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Published: Sunday February 19, 2012 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Friday May 24, 2013 MYT 11:50:01 PM

Put some pop into Jawi

Young people say that they would be interested in Jawi if it is fun and cool, or come in useful later.

PICK me”, “I love you” and “Forever yours” all common signs at any pop concert. But don't be surprised if you cannot read these fan messages at any of the K-pop shows that come to town most of the glittery posters would be written in the foreign script of Hangul (Korean alphabet)!

It is also no longer strange to hear Malaysian teens spewing the odd Korean word or two, with many queueing to learn the language in the courses that have mushroomed in the country in the last few years.

That is the power of popular culture, and the might of Korean Pop has spread far and wide.

It is thus ironic to hear a Korean Malay language scholar throwing the gauntlet to young Malaysians to pick up the traditional Malay script of Jawi.

Warning of its possible death knell unless interest in it is revived, Pusan University's Prof Kang Kyoung Seok recently implored Malaysians to protect their “one-of-a-kind asset”.

The guest scholar at the Sultan Idris University of Education (UPSI) in Tanjung Malim even compared Jawi to Hangul saying both are the “identity” of the respective peoples.

Unfortunately, for many teens here, Hangul wins their vote over Jawi any time.

One is Darren Koh who says he would definitely go for Korean if given a choice.

“But the fees to learn Korean here are high. So, I'm depending on movies and songs to learn.”

Ashwin Tiwana, 13, thinks learning Korean will be fun.

“If I can learn another script/language, it would be Korean because I already know how to speak a few Hindi and Chinese words. Korean would be so cool to learn.”

Less use

True to the borderless nature of their world, learning scripts that would help them in their studies or career in the future, as well as enjoy “fun” activities such as travelling, take priority for many of the young people.

It is no shocker that other than Korean, Japanese and Chinese rule among Malaysian teens.

Natashya Khoo, 17, sees the Japanese culture as “so rich”.

“Exploring a language opens up a whole new culture and I want to get into that (Japanese culture). I can write Chinese, and Kanji is apparently easier to learn because of it. Plus, it's cool to tell people that you can speak many languages.”

Muhammad Farid Taqiuddin Zulkifly, who sees the cultural value of Jawi, also wants to learn Japanese.

“I think Jawi actually symbolises the Malay identity and Jawi is a precious thing that needs to be sustained.

“But since I want to continue my studies in Japan, I would rather learn the Japanese's kanji along with the Hiragana and Katakana. I've always fancied the Japanese culture, and it will be special to use it on a daily basis,” he raves.

Cheng Ju Mei, who is currently learning Turkish, puts Chinese next on his to-learn list.

“I would definitely want to learn another script. I've never attempted learning languages which are not in the Roman alphabet. I am ashamed to say that I do not know how to write in Chinese despite being fluent speaking it,” he says.

“I'd say if I really want to learn another script, it would be Chinese. Did you know that it's one of the world's most difficult languages to learn?”

Although Chan Lye May thinks learning Jawi wouldn't be bad, she too prefers Korean or Japanese.

“There's no harm in learning more languages, it expands our horizons and we'll be able to understand other cultures better. It'll certainly come in handy when we venture overseas for holidays or for further studies. So why not? Any script or language is fine with me.”

Sherlynn Lim agrees there is no harm in learning an extra language and new script.

“Why not? It'll make things easier when travelling to a different country, especially Japan or Korea as they don't really understand English much. Besides, it'll be really cool to get to speak different kinds of language or script.”

Tan Kar Can picks Italian or Spanish.

“Learning another language can help me to communicate with more people, know more about their cultures and countries.”

Jawi is indeed last, if it is even on the list of many young people, but can you blame them, asks local Jawi expert Dr Ding Choo Ming.

Although there have been various efforts to promote Jawi among the young, many are still not interested, he says.

“The main reason, I think, is because it is not used in the mass media these days and there is no pop culture or fun element in it, unlike Korean or Japanese. There is also less economic value in the script, so many young people are not compelled to learn it,” he adds.

Ironically, it was for the same reason he got interested in Bahasa Melayu studies and mastered Jawi when he was younger, Dr Ding recalls.

“I used to listen to the radio all the time Malay literature and culture was big in the popular culture then. Of course, Jawi was also more in use then, and we had Jawi paper,” says the 50-something Sitiawan local who studied in a Chinese school.

Crucially, he adds, there was more economic value in it.

“Now Jawi is consigned to academia and cultural events. So, you cannot compare Jawi to the Korean script.”

He believes that is the big difference between the Korean script and Jawi in Korea, it is the main script and Korean is the main language. In Malaysia, while Bahasa has an important role, the Romanised version is more in use than the Jawi version, and other languages like English, Chinese and Tamil are widely used.

“There is too much competition even for Bahasa, what more Jawi. Last time, Bahasa Melayu was only in Jawi. It depends on the demand of the market,” argues the principal research fellow at the Institute of the Malay World and Civilisation (Atma) of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.

An indication of its reduced demand and lessening economic value is the end of the Jawi Utusan Melayu.

“It went out of print in 2006, because as the then chief editor Johan Jaaffar said, it made no economic sense. The demand was not high enough to make it possible for them to publish the paper without a loss. In fact, according to him, as the circulation was only 8,000, their loss ranged from RM8,000 to RM10,000 a day.”

Today, the Information, Communications, and Culture Ministry is sponsoring a weekly Jawi pullout which is sold with the main paper.

“The interesting point he (Johan) made, even way back then, was that without the young's support, we would have to stop the paper soon, once this current older generation (who read Jawi) is gone,” tells Dr Ding.

One would also need to look at the historical and cultural contexts of the two scripts, he adds.

According to the Korean Overseas Information Service, Hangul was created by King Sejong in 1446 to replace the Chinese script used by the intelligentsia of the country.

With its foreign origin, the Chinese script was felt to have failed to fully express the Korean language as well as cut off a majority of the common people from knowledge.

King Sejong, a scholar himself, was adamant in creating an alphabet system that would be easily learnt to make knowledge accessible to the people. At the same time, it had to be uniquely Korean to symbolise their national identity and cultural independence.

Jawi is Bahasa Melayu in Arabic script. The spelling system, although based on the Arabic system, has been expanded to include certain Malay sounds and vowels.

Although used in the royal courts, Jawi was also widespread among the common people. However, when the British took over the country's administration and introduced the Romanised version, the people had an alternative.

“Jawi has thrived for more than 700 years, but there are too many alternatives,” says Dr Ding, who believes it is also not just about the script but also about the language and culture.

The main competition comes from English.

“Now you have to compare how much knowledge there is in English, especially with the Internet, so our young are focusing more on that,” he says.

Acknowledging the change in today's popular culture, he opines that more needs to be done to push local traditional culture in schools.

“The young should be introduced to Malay literature and exposed to the various traditional art forms, especially their literary tradition,” he says, adding that this would include Chinese, India and other ethnic cultures of Malaysia.

Syasya Aqilah is one who finds old scripts fascinating.

“I am learning Jawi and like writing jawi using a khat pencil. It shows the creative way of writing and reading something.

“I would like to learn Chinese script too because it seems hard and has a unique style of writing it. It also tells us a bit of the Chinese culture.

“Pictographic script is also a mystery if I have the chance, I would like to learn it.”

Back to school

While Prof Kang's warning is a timely reminder, the Government, as well as the country's linguists and culturalists, have long been aware of the problem. Many programmes and initiatives have been carried out under the purview of the Information, Communications and Culture Ministry and Education Ministry to promote the Jawi script to young people.

There have even been proposals to bring Jawi back to school.

Dr Ding supports the proposal, but points out that a complete overhaul of the school curriculum would be needed first.

“Where in the timetable would we put it? Just look at how heavy the schoolbags of our children are!” he laments.

The thought of the extra “subject” gives Darren the shivers.

“Given a chance, no offence, I will not take Jawi as a subject. I'm already taking more than I can chew, I cannot afford another subject. It should be the student's choice to pick up Jawi.”

Turtle Yuki-san is another who thinks that learning Jawi should be made available to those interested, but not compulsory for all.

Kaveeta Nair is also against making it compulsory. “Some people may be interested, but others may be against it.”

On the question of national identity, many feel that it would be good to include Tamil and other local ethnic scripts in the language option.

However, there may be hope yet for Jawi as there are those who relish learning the traditional script.

Kai Song Eer calls it an intriguing script. “My BM tutor says it is extremely useful for reporters to scribble down points during an interview as it's the simplest shorthand ever present. As a journalist wannabe, I would definitely want to learn this language to make my daily life easier.”

Wee Nie too finds Jawi “fascinating”. “Staring at the Sejarah textbook with its endless pictures of Jawi script, I do wonder what it means and wish that I could read it.”

Y-Gynie Yeung sees learning Jawi as a window to another culture. “You can read the stories and other texts written in Jawi. Plus, it is a bonus to finally be able to read it my friends read it, I'm the buta huruf (illiterate) fella in the gang! If I could learn all scripts I would, just to break down all language barriers and be able to communicate with everyone and anyone.”

Chloe Kong, on the other hand, sees a future benefit.

“I think that it will be interesting to learn Jawi and I would want to learn it. It may also help us in terms of communication and knowledge too because a lot of medical and scientific books are printed in Arabic in certain countries,” she says, noting that a basic knowledge in Jawi will help her learn Arabic later.

Related Stories: Wisdoms of the Malay manuscripts

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