By Kuik Cheng Kang, Sin Chew Daily
Since it is fad to make revelations nowadays, I would like to tell several little stories here with the hope they can help bring on the truth.
When I first learned that someone accused Chinese newspapers of misinterpreting the learning of Jawi as the government attempting to "Islamize the Chinese people", hence making the issue controversial, I couldn't help but giggle.
Is it really that hard to tell the difference between "Seni Khat" and Jawi writing?
In the 2019 Jawi incident, several Pakatan Harapan ministers complained in the cabinet meeting that Sin Chew Daily was cooking up the issue, and had repeatedly urged then prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir to summon me and take action against the newspaper.
Tun M, nevertheless, didn't do anything. Later, education minister Maszlee Malik invited me to his office for a nasi lemak breakfast. I brought along a whole stack of newspaper clippings to share with the minister how Sin Chew Daily had carried news on Jawi.
The dialogue was a very pleasant one, and the minister and his secretary team got to know more about Sin Chew's editorial policy from it.
Chinese newspapers, including Sin Chew Daily, are one of the three major pillars of the Malaysian Chinese community, the other two being Chinese associations and Chinese language education.
Hailing from the local Chinese community, it is absolutely justifiable for Sin Chew Daily to voice up and serve the community. We will never forget where we came from nor do anything that would betray the community, less so to de-Chinese ourselves.
The efforts Sin Chew Daily has put in to serve the Malaysian Chinese community will not be an obstacle to us striving to promote greater solidarity among Malaysians. We do not have to dilute our Chineseness. In its stead, we press on with our mission to strengthen interracial harmony and understanding by introducing special new columns such as "Warm Power" and "Kita".
In 2019, we worked with Sinar Harian for the first time to launch the #kitalahMalaysia National Day campaign with the hope such an intercommunity initiative could help bring Malaysians from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds closer together.
In other words, exploiting racial and religious issues has never once made it to Sin Chew's editorial policy.
I thought things should come to a close after that meeting with minister Maszlee.
Then, youth and sports minister Syed Saddiq suddenly informed us he wished to visit us. We thought it was just going to be another usual visit, only to find out later that he came also because of the Jawi issue.
I told the young minister everything about Sin Chew Daily's reports on this issue right from the very start, so that he could get a better picture of the newspaper's editorial policy.
Like Maszlee, he also listened to me very attentively, trying to understand why the Chinese community was so concerned about "Seni Khat". They were also shocked to discover a severe lack of communication between PH's Chinese ministers and Sin Chew Daily.
I reiterated that the local Chinese community had nothing against the Jawi script per se, but the "mandatory" learning of it, and that they were also worried about the content of the original version of "Seni Khat" and did not want that to add to their children's already heavy learning burden.
Almost two years now, DAP's political education director Liew Chin Tong wrote in his new book Lim Kit Siang: Patriot. Leader. Fighter: "July 2019, a Chinese newspaper (he was actually referring to Sin Chew Daily) unexpectedly reported on its front cover alleging that some teachers were sent for training to learn about teaching the six pages of Jawi calligraphy so that they can teach Chinese and Tamil primary schools Year 4 students when the 2020 academic year starts."
Liew pointed out that local Chinese newspapers back then were talking about this issue, treating Jawi calligraphy as another language the students had to learn, without realizing that the module was just an introduction for students to learn about and appreciate the value of Jawi calligraphy, adding that it was distorted by Chinese newspapers as a government attempt to "Islamize Chinese Malaysians".
The module initially intended to be introduced by the education ministry at Chinese and Tamil primary schools was "Seni Khat" or Jawi calligraphy. However, owing to strong opposition from the Chinese community, the cabinet subsequently modified the module from "Seni Khat" to "Tulisan Jawi" or writing of Jawi script, and ruled that it would only be implemented with prior consent from the parent-teacher associations of SJKs, students as well as their parents.
Back then Tun Mahathir indeed admitted that Jawi calligraphy was associated with Islam.
In my article in this column dated August 15, 2019, I quoted the views of MCCBCHST (Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism) that "Khat" was indeed an Arabic script closely related to the Islamic faith and was used to write Koranic verses and the Prophet's edicts. The council was of the opinion that it could be contravening the Federal Constitution Article 12(3) on the rights of non-Muslims, to include Khat in the Bahasa Malaysia curriculum, because it lets the believers of other faiths to come into contact with Khat.
The US Institute of Global Politics and Cross-Cultural Research Professor Azri Rahman, originally from Johor Bahru, said Khat is an Islamic writing script used to promote the Holy Koran, meaning Khat has a strong Islamic overtone, while Jawi is a culture with less marked religious connotation, significance and usage.
Yayasan Dakwah Islamiah Malaysia (YADIM) chairman Nik Omar Nik Abdul Aziz explicitly expressed his support for the government's effort to introduce Jawi writing and Seni Khat to students in a bid to "enhance the understanding of the Jawi script and Arabic culture in the young generation so that they can learn and understand Koran and then put it in daily practice."
I told the two PH ministers that I used to attend a briefing by the home ministry's Koranic publication committee, and was told that newspapers were not allowed to publish Khat used to write Koranic verses, and even a picture with such script behind the minister had to be masked. The official explained that the newspaper could be stepped on by people if it happened to fall on the floor, or be used to wrap things, which would taint the sanctity of Islam.
This shows that Seni Khat which is used to write the Prophet's edicts is related to Islam and is something sanctified to the Malay community.
As such, there was nothing wrong for Sin Chew Daily to take the lead in carrying this piece of news. Moreover, we were only reporting it based on the latest announcements made by the education ministry. We never spiced it up in an attempt to incite the sentiments of the local Chinese community.
It was headlined on the cover of Sin Chew Daily on July 24, 2019: Sin Chew Daily learned that Seni Khat would be incorporated into the BM curriculum in the second stage of SJKs (Year 4 to 6 Chinese and Tamil primary schools) beginning next year in a bid to enhance the students' interest in and appreciation of Jawi calligraphy."
The news was written based on the revised and enhanced SJK Year 4 BM curriculum under the Standard Based Curriculum for Primary Schools (KSSR) issued by the education ministry's curriculum development committee in April 2018, with the inclusion of quotes from some SJK BM teachers attending the training course.
At the end of the article, I mentioned that local Chinese educationists were alarmed by the latest policy of the education ministry, and hoped the ministry would provide a clear explanation on this matter.
After such a piece of news reported based on the facts was published, DAP as a component of the sitting government should have tried to understand and allay the fears of the local Chinese community instead of putting all the blame on Sin Chew Daily and telling the Chinese people not to get unnecessarily alarmed.
The PH government later slashed the six pages of Seni Khat to only three pages of introduction to Jawi writing, showing that the government was itself aware that the initial six pages were not appropriate for introduction to the country's non-Muslim communities.
On the Seni Khat issue, Sin Chew Daily and other local Chinese media organizations have remained consistently loyal to their commitment in reporting nothing but the truth. As for what some of the politicians said and did, we just need to browse through social media comments to get an idea how the Malaysian public perceive of them.
History tells us that we leave traces of ourselves wherever we go. And this couldn't have been more true!