Enthusiasm for an archaic script frightens Malaysia’s minorities

Jan 09, 2020

SQUABBLES SUPERHEATED by race and religion have long plagued Malaysian politics. The latest one seems to have claimed the scalp of the country’s education minister, Maszlee Malik, who resigned on January 2nd. The trouble started when the government announced that it would oblige all ten-year-olds to learn to write some Jawi. This is an Arabic-based script that was the main method of writing down Malay, the language of the majority, before reformers in the 20th century made the Roman alphabet standard.

Jawi is not much used nowadays, although it has hung around on stamps, banknotes and in some other places. Its preservation matters to ethnic Malays who worry that their heritage and culture are threatened by Malaysia’s modern multiculturalism. Last year authorities in Pahang, peninsular Malaysia’s largest state, decreed that signs along roads and on businesses all had to carry both Jawi and Roman lettering.

The introduction of Jawi classes caused alarm in the schools that mostly cater to Malaysia’s ethnic-Chinese and ethnic-Indian minorities, who together make up about one-third of the country’s population. These schools enjoy some freedom to decide their own syllabuses. Their governing bodies said the imposition of Jawi was inconsistent with that. Some fear that a precedent will be set, encouraging meddlers to try to...

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