‘Khat’ in the middle: Calligraphy or needs-based aid?


If we waste goodwill arguing about calligraphy, we won’t have any left for the things that really matter.

IN the era of Donald Trump, Brexit and more, perhaps the most important lesson we should take to heart is that politics is based more on emotion than ever before.

If politics today were based on reason, merit or demonstrated results, Trump would not get elected. If it were based on rational economic reasoning, Britain would probably Bremain, not Brexit.

But politics today is not based on reason.

We tend to form strong emotional responses to the news and the world around us based less on the details and context of what is actually happening, and more based on our own entrenched worldviews and pre-existing opinions.

This situation is aggravated by the manner in which social media now allows us to live completely in echo chambers where we surround ourselves only with people who think like us, resulting in less and less meaningful exposure to different views and opinions.

How does this apply to the khat (Jawi calligraphy) controversy?

My sense is that there are many Malaysians who are hypersensitive and are generally inclined towards finding many things associated with being Malay or Muslim odious in some way.

This of course is symptomatic of decades upon decades of a race-based political system, and how this system has poisoned the sociopolitical fabric of Malaysia, making everything about race.

In this system, people are trained and incentivised to view everything as a chess piece in an eternal battleground of some zero-sum racial game.

Introducing khat to school is thus interpreted as the “enemy” gaining “territory” at the expense of “our territory”.

I put so many quote marks in the preceding sentence because I personally really do not believe in constantly seeing the world this way.

I like to think I am not a naive person. I am sure there are people in this country who really do want to do some sort of racial/ religious “internal colonisation”. I’m sure there are even some such people embedded deep in the civil service and such (but for the love of God, please don’t use this as an excuse to overuse the term “deep state”).

Acknowledging they exist however is a far cry from saying they are a majority, or are the ones calling the shots.

I think it is reasonable to say that this is merely my opinion, and that I could be wrong. There are many possible realities, and most mortals like us will never really get a scientifically verifiable answer.

In absence of such, we basically have to choose a version of reality to believe in.

I think this is an exceedingly important choice – and a severely underrated one at that.

In this particular case, we can posit two ends of a spectrum, as far as versions of reality to believe go.

On one end of the spectrum, we can choose to believe that introducing khat is part of a grand conspiracy to make everything in Malaysia more and more Malay (at the expense of other cultural identities), and pave the way for the total Islamisation of Malaysia (at the expense of other religions).

On the other end of the spectrum, we can look at the 40 minutes in one year of a Year Four child’s life spent learning khat as nothing more whatsoever than an exercise in aesthetic appreciation and interesting cultural exposure.

You don’t have to be on either extreme end of the spectrum, but I believe leaning towards one side or the other has important repercussions for the Malaysia that each and every one of us is responsible for moulding.

If we choose to see everything as a zero-sum game, living in constant fear of Islamisation – and thus decide to rally and fight back virulently against khat – then we ourselves are the ones perpetuating racial and religious strife and division, playing right into the hands of those who want this kind of “holy war”.

The playground excuse of “but they started it!” just isn’t going to cut it here. A number of well-worn clichés apply: you can’t fight fire with fire, and an eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind.

Alternatively, if non-Malays take the line saying: “Hey, this is only 40 minutes of a child’s 11 years of education, learning all of six Jawi characters; let’s celebrate this as an opportunity for intercultural exposure”, then we have taken the first step towards breaking the cycle of distrust and hate.

Who knows, maybe that first step eventually leads one day to students also being taught Chinese characters or Tamil arricuvati (script) in class as well.

Some of the non-Malay reaction to khat has been accurately compared to the Malay reaction to the issue of UEC (ed Examination Certificate) recognition, or to the issue of Chinese calligraphy being hung in the office of the Finance Minister.

Malaysians, trained so well by the Barisan Nasional system to think racially, keep using issues like khat and the UEC to be proxies in a zero-sum “race war”.

If you leave behind this past prejudice and study the issue closely, you will likely see how much of a non-issue UEC recognition would be. UEC students study both the Malay language and Malaysian history, and recognising the UEC is not going to suddenly result in the Chinese invading and taking over the civil service.

In exactly the same way, 40 minutes of khat isn’t going to turn your child into a Malay or a Muslim.

If you take a combative stance because you feel that it will, or are just triggered into feeling offended, all you do is start an arms race about ... well, race.

In the Trump era, it is common for Americans to get as politically fired up over issues like gay marriage as they do over issues like healthcare.

This is something of a slight oddity, if we take a purely logical analytical lens. Whether or not gays get married seldom has a very direct impact on anyone’s life (especially in say, any kind of economic sense); what kind of healthcare system a nation has however, literally impacts just about everyone.

In Malaysia, we could perhaps make a similar comparison between khat and a needs-based system of economic aid, as opposed to a race-based one.

Choosing between these two systems could quite literally be the most important issue related to institutional racism in Malaysia.

This matter was once again recently raised by PKR president Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, who has long campaigned on this issue. He got some unexpected support in this issue from tycoon Tun Daim Zainuddin.

The approach is simple. Imagine four individuals: a rich Malay, a poor Malay, a rich non-Malay, and a poor non-Malay.

Under a race-based system of aid, both of the Malays qualify for government aid, while neither of the non-Malays qualify.

Under a needs-based system of aid, both of the poor people qualify for government aid, while neither of the rich people qualify.

Shouldn’t this type of reform be at the front and centre of the national debate? Why is it that a glance at the headlines will show instead that the khat issue is getting twice as much (if not more) attention than the question of transitioning to needs-based aid?

Between this and the gay marriage vs. healthcare analogy, it is obvious that we live in an era of emotive politics where the more “visual” and colorful and issue is (think calligraphy versus economic aid), the easier it will capture public imagination.

So, vivid issues like khat will always be more likely to touch off racial nerves.

That said, each of us can and should play a part to remind one another that hey, sometimes there are indeed other larger issues that we can focus on. And maybe by not spending capital on small things that we shouldn’t sweat, we can use that capital and goodwill to advocate for things that really matter.

NATHANIEL TAN is a consultant specialising in impactful communication and navigating public perception. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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