WHEN I was in secondary school, I enjoyed the craft of khat and often participated in extracurricular competitions associated with it. Although much of what I composed were Quranic scripts fashioned in intricate and hypnotic permutations, what motivated me more was the opportunity for artistic expression, rather than nascent religious fervour.
Khat offered a respite from an educational experience that predominantly emphasised and valued science instead of the arts. I was, after all, a student in one of the many ‘science schools’, which the government had set up as part of the national development strategy.
I excavate this personal anecdote as a way to reflect on the current polarised debate about the introduction of khat as part of the Bahasa Melayu curriculum in standard 4 of primary schools beginning 2020.
The Education Ministry has framed khat as part of language arts in Bahasa Melayu, alongside poetry, songs and storytelling. Contrary to public outrage, khat will not be introduced as a standalone subject, and it will not be assessed in examinations.
The minister has also expressed willingness to consider other forms of calligraphy to reflect the multicultural landscape of Malaysia.
In the wake of this decision, which is a continuation of the broader curriculum review exercise since 2014, the public discourse on education in Malaysia Baru has pivoted wildly in multiple directions.
Is this yet another attempt to exert Malay-Islam hegemony onto Malaysians? Is this symptomatic of the creeping Arabisation in the country? Will this undermine the integrity of vernacular schools?
What most captured my attention is this line of argument, mainly adopted by the progressive, cosmopolitan middle-class: Why should the ministry focus on something ‘impractical’ and ‘outdated’ as khat or jawi when we should be addressing our declining standard of English and the waning interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), the inevitable challenges of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (IR 4.0) and our substandard performance in large-scale international assessments such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)?
How does this decision support our journey to become a globally competitive, high-income, ‘first world’ nation?
The concerns are collectively tied to Malaysia’s ‘growing pains’ in development. They reflect the kind of vibrant discussions that confront a nation at a turning point in its trajectory of development, when there is sufficient prosperity to entertain such discourses.
However, in relation to the personal anecdote I shared at the beginning, I would like to focus specifically on the concern of the progressive, cosmopolitan middle-class. I would have taken a similar position, seeing myself as a member of this club, though perhaps I will soon be disowned.
What has shifted my thinking is the current experience of undertaking doctoral studies, which trains me to interrogate the assumptions we hold about ‘development’ and the kind of knowledge and education that we value in imagining, as well as pursuing, the ‘good life’.
I recently attended a summer school called ‘Epistemologies of the South’. The proponent of this movement, the sociology scholar Boaventura de Sousa Santos, argues that “the dominant criteria of valid knowledge in Western modernity, by failing to acknowledge as valid kinds of knowledge other than those produced by modern science, brought about a massive epistemicide, that is to say, the destruction of an immense variety of ways of knowing”.
The production (and destruction) of such knowledge is located in the ‘South’, such as Malaysia, slapped with the label of ‘developing country’ according to development standards largely determined and manifested in the West.
I echo the worry of a pool of Malaysian scholars and activists engaged in the struggle to defend khat, jawi, and even Bahasa Melayu against the tides of modernity. I fear that our relentless pursuit of development, which necessitates an education characterised by the monumentalisation of English, STEM, IR 4.0 and PISA above all else, will lead to the epistemicide described by Santos.
It seems that the wilful self-immolation helmed by the modern, progressive, cosmopolitan middle-class in Malaysia reflects the uncritical, unquestioning acceptance of a particular way to be ‘developed’.
Under this assumption, education must first and foremost prepare our children for an inevitable, deterministic reality of modernity as previously described. Antiquated, ‘useless’ knowledge such as khat has no business in that pursuit.
This is not a reality that I will accept. Santos highlights a future where all societies are in the position to “represent the world as their own, in their own terms”, rather than surrender to the whims of the West couched as ‘development’.
We must not forget that reality is not something that simply happens to us; rather we play a part in shaping our reality in hybrid with what can appear to be overwhelming forces of globalisation.
If we truly aspire to become developed “dalam acuan kita sendiri” (in our own mould), we must pause to consider the necessity for education to reflect the fundamental virtues of our National Education Philosophy.
Nowhere does the philosophy espouse the primacy of the economy, competitiveness, or aspirations to become ‘first world’.
Rather, the lofty ideals that we aspire should include notions of the holistic and balanced, of well-being and responsibility.
It is our collective responsibility to protect the unique, multicultural knowledge and ways of knowing in our shared national story from epistemicide. Such knowledge enriches our well-being rather than impoverish us; much like it did to me when I was in secondary school many years ago.
If the Education Ministry is committed to this effort — which should extend beyond Bahasa Melayu to other markers of Malaysian culture and heritage, then as citizens of Malaysia Baru, actively shaping our own reality, we should lend our support.
The writer is a PhD student in Education and Clarendon-New College scholar, University of Oxford