ASEAN Beat

School Curriculum Changes Ramp up Racial Tensions in Malaysia

Outrage erupts from Malaysia’s minorities as the government tries to add Arabic calligraphy to the primary school curriculum.

By Marcus Tantau for
School Curriculum Changes Ramp up Racial Tensions in Malaysia
Credit: Flickr/briontan

The Malaysian government’s policy to include Arabic calligraphy into the country’s primary school curriculum has caused racial tensions to flare after vernacular educationalist groups forewarned of encroaching Islamization.

This issue first bubbled to the fore when the Ministry of Education announced on August 2 that it would include the Islamic Khat writing script into the primary education curriculum.

Almost immediately, representatives from Malaysia’s vernacular educationalist groups such as Dong Zong questioned the motivations behind the policy, suggesting it was more about proselytizing Islam than improving the Bahasa Malaysia of vernacular school students.

This policy is regarded as a sensitive topic in Malaysia because of the longstanding debate on the existence and autonomy of vernacular schools, which opponents see as a barrier to minority group assimilation and integration. Proponents of the system see the schools, which predominantly serve Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese and Tamil minority groups, as a way to protect minority languages and culture.

On August 8, Malaysia’s Cabinet attempted to move past this issue by declaring its support for the Education Ministry’s policy.

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While this endorsement sought to steamroll over the seething malcontent within Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese and Tamil communities, the announcement had the opposite effect and only emboldened their opposition.

The Democratic Action Party (DAP), a coalition partner within the ruling Pakatan Harapan government, received the brunt of this anger for failing to stand up for the interests of its predominantly Chinese constituents. The party’s ethnic Chinese grassroots members and Dong Zong attacked the party’s leadership for supporting the policy in Cabinet.

These groups were furious at DAP because it prioritized the Khat policy ahead of a policy recognizing the high school certificates of vernacular schools, which was a key election promise outlined in the Pakatan Harapan manifesto.

The pressure for DAP to act moved even higher when a number of the party’s MPs broke rank and began speaking out publicly against the policy. With pressure on DAP approaching a critical mass, the party’s support of the policy weakened due to concern that the issue would negatively impact its future electability.

Finance Minister and leading DAP figure Lim Guan Eng sought to avoid this outcome by calling on the Cabinet to conduct yet another review of the policy.

Luckily for DAP, after a Cabinet meeting on August 14, the party secured a better than expected result. It was decided that the Khat calligraphy lessons would be scrapped and Jawi script would be taught instead. Furthermore, these lessons would take up only three pages of the Bahasa Malaysia textbook and would not be subject to any form of formal assessment.

Perhaps the biggest concession secured by DAP was that inclusion of Jawi script lessons into the primary school curriculum would be at the discretion of each vernacular school’s Parent Teacher Association.

While this outcome seems to have allowed DAP to avoid further backlash, the clear winner from this debacle is Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and his pro-Malay Bersatu party.

By pushing ahead with this issue Mahathir has won some serious political capital among ethnic Malay voters for promulgating Islamic and Malay culture at the expense of DAP.

However, labeling Dong Zong as “racist” and accusing it of only standing up for the interests of Chinese Malaysians saw Mahathir widely criticized for recasting this issue as a debate on race rather than education.

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This signals to voters that even the internal dynamics of the Pakatan Harapan coalition are not immune from race politics.

DAP has clearly lost the most over this issue after having its obligation to racial diversity publicly undermined. Nevertheless, DAP seems to have avoided any longstanding damage to its electability, despite losing face in the eyes some of its constituents. These events have taught the party that it will need to be more pragmatic in the future and speak up on issues important to its base. Any failure to achieve this will see DAP’s support base slowly wither and reduce its ability to act as a key political player in Malaysian politics.

As tensions around this issue have already begun to settle, it is hard not to ask: Why would such a divisive issue be thrust into the broader political debate when the fallout risks negatively affecting the cohesion of the Pakatan Harapan government? Furthermore, why would Mahathir seek to drag the issue into a debate on race and alienate Malaysia’s minority groups in the process?

While these are all important questions, it is unlikely that the political machinations behind this issue will reveal themselves anytime soon.

What is clear is that race politics is no longer confined to the political playbook of opposition parties UMNO and PAS.

After weaving its way into the Pakatan Harapan government, race politics is more likely than ever to become a prominent facet of the Malaysian political landscape.

Marcus Tantau is a political analyst based in Jakarta, Indonesia.