Jawi script is featured on Malaysian bank notes. (Photo: Zsombor Peter / VOA)
Jawi script is featured on Malaysian bank notes. (Photo: Zsombor Peter / VOA)

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - A push by the Malaysian government to revive an archaic Arabic script in Chinese- and Tamil-language primary schools this year is kindling old ethnic and religious fault lines long held at a slow but steady boil in the Muslim-majority country.

Last year, Education Minister Maszlee Malik said that starting this month,  Malaysia's 1,700-odd vernacular schools — those that teach in Chinese or Tamil — would have to introduce their 10-year-olds to a bit of Jawi in their lessons on Bahasa Malayu, the Malay language. The sinuous, Arabic-based script was the main method of writing Malay until the language was romanized by the British in the early 20th century, and is little practiced today outside of mosques and madrassas.

The ministry scaled back its plans following an outcry from Chinese school groups, paring down the pages to be taught on Jawi from six to three and making even that conditional on approval from more than half the students' parents at each school.

The concession did not come before tempers had flared, though.

Critics complained that local school boards were being sidestepped or raised alarms about creeping Islamization. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad called pushback from Chinese school association Dong Zong "racist" and warned that it might spark calls from the majority ethnic Malays to close the vernacular schools down. The Malaysian Muslim Students Coalition said Dong Zong was tempting a repeat of Malaysia's bloody 1969 race riots and on January 1 organized a rally of hundreds against the group in central Kuala Lumpur, the capital. The following day, Maszlee stepped down as education minister at Mahathir's request, citing the Jawi dustup as one reason.

The Education Ministry, Malaysian Muslim Students Coalition and Dong Zong all refused requests for an interview.

Parents pick up their children outside a Chinese-language primary school in Kuala Lumpur. (Photo: Zsombor Peter/VOA)

Outside a Chinese-language school in the city's Pudu neighborhood last week, laminated signs hung from a tin awning in English, Chinese characters and romanized Malay: "Life is wonderful," "Believe in yourself," "Smile is joyful." Parents crowded the front gate waiting for the sound of a shrill bell to let their children out of class.

"This is a Chinese school. They're already learning too many languages," said a Chinese parent who did not want Jawi instruction in the curriculum and declined to give her name because of the sensitivity of the topic.

"We don't agree, so they say we are racist. Now we fight between two races," she said. "If they need to study [Jawi], we cannot do anything, we need to accept."

Jalahudin bin Rahim, another parent, of mixed Chinese and Malay heritage, welcomed the ministry's push for Jawi.

"The government is doing the right thing. They hope the next generation can [have] more knowledge, know another language. Better for the children," he said.

"Don't think about race or religion," he added, dismissing claims of Islamization.

The school won't be teaching Jawi for now, though. A school official not authorized to address the press and speaking on condition of anonymity told VOA that the parents of the school's 10-year-olds had overwhelmingly rejected the three-page introduction.

The Malaysian Chinese Association, a political party, said most Chinese-language schools have followed suit.

MCA Secretary General Chong Sin Woon said the ministry's moves to introduce Jawi in vernacular schools subverts the traditional authority of local school boards and, like Dong Zong, believes it should be up to each student and parent to decide whether to learn it as an elective.

He said the three pages the government has settled on did not amount to Islamization but feared that they could be just the start. The government has plans to introduce Jawi to 11- and 12-year-olds in coming years.

"We have nothing against Jawi; that's a very clear stand of MCA. But there ... shouldn't be any forced learning," he said.

"With this teaching of Jawi ... put into the curriculum, [it] means it's part of the curriculum in learning bahasa. So in future the ministry at any time can enhance that teaching, can introduce more pages, or even to make it part of the exam."

The Malaysian Islamic Party supports the government's plans for Jawi. Its youth wing joined the protest against Dong Zong on January 1.

"Bahasa Malayu is the official language in Malaysia and it is protected under the ... official language act, so it should be an element that brings all the races together," said party spokesman Kamaruzaman Mohamad. "And Jawi is a part of Bahasa Malayu, so it is overboard to fight against Jawi since Jawi is protected under law, under [the] constitution."

The constitution says Malay "shall be in such script as Parliament may by law provide." The National Language Act says the Malay script "shall be" Roman but adds that the provision "shall not prohibit" the use of Jawi.

Kamaruzaman accused those worried about Islamization in turn of Islamophobia.

"It is three pages. All the three pages are just [to] learn a few items that [are] related to the Malaysia symbol," he said, referring to the national emblem of Malaysia, which includes a few lines of Jawi. "Why [are] you really afraid of learning that?"

Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, who heads the National University of Malaysia's Institute of Ethnic Studies, said Jawi played a key role in unifying Malay Muslims starting in the 13th century by introducing a standardized script for their language for the first time.

While the script is little-used today outside of Islamic education, and most Malays no longer know how to read or write it, he added, it remains the writ of record for Malay Muslim culture.

"The corpus of knowledge on Malay civilization is still in Jawi," he said.

Shamsul said he expected the dispute over teaching Jawi in vernacular schools to blow over with time but also that such flare-ups would continue to wax and wane.

"Malaysia exists in stable tension," he said. "This is not the first time and not the first occasion, and I believe it's not going to be the last one."