Malays and non-Muslims will always be interlopers no matter what.

Lim Kit Siang, for example, speaks Bahasa Malaysia fluently and even reads and writes Jawi but it has not saved him from becoming the most demonized person in the country. Zakir Naik, on the other hand, a foreigner and a wanted fugitive who neither speaks Bahasa Malaysia nor understands Jawi, is hailed as an inspiration to the nation.

Is it any wonder that minorities are demoralized and disappointed by so many of the things that are going on in our nation today? Whatever hopes they once had for change under Pakatan Harapan are now fading; the government changed but the same old Ketuanan Melayu policies are being pursued. 

A vision for the future

If Pakatan Harapan is really serious about national unity, it needs to stop playing all these Ketuanan Melayu games and start working on a vision to bring the nation together on the basis of well-defined and mutually agreed upon core values.

They can start by building a more inclusive education system that reflects our diversity without diminishing the Malay language and culture, an education system that inculcates respect and tolerance for other cultures and religions and promotes the core values of our nation. It is the only way we are ever going to see that ‘Bangsa Malaysia’ which Dr Mahathir mooted years ago, but did little to advance, become a reality.

In the meantime, the decision to introduce khat should be reconsidered. It is enormously damaging to national unity and it will do nothing to improve the declining standards of our schools. If the government cannot see that, education reform will end up being just another broken Pakatan Harapan promise.

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 11 August 2019]