On August 8, the Malaysian government announced that khat (Jawi calligraphy) will be an optional elective for Chinese and Tamil vernacular schools, after an earlier decision for it to be taught to all Standard Four students had provoked an outcry from non-Malay groups.
What does the episode tell us about Malaysia?
It is often half-jokingly said that while political controversies in Singapore are diminished into technocratic matters, in Malaysia by contrast, anything, however minor, can be whipped up into a political frenzy.
In the case of Singapore, settling the matter and moving on is an approach that is very much in sync with its corporate-state nature and its legalistic style of governance.
In Malaysia, the failure since independence to reach broad consensus on what type of nation is being built has dragged on for so long that no issue is too small that it cannot be cogently politicised and sensationalised.
Racialism and cynicism have become second nature to most Malaysians, and distrust comes to them much more easily than trust does, or giving someone the benefit of the doubt, for that matter.
Read also: Dr M wrong to call Chinese education group Dong Zong ‘racist’ over khat issue: DAP lawmakers
The fact that mass media outlets are often tied to political parties does not make things any better. And racialism in Malaysia should really not always be blamed on the multi-ethnic nature of the country’s population but more on the continuous and effective politicising of that very nature.
In that unhappy context, over time, disagreement over language use in schools and over school curricula have become very touchy and protracted issues.
What so many of the Pakatan Harapan leaders have had to experience since they took federal power in May 2018 is how easily public opinion is swayed — and how little trust in officialdom there is in general. That is the legacy they inherit, and in many cases have helped inculcate as well.
Read also: Opponents of teaching khat art are ‘descendants of colonialists’: PAS president
The populist nature of Malaysian politics also makes people in power highly sensitive and responsive to any show of dissent.
While being responsive to public opinion is a good thing, bypassing proper technocratic channels places politicians in the frontline immediately — and it is a position they probably like to take, or feel that they need to take as a show of leadership.
When controversies that should be handled by civil servants and technocrats get fronted by politicians, not only does a verbal battle begin; the status and credibility of the public service suffer and the professionalism of civil servants is sidelined.
Read also: News analysis: A ‘new Malaysia’ but same old racial, religious divide
The khat controversy should be considered within the wider political culture presented above. It is a good example of much that is wrong with Malaysian politics.
The reforms that the PH government has promised should in fact include the reinforcing of mechanisms that make state building more important than nation building. To be fair, this government has taken some such measures, for example in the choice of some of its top officials.
But it remains to be articulated that the professionalism of the public service, and the responsibility of top public servants should be returned to them as a matter of policy — and a matter of course.
Read also: The intractable politics of race in Malaysia
Most of the time, the running of institutions lies with administrators and their experts. And even in cases where policy is involved, politicians are supposed to have acted based on information and facts provided by their advisors and by the civil service.
Therefore, when Sin Chew Daily decided to politicise a minor change from next year in the curriculum of 10-year-olds where khat is introduced to students four times a year for 10 minutes each time within the Bahasa Melayu syllabus, a political crisis developed overnight for the ruling coalition.
Letting the officials involved answer queries should have sufficed, and politicians would have done well to refer the press to these officials.
But the culture of immediate response runs so deep in Malaysia that all sides require the politicians to respond, treating the matter as a policy decision of deep consequence, regardless of whether that is the case or not.
It can also be safely said that much disinformation and much misunderstandings — and many face-saving statements — get made and get reported within such a knee-jerky culture.
Much time is then wasted on rectifying these, but with emotional damage done nevertheless — and distrust strengthened — which goes on to fuel more sensationalism in the immediate future.
The khat furore highlighted other social cleavages which are potentially dangerous and divisive, such as the fair question about why Chinese calligraphy is fine but not Jawi calligraphy.
To non-Malays, given the country’s trend of Islamisation and Arabisation of recent times, their deep suspicion that Islamists constantly attempt to undermine the multicultural path of the country is strengthened.
To Malays, in turn, the fact that making Malaysian children aware of the existence of khat — even merely to a basic extent — appears objectionable to non-Malays, smacks of racism and paranoia.
Thus, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has described Dong Zong, the United Chinese School Committees’ Association which objected to the introduction of khat, as being racist on the basis that it has never agreed with national education policies.
What should be learned from this storm in a teacup is that such storms can grow to typhoon strength, and that Malaysia in its introvertedness is really more of a giant teacup than Malaysians like to think.
To break this unhealthy trend, the public service has to be held to greater public accountability, and the professionalism of public servants more respected and enhanced, by the public, by the politicians and by the mass media.
In turn, the public needs to learn that not everything is political, not everything that happens hides a political agenda, and not everything that one reads in the public domain is true enough to require a response.