Jawi: identity and controversy

The furore over a few seemingly innocuous pages in a textbook provide an indication of just how polarised Malaysian society has become.

One of the controversies that embroiled Malaysia’s Pakatan Harapan government came from a rather unexpected source—Jawi. This adapted Arabic script was, from at least the 16th century the most common way of writing Malay, but has been displaced over the course of the 20th century by Rumi, or Roman script. The move from Jawi to Rumi as the default representation ofthe Malay language occurred not as a result of colonial policy, but from Malays themselves as part of a modernising agenda. It was the Kongres Bahasa of 1954 that ratified the use of Rumi alongside Jawi in the name of progress, and the Barisan Nasional governments of the 1970s and 80s that sidelined Jawi within the national curriculum.

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This article is based on seminar titled “Jawi: sacred and secular,” which was presented in the ANU Malaysia Institute Seminar Series 2021 on Tuesday, 27 July, 2021 – 17:00 to 18:10 (AEST).

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