In Malaysia, flipping over the script

Proposed changes to a school textbook have sparked a public debate that goes to the heart of national identity.

Ooi Kok Hin, The Independent

When Sin Chew Daily, the largest Chinese daily in Malaysia, recently headlined a Ministry of Education proposal to introduce a few pages of calligraphy in the Malay-language textbook for Chinese and Tamil vernacular primary schools, the backlash was immediate.

The reaction went all the way up to the Pakatan Harapan ruling coalition. Dong Zong, the United Chinese School Committees’ Association, rallied a group of associations to organise resistance. In a photo that would go viral, a group of men holding a press conference locked arms in united resistance. The message was clear: they were not having it.

It, in this case, is khata stylized form of jawi, or Arabic-Persian calligraphy. Jawi is an important component of Malay language and culture. The proposal consisted of a mere three pages (initially six) of introductory script in a textbook of over a hundred pages – an idea carried over from the previous administration.

Not everyone in the Chinese community was against the proposal (which was eventually revised from khat to jawi script in an apparent effort at compromise).

And not all Malays supported it – but the show of public resistance led many to question whether the reaction was rooted in racism.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad labelled Dong Zong a “racist” organisation for standing in the way of national education policies. The Youth Wing of Mahathir’s party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, launched a petition to ban the Chinese education organization.

Amidst the backlash, Liew Chin Tong, Deputy Defence Minister and the Political Education Director of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), admitted the party was facing its worst crisis since coming to national power last year.

The whole fiasco is striking. Why are they fighting so much over something seemingly so small?

The surface story is that this new material is being “forced upon” the schools – that the school association is not against the teaching of jawi script, but that it was made mandatory.

However, much of the weight lies in the subtext of the debate. As political scientist James Scott explains in Domination and the Arts of Resistance, understanding “hidden transcripts” beneath power relations “offers a substantially new way of understanding resistance to domination”.

In this regard, the Chinese educators’ response is a critique of power spoken behind the back of the dominant. The resistance must be seen in the context of their acrimonious relationship with the state, particularly the Ministry of Education – which doesn’t begin with the current administration but precedes even the formation of the nation-state. Since independence, successive governments have attempted to regulate, eliminate, or integrate the vernacular schools within the larger national education policies.

For the state, the vernacular schools – both the government-subsidised public ones and the community-funded private ones – are an embodiment of the ethnic minority’s refusal to assimilate. Critics allege the system fosters ethnic segregation and neglects the role of the national language. More than 90% of Chinese send their children to vernacular primary schools, and more than 90% of “Bumiputera” – a vague term used to describe ethnic Malays and other indigenous groups – send their kids to national schools.

In a country where ethnic discrimination is openly practiced by officialdom, the vernacular schools are upheld as a last bastion of cultural identity and autonomy. Chinese educationists resist state policies because they perceive them as a form of domination – not as an effort to foster integration, but as an attempt to interfere where they operate with the most freedom.

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