Reading the news these days it would seem that we are not short of controversy. As if existing controversies were not bad enough, certain irresponsible quarters have taken to reviving settled issues, such as the Bible Society of Malaysia (Bsm) with its sudden expression of indignation over the stamping of Bahasa Melayu Bibles that had been given back by Mais to the Association of Churches of Sarawak (Acs) and claiming ignorance of this fact, in spite of the same having been widely reported in the media when the Bibles were handed over to Acs in the first place.
A week ago we were presented with a new controversy and it is over the move by Malacca to make the use of Jawi signage compulsory on all schools in Malacca. An online report by The Star on 11 December has quoted Malacca Chinese Education Progressive Association chairman Yang Ying Chong stating that the Malacca Education Department directly was “unreasonable” and “unacceptable” as the Jawi script did not represent the identity of Chinese schools and its use was not enshrined under the Federal Constitution.
For the information of Yan Ying Chong, the very existence of Chinese schools themselves is not enshrined in the Federal Constitution. That aside, Article 152 of the Constitution is very clear on this subject. The Malay language is the national language of Malaysia and following decision of the Federal Court in Merdeka University v Government of Malaysia must be used by all public institutions and authorities.
By virtue of section 2 of the National Language Acts 1963 and 1967, the Malay language must be used for all official purposes. The said constitutional article provides that Parliament may determine the script for the language and Parliament has done so in the form of section 9 of the Act: the Roman script is used, PROVIDED THAT this shall not prohibit the use of the Jawi script.
Nonetheless, it is trite that the Malay language is written in both the Roman and Jawi scripts, and both should be encouraged. We have much to learn from Brunei in this respect. Article 82(1) of the Constitution of Brunei states that the official language of Brunei is the Malay language. Pursuant to this, signboards all over Brunei are written in Malay, in both the Jawi as well as Roman scripts. Similarly, in Kelantan the state government implemented ruling for the use of Jawi scripts in signboards since 2009 and a visit to Kota Bharu now requires a new set of skills to decipher the Jawi symbol for McDonald’s.
Sadly, in Malaysia, for every step in garnering an integrated country we take forward, we continue to take 2-steps backward. Only in 2007, the Jawi script used in the Penang Free School signboard took center-stage. Due to the protest hurled at it, the Jawi script was taken down in 2013. The move is a clear proof that we are too discriminatory; where we are given the chance to show how respectful we can be towards each other’s unique characters, we simply shake our heads and insist on promoting racial polarisation and intolerance amongst the different races in this country.
Mundane non-issues have to be aired out and protested simply because each race is intolerant towards the other races. The question is simple: if it was in Chinese Hanzi or Tamil Abugida would the sour gripes be as loud?
Just as the Chinese and Indians assert that their languages and scripts must be recognised, so should Jawi be acknowledged as a Malay script. One wrong move by one of our ex-education ministers, namely Mohamed Khir Johari, step-father of current DAP Member of Parliament for Bukit Bendera Zailril Khir Johari, to erase Jawi from the syllabus of our national education system, does not change the fact that Malays as a race have been communicating in writing using Jawi script since 14th century. The name ‘Jawi’ itself is a derivation of the term coined by Ibn Batutah to refer to the Malay Archipelago circa 1345.
And in spite of the popular ignorant belief that Jawi is a language used in the Quran, as Malay-Muslims, who can barely read Jawi, the writers would like to clarify that Jawi is a script used to write the Malay language and is itself not a language nor is it used to write any other language. The language remains Bahasa but the script is not Roman.
Just as writing the Dutch language in Roman script does not make the language English, using the Jawi script is not in any way a subtle attempt to convert non-Muslims, or win any popularity contest with the non-Malays. Perhaps if Penang has better educated ministers the misconception would have been clarified but sadly, they prefer to perpetuate the misunderstanding rather than to light a candle.
The move to use and honour the Jawi script should not be seen as a way to diminish any of the other races’ identities but rather as a move to allow Malaysians to fully appreciate their own history and eccentricities, much like preservation efforts in Vietnam in respect of the use of the native Chu Nom script, which has been largely replaced by the Roman script as well.
As far as the Malaccan circular goes, nothing in the directive states that Chinese characters or Tamil scripts written on signboards of Chinese or Tamil vernacular schools must be set aside to make way for use of the Jawi script. We, as children of Malaysia, continue to take pride in the fact that most of us are bilingual and some are trilingual.
In our unified dream to see a better, more balanced Malaysia that embraces differences between her people, does it really matter what the signage writes as long as the massage is the same? Is there indeed a dream to unite Malaysians regardless of language or script or is this a mere slogan repeated time and again whenever it suits us?
* Faidhur Rahman Abdul Hadi and Fatihah Jamhari are lawyers practising in Kuala Lumpur and activist members of Concerned Lawyers for Justice (CLJ).
**First appeared in The Malay Mail Online, 18th December 2014.