How will halt of Dong Zong's jawi congress affect Pakatan?

Ida Lim And Soo Wern Jun
Asia Institute Tasmania director Prof James Chin said the Dong Zong conference cancellation has both upset the ethnic Chinese community and emboldened right-wing Malay groups, which would in turn have an impact on voter support levels for Pakatan Harapan. ― Picture by Choo Choy May

KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 1 ― The recent cancellation of Chinese educationist group Dong Zong's conference on the teaching of the jawi script in vernacular schools illustrated the ruling Pakatan Harapan’s (PH) dilemma with thorny communal politics, analysts have said.

The matter has become a proxy of sorts in the contest for Malay political support, which comes at the risk of alienating other sections of the country.

Prof James Chin, director of the University of Tasmania's Asia Institute Tasmania, said that the police were “wrong” to obtain a court order to halt the conference, but also indicated that this was likely to have been sanctioned by the Home Ministry which oversees the police.

“The decision to seek the court order to stop was mostly political in nature. My guess is that the Malay groups directly threatened to do something and the police were afraid that they cannot control it so they decided to cancel.

“It's political because the police would have to seek higher permission, that is, someone in KDN, to approve it. I don't think PDRM would do something like this without KDN knowing,” he told Malay Mail when contacted, referring to the police and the Home Ministry by their Malay initials PDRM and KDN.

Chin highlighted the historical reasons for Umno and Umno-turned-PPBM leaders to view ethnic Chinese movements with suspicion, noting: “I think certain sections of government especially KDN and PPBM sees DJZ as a Chinese chauvinist organisation and therefore cannot be trusted to hold a neutral discussion. You have to remember most of PPBM are ex-Umno and Umno always regarded DJZ as the political enemy, especially after the Suqiu affair many years ago.”

Chin was referring to the Chinese associations' electoral demands before the 1999 general election to the Barisan Nasional administration in a memorandum known as the Suqiu, which included issues such as human rights, corruption, judicial independence, and democracy.

Dong Zong had on December 18 announced the conference to be held on December 28 as a consultative meeting that would also include Tamil education groups, but at least 40 Malay groups on December 27 announced two rallies outside and nearby the Dong Zong conference venue.

The police then obtained on December 27 a court order to stop the Dong Zong conference in order to maintain public peace, while also calling for the public to not attend any protests planned against the Dong Zong conference. Dong Jiao Zong ― the umbrella body for Dong Zong and Jiao Zong ― then cancelled it.

But Chin also acknowledged the security concerns present, saying: “I also think PDRM think they cannot control the crowd if it is a Malay vs Chinese riots, so the security angle was there.”

As for the political consequences of the Dong Zong conference cancellation, Chin said that it had clearly made the Chinese community “pissed off” with DAP which is a member of the ruling coalition.

“They cannot understand why DAP, as part of the government, did not intervene to create a compromise for the event to go ahead. It gives the impression PPBM is calling all the shots and DAP is powerless, i.e. like MCA,” he said, noting that the Chinese organisations expected DAP to negotiate with the police to enable the conference to proceed.

At the same time, Chin said the cancellation has “emboldened” right-wing Malay groups, noting: “They think if they threaten violence, May 13, they can force the government to do anything.”

Chin said the recent events were partly due to ruling party PPBM being afraid of the pact between Malay-based opposition parties Umno and PAS and the move to the right.

“PPBM is trying to recover the ground by moving to the right as well, thus in the short-run, Malay politics will move to the right. This will bring a lot of disappointment to the Chinese community who expected things to change after DAP enters government,” he said, agreeing that this would in turn result in PH gaining more Malay votes and less Chinese votes in future elections.

Choong that a possible solution for the government is to suspend the teaching of Jawi and to have more dialogues first before deciding while also providing more explanations on Jawi as calligraphy. — Picture by Sayuti Zainudin

Sunway University's senior fellow Choong Kok Boon said the police should not have obtained the court order against the Dong Zong congress, saying the concern of disruption of peace and harmony was akin to the analogy of people being told to be careful with how they dress to avoid triggering rape.

“The police should tell those who threaten the congress ― because like many months ago, we had the Kongress Maruah Melayu. Many of us did not agree to it, but yet they allow the congress to happen. Why is our Home Minister keeping silence on the police's action?

“Police should have acted as a mediator between Dong Zong and those who were against the congress. I don't want to make any guesses, but it looks as though the police has acted under the order of the home minister (as they are under the home ministry). Where is our home minister?” he said, adding that he did not agree with Dong Zong organising the conference but respected their constitutional right to do so.

Choong said Dong Zong's hosting of the conference created unnecessary misunderstanding when it should have instead engaged with the wider community, while saying that a possible solution for the government is to suspend the teaching of jawi and to have more dialogues first before deciding while also providing more explanations on jawi as calligraphy.

Singapore Institute of International Affairs senior fellow Oh Ei Sun said it would be difficult for Pakatan Harapan to win over more Malay votes as it cannot outdo Umno and PAS in racial and religious rhetoric. ― Picture courtesy of Oh Ei Sun

Can the jawi issue help Pakatan win over Malay votes?

Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said PH would likely disappoint non-Malay voters even as it tries to win over Malay votes.

“PH is dreaming of capturing at least some of the 75 per cent mostly conservative Malay votes that went for either Umno and PAS in the last GE, and PH hopes that by standing firm on issues such as the teaching of khat in vernacular schools it could partially do so.

“But this would remain an elusive dream as the PH component parties could never outdo at least the rhetoric of Umno in racial supremacy and of PAS in religious extremism.

“Meanwhile, non-Malay voters are also at a dilemma, as on the one hand they are tremendously disappointed with PH for continuing with the racially and religiously divisive policy and practices left over by the previous regime, and on the other hand the opposition made up of the very ruling party of the previous regime and its partner, the religiously extremist party,” he told Malay Mail when contacted.

As for why a separate Kongres Jawi Kebangsaan organised by NGO Sekat and featuring a multiracial line-up of speakers was allowed to carry on on December 29, both Oh and Chin noted its relative lack of baggage as compared to Dong Zong.

Oh said: “DJZ has long been vilified by the Malay supremacist groups for assiduously defending vernacular education, so much so that some members of the previous regime and the present administration view it as such as well. Therefore it is not surprising that many police reports were lodged against DJZ over the conference. It perhaps also explains why the Kongres, which has no such historical burden, is allowed to go ahead.”

Chin said the Kongres Jawi Kebangsaan was not seen as a Chinese event since the organiser's main spokesman Arun Dorasamy is Indian, noting that the latter was clever to reach out to the Malay group who attended and immediately giving them a spot to speak during the congress, adding: “My guess is that it was allowed to proceed as the right-wing Malay groups did not see them as DJZ, i.e. challenging Ketuanan Melayu. The Malay groups have always regarded DJZ and Chinese Assembly Hall as people who want to challenge them on Ketuanan Melayu.”

The police reportedly received 43 police reports against the Dong Zong conference, while no police reports were lodged prior to the Kongres Jawi Kebangsaan being held.

Ilham Centre executive director Azlan Zainal said Pakatan Harapan will have to avoid losing out in the perception war over the Jawi issue, but also noted the coalition's willingness to engage in dialogues. ― Picture courtesy of Azlan Zainal

Too soon to tell?

Research outfit Ilham Centre's executive director Azlan Zainal said the police's action to have the Dong Zong conference cancelled was justified due to security concerns after receiving multiple police reports, and based on concerns of provocative elements over the conference and the counter-protests.

“The police asked for all to respect the law and the court order to preserve public peace. In this matter we do not see 'double standard' being practised by PDRM,” he said, contrasting the Dong Zong event with the Kongres Jawi Kebangsaan and the Kongres Maruah Melayu which he said did not have police reports lodged in protest beforehand.

As for voter support towards PH, Azlan said that this would depend on how the matter regarding the teaching of the jawi script in schools is handled, noting that “failure to handle it well will continue to cause negative impact to PH” where PH will be seen as “very defensive and losing out in the perception war”.

Azlan noted that the government had made multiple concessions on the teaching of jawi by halving textbook pages to three pages, changing the term khat to jawi, and giving parents the choice to decide on whether it would be taught, noting that dialogue sessions between the Education Ministry and Dong Zong had been held with the government showing willingness to listen to views on the matter.

Azlan said that there were minority groups who held extreme views among both the Malay and Chinese community, but said they appear to represent the majority when it comes to racial and religious issues due to their manipulation of the media and perception.

“If this is failed to be handled, the government will face a big burden of negative perception. Therefore, it has to quickly respond and come forward with solutions. To cool down the situation that is heating up, harmonious dialogue process should be carried out. If all groups or races are able to take a step back, then this issue can be solved in a more professional and 'win-win' manner,” he said, noting that jawi should be seen as a calligraphy art and from the cultural viewpoint.

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