2019 was a polarising year for Malaysia.
Our “culture war”: Malay against non-Malay, Muslim against non-Muslim – showed no sign of abating and indeed, quite frankly, was exacerbated.
One of the main bugbears has been the proposed introduction of the teaching of Jawi khat as part of the Malay-language curriculum.
This, unfortunately, has caused much controversy.
There have been passionate, even vehement, arguments for and against the move.
Certain irresponsible parties have sought and indeed, gained much political capital from it.
Jawi and our heritage
To be sure, Jawi is an important part of our national history—something that many Malaysians are not aware of.
The Pemasyhuran Kermerdekaan—our Declaration of Independence in 1957—was written exclusively in English and Jawi script for Malay with no romanised Malay version.
Ironically, many Malays today don’t understand it very well. While I can comprehend Jawi, I too do not write or read it fluently.
That’s a shame because major historical documents from our past are found in Jawi.
Most of us have heard about Sejarah Melayu (the Malay Annals) or Hikayat Hang Tuah – all manuscripts written in Jawi.
But there were other works, frequently overlooked by western orientalists as it did not fit the stereotype that all Malay literary works were purely of fantastical myths and legends.
For instance, the Taj-us Salatinmanuscript, which was composed by Bukhara al-Jauhari in 1603 Aceh. It was also known as Mahkota Segala Raja-Rajaand came out half a century before Englishman Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan was published.
This was one of the earliest documents in the world that touched on the idea of constitutional law and a social contract that was the focus of Leviathan, talking about the spiritual covenant between God and human beings, as well as relations between a ruler and his or her subjects.
Taj-us Salatin was prized in the Johor and Kedah courts as a reference to the Sultan and nobility.
Another famous work written in Jawi is Bustan-us Salatin by Nuruddin ar-Raniri, focusing on statecraft but also a pioneering book on universal history.
The Jawi issue, like it or not, is just a symptom of how badly skewered our thinking on race and religion has become—especially when one views education and language through these lenses.
The importance of Malay language
There are not a few Malaysians, both Malay and non-Malay, who feel that the national language is unimportant.
But this is a short-sighted view. Malay is not only a national but regional lingua franca.
It plugs us into the Nusantara (ie the wider maritime Southeast Asia) and is relatively easy to learn.
Singaporean government officials and politicians have spoken to me of their regret at how Malay, which is their national language, has become almost totally abandoned in their public life.
Lee Kuan Yew wrote in his memoirs: “At home, I spoke English to my parents, Baba Malay – a pidgin Malay adulterated with Chinese words – to my grandparents, and Malay with a smattering of Hokkien to my friends, the fishermen’s children.”
Lee too recalled how in the 1950s, pasarMalay was the best medium to speak in political campaigns as it was the most widely understood language in Singapore.
But today, while their national anthem and military commands are in Malay, the majority of Singaporeans can barely speak it.
This has and is robbing them of a deeper engagement with Malaysia and Indonesia, the latter being Southeast Asia’s largest economy.
The same thing mustn’t happen to us.
But that won’t happen if the market for Malay content doesn’t increase.
And there is no way for that to occur, or for Malay to become richer and less exclusively tied to one race or religion if the non-Malays themselves won’t embrace it.
Moreover, it robs them of insight into the minds of the Malay community, making the task of national integration more difficult.
Let us not forget, the Bumiputeras of Sabah and Sarawak too, while having their own languages and a huge Christian population, Malay in their interactions as well as worship.
I have made it a point to send my son to a national school, where the medium of instruction is mostly in Malay, which is his heritage.
And he still speaks to his friends in English.
Embracing mother tongue languages
Still, mother tongue education is also important. This applies to not only Malay, Mandarin and Tamil, but also the languages of the other ethnic groups.
Recent studies in southern Thailand have shown that the children there benefitted when they learnt their mother tongue from a young age, in this case, the Pattani Malay dialect.
They not only master academic subjects better, but they even become more fluent with Thai compared to children who were forced to learn everything in the Thai medium from the beginning.
The issue of minority languages weakening the status of Malay does not arise.
The vast majority of our population has at least a basic command of the Malay language, whether in the form of bahasa pasar, or regional dialects.
My point is that it is important that everyone should be able to speak Malay, and indeed, we are getting there, however haphazard the process.
But I find it rather ironic that some of the most virulent voices on this issue, including those taking a racist stance on the Jawi and Malay issues, have children who can’t speak Malay simply because of their elite status.
Upholding the national language – as well as nation-building in general – does not require and indeed, cannot happen, at the price of the humiliation or subjugation of minorities.
Knowing one another
What is needed is trust and goodwill on both sides. We need leaders who have the political will and credibility to bring it about.
My primary education was at the La Salle School of Petaling Jaya. Back then, there was (and still is) a huge cross on one of its buildings – and beneath it, the school’s name was written in Jawi.
In fact, there were crosses in each of our classrooms and no one made a fuss about it.
My father, who comes from a family of Islamic scholars, wanted his children to be able to converse in English fluently, and to mix with different races – so he ended up sending us all to mission schools.
The Islamic injunction of lita’arafu, or getting to know one another is crucial, especially in a multicultural society.
And it doesn’t mean compromising your faith, but simply that you understand the beliefs of others.
In my constituency, Setiawangsa, a surau hosted a Chinese New Year celebration last year.
This year, I hope to hold a multi-faith buka puasa with leaders from all religious communities.
It is important that all schools host more cultural programmes to foster mutual understanding.
The government should work hard to make national schools the school of choice in the medium and long run, but in the meantime encourage cross-cultural exchanges between national, vernacular, religious and even private and international schools.
The government, schools, NGOs and other bodies can play a hand in cultivating it.
If we carry on living in silos, we will end up always living in fear of one another.
Chang Lih Kang and I were privileged to meet British Muslim scholar Timothy John Winter @ Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad. He is the Dean of the Cambridge Muslim College where imams are trained with the religious knowledge then exposed to leading scholars from Cambridge University.
Then we were honoured to visit (and pray Maghrib and Isha) at Cambridge Mosque Project the world’s first modern eco mosque and Cambridge’s first purpose-built mosque. It is not open to ths public yet. Ironically they did a test Friday Prayer on the day of the Christchurch attacks and the local non Muslim community came to give flowers to the mosque.
Sheikh Hakim has been the driving force of this project. About 10 years ago he came to Malaysia and I managed to get him to speak at Masjid Tengku Kelana Jaya Petra in my old constituency and we did a fundraising for this mosque project. Interestingly non Muslims too donated in in the building of the mosque.
Alhamdulillah, we were given a preview of the mosque from the man himself.
Setiawangsa MP Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad speaks at the launch of his book ‘9 May 2018: Notes from the Frontline’ by Anwar Ibrahim.
The book is available at major bookshops and online at Youbeli.com for RM25.
9 May 2018 has now etched its place in Malaysia’s history as the day that the Barisan Nasional was finally brought down after 61 years in power. For Nik Nazmi 9 May 2018 was also a personal milestone, it was his first time standing in a general election at the federal level. At GE14 he stood for the Parliamentary seat of Setiawangsa, the only seat in Kuala Lumpur that Barisan Nasional had never lost, but in GE14 they finally did, as seats across the country swung towards Pakatan Harapan.
How did this happen? How did a coalition of parties which fell apart after GE13 manage to rebuild and take on a government willing to use all of the tools it could to hold onto power? In 9 May 2018 – Notes from the Frontline Nik Nazmi gives his behind the scenes take on the political developments in the opposition coalition from the disappointment of GE13 to the ecstasy of GE14.
Recalling the fall of the Pakatan Rakyat coalition and the founding of Pakatan Harapan he also gives first-hand experiences of the back room politics, the party conferences, the development of INVOKE, working with then former PM Mahathir Mohamad, as well as insight into the campaigns he worked on in Selangor and Setiawangsa, and in marginal seats from Perlis to Sabah.
More than anything 9 May 2018 – Notes from the Frontline is a first-hand account of what it was like to witness the birth of a New Malaysia.
Nik Nazmi speaks at the launch of '9 May 2018: Notes from the Frontline'
Setiawangsa MP Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad speaks at the launch of his book '9 May 2018: Notes from the Frontline' by Anwar Ibrahim.The book is available at major bookshops and online at Youbeli.com for RM25.9 May 2018 has now etched its place in Malaysia’s history as the day that the Barisan Nasional was finally brought down after 61 years in power. For Nik Nazmi 9 May 2018 was also a personal milestone, it was his first time standing in a general election at the federal level. At GE14 he stood for the Parliamentary seat of Setiawangsa, the only seat in Kuala Lumpur that Barisan Nasional had never lost, but in GE14 they finally did, as seats across the country swung towards Pakatan Harapan.How did this happen? How did a coalition of parties which fell apart after GE13 manage to rebuild and take on a government willing to use all of the tools it could to hold onto power? In 9 May 2018 – Notes from the Frontline Nik Nazmi gives his behind the scenes take on the political developments in the opposition coalition from the disappointment of GE13 to the ecstasy of GE14.Recalling the fall of the Pakatan Rakyat coalition and the founding of Pakatan Harapan he also gives first-hand experiences of the back room politics, the party conferences, the development of INVOKE, working with then former PM Mahathir Mohamad, as well as insight into the campaigns he worked on in Selangor and Setiawangsa, and in marginal seats from Perlis to Sabah. More than anything 9 May 2018 – Notes from the Frontline is a first-hand account of what it was like to witness the birth of a New Malaysia.
Posted by Nik Nazmi on Wednesday, 26 December 2018
by Martin Vengadesan, The Star Online
AT 36, Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad is a relative veteran with a decade’s service as Seri Setia assemblyman under his belt.
Now a newly-elected MP for Setiawangsa in the Federal parliament, he has not been able to resist turning briefly to an old love – that of writing.
He’s just published an account of the May 9 elections to go along with previous works such as Moving Forward: Malays for the 21st Century (2009) and Coming of Age: A Decade of Essays 2001–2011 (2011).
He spoke to Sunday Star recently about why he feels compelled to write his latest book, May 9: Notes From the Frontline.
“Before I became a political activist, and I became one at 19, I was already a writer. I had started writing in online portals, in newspapers and blogs. With the historic change in 2018, I thought that it’s useful that I write things down, because it’s still new, still fresh, the euphoria is still there. Even though it’s getting a little more tricky for the government, the excitement is still there,” he says.
He’s aware that there’s been a fair number of books about the election results and the related 1MDB scandal. However, he is convinced that his book will have something different to offer.
“I have written based on what I experienced on the ground and also in party conferences, backroom, behind the scenes. In politics people only see statements and external communications, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. I am not saying that I am telling everything. It’s not a tell-all, because it’s still new and there are some things that I can’t reveal,” he says.
“It’s not about airing dirty laundry. There are certain things in which I don’t name names. People need to know why differences occurred, even how we in PKR could accept Dr Mahathir. People need to understand the story of how the compromise for the greater good happened.”
Because it’s such a fresh event, Nik Nazmi didn’t have a lot of time to sit on his draft.
“I started writing at the end of May, and by September my draft was completed. Then I shared it with some close associates who helped me edit. Four months is fast, but I wanted to capture the mood. Our nation is going through various stages and now that the honeymoon phase is ending, it’s the best time to publish the book. Hopefully, it’s not too late for mine to grab some attention.”
He cites former PKR deputy president Dr Syed Husin Ali and former US president Barack Obama as key influences.
“Dr Syed was my dad’s junior in university in Singapore. He was a progressive leader in Parti Rakyat Malaysia and then PKR, and despite being an academic, he writes in an accessible way.
“In his most recent book the People’s History of Malaysia, he wrote about how Tok Janggut and Datuk Bahaman (Malay warriors fighting the British in 19th century Malaya) can be related to our modern life.
“I also think the way President Obama wrote about his problems of identity in The Audacity of Hope really captured the imagination.”
Nik Nazmi doesn’t pretend that he foresaw the dramatic change coming.
“Most pollsters did not give us a chance, saying that Barisan Nasional would pull through. And privately some of their leaders were talking about regaining the two-thirds majority that they enjoyed before 2008.
“On the other hand, Invoke and Rafizi Ramli had consistently been saying that Barisan would lose the election since December last year. Not many believed them; even I had a hard time to believe them.
“When I was campaigning, when people asked ‘Are you sure you can win?’, I was cautious, because I didn’t want to be disappointed.”
He contrasts it with 2013, when people were confident that there would be a change of government but it didn’t happen.
“This time, however, it was beneath the surface, and issues like wages, jobs and corruption really came to the fore. You got the sense people wanted change.
“I wasn’t just a candidate during the election, I was also the Pakatan Harapan Youth leader, so I went down to the ground from Perlis to Sabah, and you could really feel the mood of change.”
With great power, comes great responsibility and Nik Nazmi is keenly aware that the Pakatan government is under pressure to deliver and has not totally covered itself in glory.
“Expectations are sky high. There was a lot of speculation about Cabinet positions, but I think it’s turned out to be good that I am a backbencher because the task facing the first Cabinet is immense.
“I think we need to move beyond the issues of the past. Yes, there are wrongs that need to be exposed so that we learn and the people who are responsible for crimes are punished, but most want to move forward and look at issues like the economy and protecting our unity and peace, which can be very fragile,” he notes.
He concedes that while Pakatan won a majority of seats in GE14, it did not win a majority of the Malay votes.
“Pakatan Harapan parties won no seats in Kelantan and Terengganu and there are large swathes of Malay areas in Perlis, northern Perak and Pahang in which we were not impressive,” he says. “We have popularity in the south and west coast but if it’s not handled well, the country may be more divided.”
Another thing that could affect the popularity of the government among young voters is the constant U-turns over the issue of PTPTN repayments. Nik Nazmi believes that this could saddle the coalition with a lot of problems.
“Ultimately, our election manifesto was written without access to statistics, but even it is not 100% implementable, we should try to deliver as much as we promised. We also have to recognise that higher wages, better jobs and better housing are more important to the rakyat than institutional reforms, electoral reforms and transparency.”
“Even my generation, which was the first recipient of the PTPTN, we need to understand the circumstances (of why they are having difficulty paying back their loans).
“Yes, we took the loans, we agreed to the debt, but then, we are earning very little, and the percentage of unemployment for fresh graduates is higher than for people who do not go to university!
“The degree is sold as a ticket to a better life, but when it’s not delivering that, there is a lot of frustration.”
He nonetheless commends the unlimited travel pass – at RM100 and RM50 a month – that the government launched recently to reduce the cost of living for the people.
“It was the Pakatan Harapan Youth who pushed for the universal transportation pass. To be fair to the previous government, they have improved public transport but costs were still prohibitive. Networks are much better now than they were 10-20 years ago and by lowering the cost, the hope is that public transport usage will increase and that is something that is really important for the younger generation. I know it’s not universal because it’s very Klang Valley-central, but we will work to broaden it,” he says.
Despite his youth, Nik Nazmi is no political novice. He has served in various roles in the last 10 years in Selangor, from political secretary to the mentri besar and a member of the state Exco to Deputy Speaker.
“When I was running as a 26-year-old in Seri Setia in 2008, I had to fight hard to convince the voters to cast their ballot for such an inexperienced guy.
“Now I have had that experience and had the opportunity to work with GLCs, I can carry out specific projects in my constituency. The demographic in my new area includes a big group of urban poor and we need to carry out education initiatives there. I started the Mentari project in Seri Setia to offer tuition to children and build a low cost library in my kawasan. This is where the Federal Territories can emulate Selangor because the Selangor library has done very well,” he shares.
Another factor that has undermined the euphoria of the GE victory is the bruising electoral process that PKR had undergone recently. Surprisingly, Nik Nazmi wouldn’t have it any other way.
“If you look at party history since 2010, we have had a lot of colourful contests. Datuk Seri Azmin Ali vs Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, when we started one man, one vote. In 2014, it was a three-way contest with Azmin, Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim and Saifuddin Nasution, now it’s Azmin and Rafizi.
“I actually think it’s healthy. It’s not usual in Malaysia, where in parties like Umno there is usually a lot done behind closed doors with a succession plan. But this comes at a cost, because there is no contest of ideas, so are people being promoted because of their capabilities or because they can protect the interests of their predecessor? At the end of the day the party loses its vitality.
“Still, I do accept that PKR can take it too far. I am all for democracy and openness but now it’s all over and done with, let’s focus on delivering. We are capable of uniting and coming back stronger. We are now the most successful multi-racial party in Malaysia’s history,” he says.
Nik Nazmi admits he is far too busy for his liking.
“I have a bad habit of buying books and not having the time to read them. I used to read very fast, but the lack of free time now, and the distraction of smartphone and WhatsApp, have left me lagging behind,” laments the father of one son, Nik Ilhan, seven.
He is also a foodie, says Nik Nazmi, confessing that it is “bad” for him as a politician.
“It’s because people always give you the best food! On my Instagram I use #nikmakan when I go looking for food.”
To relax, Nik Nazmi likes watching television too, when he can.
“Comedies like Modern Family, I find to be great escapism. I do watch a few series like Elementary, and political drama House of Cards – until it became too real and a bit depressing, since I am already living in that world,” he quips.
But as many may already know, football is the young politician’s big love.
“I am a huge, huge Liverpool fan,” he raves.
“And although locally I am running for the KLFA (Kuala Lumpur Football Association) deputy presidency, as a fan I also follow Kelantan and Selangor, which is a long story.”