In khat storm, analysts see no silver lining for Pakatan

A man practises khat calligraphy in Balik Pulau, Penang August 6, 2019. Khat refers to calligraphy, an artistic practice of handwriting using the Arabic letters, which also includes Jawi writing. — Picture by Sayuti Zainudin
A man practises khat calligraphy in Balik Pulau, Penang August 6, 2019. Khat refers to calligraphy, an artistic practice of handwriting using the Arabic letters, which also includes Jawi writing. — Picture by Sayuti Zainudin

KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 8 — Political analysts said they cannot see how Pakatan Harapan (PH) can gain from its controversial decision to introduce the Malay-Arabic calligraphy of khat to Year Four pupils in schools.

It’s a move that has sparked protests from minority communities who see the policy as a sign of creeping Islamisation.

However, it looks like the four-party bloc may be “trapped” by a decision made years before to introduce the Jawi script into the Bahasa Malaysia syllabus, a decision which was likely intended to shore up support from ethnic Malays, pundits polled by Malay Mail said.

Before and after Independence, all writings using the national language was in Jawi.

The Roman alphabet, introduced by the British, slowly took over to replace the adapted Arabic script towards the later half of the 20th century.

Khat refers to calligraphy, an artistic practice of handwriting using the Arabic letters, which also includes Jawi writing.

One of the analysts thinks opportunistic leaders within PH saw the Barisan Nasional-inherited legacy as a chance to widen their own power base and burnish their Malay-Muslim credentials.

“It was likely an opportunistically convenient vehicle,” said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

“PH cannot afford to say no to (khat). You see, the 75 per cent conservative Malay voters (those who voted for PAS or Umno) are a prime target for grabs.”

PH is facing backlash from mostly the ethnic Chinese over its decision to proceed with teaching khat to Year Four students as part of the Education Ministry’s Bahasa Malaysia syllabus, including at vernacular schools.

Dong Zong, a group representing private Chinese educationists, said in a statement that parents are worried, hinting at suspicion of the teaching of the calligraphy as a way to convert Chinese pupils to Islam.

PH leaders vehemently denied this with Education Minister Maszlee Malik saying khat is merely an art form and that the ministry wanted to inculcate appreciation for the Jawi script.

To dispel claims that this is a subliminal way to Islamise non-Muslim students, Maszlee stressed that the subject will be excluded from the Year Four examination and assessment.

Echoing supporters of the policy, analysts felt the suspicion towards khat is not grounded in facts but is rather built on prejudices that may be unrelated to the subject altogether.

Kartini Aboo Talib from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia believes Maszlee’s actions could have fostered that mistrust.

The minister’s links with Islamic organisations like Ikram, and the many policy blunders that may have been carried out with good intentions but explained poorly, could have imprinted negatively on communities still reeling from the religious tension that existed under Barisan Nasional rule.

Still, the political analyst felt the reaction over khat is disproportionate and exaggerated.

“(The prejudice may be) an accumulation of what Maszlee had done including the accusation of appointments of Ikram kinship or brotherhood into the system,” she said.

“Khat becomes the collateral damage.”

And like Oh, the analyst felt PH stood to gain little from the policy. Instead, the controversy only exposed division within the ruling coalition with the backlash likely to affect even Bersatu or Amanah, the bloc’s two main Malay component parties.

“The way khat has been exploited, now it is seen as a moment of differences,” she said.

To PH’s enemies, the Opposition against khat has already laid out the ground for assault. Umno and PAS leaders claim the protest by DAP members brought to surface the party’s anti-Islam core.

DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng on Monday night admitted that many party supporters are alarmed by the government’s decision, but was tightlipped about the party’s position.

Lim, who is also the Finance Minister, said the party would convey its views to Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad soon.

But while all the signs point to trouble, political analyst Sivamurugan Pandian of Universiti Sains Malaysia said the controversy could be abated if enough effort is poured into allaying minority distrust.

“Kit Siang said it didn’t make him less Chinese,” he said, referring to the veteran DAP man’s comment about learning Jawi.

“Maybe they need more explanation from within and from those who have the authority to speak on khat.”

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