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 lever into classrooms other things that matter to the ethnic-Malay majority, including more Islamic content. Some fringe groups in Malaysia flatly oppose Chinese- and Tamil-language education. In October a gaggle of pro-Malay groups, who had gathered for a conference they called the “Malay Dignity Congress”, argued that both should cease.
The government has backtracked a little. It has reduced the amount of Jawi content in its planned new curriculum and said that schools will not have to teach it unless a majority of pupils’ parents decide that they should. But that has not placated the irate school boards—and their continued resistance has in turn enraged some pro-Malay firebrands. In late December police told Dong Jiao Zong, an educational association that champions the interests of Chinese students, that it could not convene a meeting to discuss the controversy. Some pro-Malay groups had been planning to turn up in protest. The authorities appeared to be worried that violence would result.
Mr Maszlee’s resignation may help cool the debate. Among other blunders, he had failed to convince sceptics that there was no hidden agenda behind the Jawi reform—that there was, to repeat a Malay idiom, no “prawn behind the rock”. He is the first cabinet member to step down since Pakatan Harapan (PH), the multi-ethnic ruling coalition, won power at a general election in 2018. The hope was that PH would do a better job of handling these kinds of tensions than the unsavoury, long-lived government it toppled. Instead it seems to be emboldening the quarrelsome.
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Enthusiasm for an archaic script frightens Malaysia’s minorities”