(Photo: EPA)

Khat. The word that has been used a lot in the last week or so. Even though some of us probably heard of this word for the first time this weekend.

In case you're not in the loop yet, basically there's a huge debate on whether or not the art of khat (a form of calligraphy writing based on Jawi) should be introduced in national schools, including Chinese schools (SJKC) Tamil national schools (SJKT) next year. 

Some crucial facts of the matter and to put things into perspective:

1. The Ministry of Education (MOE) is not introducing khat as a new subject
As the issue is at its infancy stage (since it only gained attention recently), I think many are still not aware that it will be introduced as part of the Bahasa Melayu subject. And the MOE will not be assessing students on their mastery of the art.

2. Unless you've been following the issue closely, you might not know that the introduction of khat covers only 6 pages Somehow it's not reported enough but word should travel further as the days goes by. Khat will be introduced to students in Standard 4, in the new book which reportedly comprises of 162 pages for 24 chapters. Out of this 162 pages, khat lessons will take up to six pages - that's about less than 4%. The Malaysian Insight said in its report today that that the proposed draft which is still yet to be finalised, has a section on khat with "two aims – to show pupils how Jawi is used in Bahasa Melayu and to impart the values behind the terms." 

I believe the issue got nationwide attention after the MOE released an official statement about the matter on 2 August. It was said that the ministry had to respond to the matter allegedly because certain Chinese press were making a big deal out of it and using to fear-monger. Also interesting to note, that Dong Zong and Jiao Zong — the two major Chinese education associations (collectively known as Dong Jiao Zong) who are at the forefront of the protest against the implementation of khat alongside some members of political parties like DAP, MCA, and Gerakan — have come forward and slammed reports by Sin Chew and Utusan that claimed that they were going to organise a rally to stage a protest.

There are three major camps right now, I think.

1. Those who worry about cultural assimilation 
There have been claims that this implementation is a subtle attempt at Islamisation. Though to this, the MOE and various parties including experts have dismissed claims that khat was related to religion or Quranic teaching.

2. Supporters said this would deepen the next generation's appreciation for Jawi, which is part of Malaysia's identity and history

Many pointed out that Malaysians had no issue with Jawi, as old signboards are here to remind us how the society had been decades ago. With their express of support, they have also dismissed claims of assimilation. Even DAP adviser Lim Kit Siang, who taught himself Jawi when he was first detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) in 1996, concurs that learning khat did not make him "any less of a Chinese, and may have helped in making him more of a Malaysian".

3. Opposers asked what sort of policy is this and how does it help in nurturing the next generation
There's a segment of the public that have questioned what is the priority of the MOE, often bringing up how implementations like this would help to equip kids to be prepared to face the challenges of Industrial Revolution 4.0.

Basically, we just need to refer to the official statement from the MOE to see where all this is coming from. It's pretty clear:
  • Plan for its introduction had been implemented through a review of the curriculum since 2014 (when PH was still not government yet)
  • The goal of introducing of khat as it is an integral part of Malaysia’s national identity and Bahasa Melayu, which is the national language and the language of unity
  • The MOE is committed to building a Malaysia which is well-versed in the nation's traditions
Perhaps if the issue was coding and not khat, then whole situation would be entirely different? By the way, coding is set to be taught to Standard 4, 5, and 6 students from next year.

Anyway, Prime Minister Mahathir has pretty much shut down everyone (mainly critics) by saying that the decision to introduce khat is final. So I guess, case closed? Or not.

Let's get this straight. The MOE has always been rocked and dented by political interference. Did anyone keep up with the number of times the syllabi and the medium of instruction have been changed? I've lost count myself.

Here's the conundrum: What is education to you? I personally think this whole issue has been blown out of proportion but let's take this as an opportunity for us to discuss whether indeed the new government is setting things in motion to ensure that we, as a nation, are going towards the right direction - this begs the question: what is the vision and mission of the MOE?

For Finland, a country that often dominates the top rank in the world’s education competitiveness, it's clear that their main goal is equity over excellence through a holistic teaching environment. On the other hand, our neighbours in Singapore is known for their merit-based system and reputed for producing high-flying achievers, though it is not without criticism.

What about Malaysia?

We need answers, clear directions. And most importantly, get. the. word. out. Yes, these information of plans and implementations might be accessible here and there, but let's be real here: how many Malaysians would actually care enough to find out themselves?

The people in power need to communicate effectively, aggressively. The government has changed but the polarised atmosphere of Malaysia hasn't. We have to admit that one of the reasons this khat issue has gotten so much attention is because for far too long, many policies have been viewed racially, religiously. This is no different. 

The public is anxious that what they consider to be pressing matters of schools have yet to be addressed. Even if these legacy issues were actually being addressed, then the MOE is certainly doing a lousy job in PR because these reforms or plans are not getting the attention that they deserve.

Special officers to the Education Minister, and those working directly with the MOE can go on talking about wanting to make changes, the plans in place, the challenges and difficulties, and everything else... but the fact is when people don't even see the results - even if it's already done - then, what's the point? I'm not dismissing their effort, but the reality is, the MOE is constantly under the scrutiny of the media and the public, and is definitely part of the game of politics. It's the battle of public perception.

I digress. 

We'll forget about this issue and move on the next soon, but how many times do we have to go through this?