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6:43pm 01/12/2021
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What is this really about?

By Mohsin Abdullah

“I don’t know whether to laugh or cry”. Is this an idiom? Or a saying? Just a phrase maybe? But I know it’s an expression of emotion.

“To be both annoyed or disappointed and amused or relieved at the same time” as defined by one dictionary. Another defines it as “surprised and confused that one is unsure how to react”.

Yet another definition is “to not know how to react in a particular situation”.

One more puts it like this: “to be in an acute state of shock, exasperation or disbelief due to an unexpected tragic or unfortunate event”.

Ask me, I’ll say I accept all the above definitions except the “amused or relieved” part.

When I say “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry” over certain matters, I am definitely not “amused or relieved”.

And I say it quite often. Particularly of late (I’m sure you must have said the phrase yourself at one point or another when baffled by certain issues).

The latest issue which made me say “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry” is the one about signboards of several public-funded Chinese primary schools in Pahang.

The schools received new signboards devoid of or without Chinese characters.

Sin Chew Daily recently reported that the signboards bore the SJK(C) names in Bahasa Malaysia and (this is “interesting”) Jawi but not Chinese characters.

To me this is both annoying and disappointing. Signboards for Chinese schools but without Chinese characters! How do you explain that?

If that is not shocking enough, there’s Jawi on the signboards to “announce” to all and sundry the names of Chinese schools.

I want to laugh but there is nothing funny about the matter. It’s actually sad and can make me cry.

Deputy Education Minister Datuk Mah Hang Soon explained to Sin Chew Daily that the matter arose following the Pahang state government’s policy that government agency signboards must bear the Jawi script.

Fine. But where did the taking down of Chinese characters come from? Go ahead and put the name in Bahasa Malaysia and Jawi, but put the Chinese characters as well. What’s so difficult about that? It’s Chinese schools after all.

This to me is like naming Islamic schools without Arabic and Jawi scripts but with Chinese characters instead. Funny? But I am not laughing.

According to Mah, he had instructed that Chinese and Tamil characters be included on signboards for the respective schools. And he claimed the state education department had taken “immediate action” on the matter.

Well and good, but I can’t help but wonder how it happened or was allowed to happen in the first place.

The media took the issue to Unity Minister Datuk Halimah Mohamad Saddique, and her response was: “Because this (directive) is from the (Pahang) education department, I think we should get a response from the education ministry”.

End of story? Not quite!

When journalists asked whether the move is a sign certain government agencies are still “insensitive towards cultural diversity”, the minister said, “This matter is related to the responsibilities of the education institution. Even at school level. Whatever decisions made will be based on what is available to the ministry. So I can’t answer this.”

That was how Halimah responded (if that is the right word to use) as quoted by Malaysiakini.

The journalists went on to ask whether the directive could be seen as contradicting plans to foster national unity, Halimah again said the decision to include languages other than Bahasa Malaysia as the national language lies with the relevant ministry and state government.

“Like I said, in terms of branding Bahasa Malaysia is the national language. So for example they want to put other languages, that should be the decision of the ministry,” said the minister.

I think she was missing the point completely.

Anyway, she was also asked to comment on critics who alleged that the removal of Chinese characters is a sign of “disrespect” towards the Chinese community. And she said, “I do not want to comment on that because it relates to a specific matter.”

I say the journalists were right in asking her all those questions. All relevant, all pertinent. Halimah is after all the unity minister.

As I see it, the signboard issue is not helping in bringing Malaysians together but rather it can sadly pull people apart.

It’s clear that the minister managed to say something without saying anything.

As a matter of fact, she had skirted around, sidestepped and avoided the issue. And the irony is, only moments before the journalists met Halimah to ask the questions she wasn’t comfortable with, she had earlier joined Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob when the Prime Minister launched the National Unity Action Plan and the Keluarga Malaysia Unity Plan in his effort to strengthen interracial and interreligious harmony.

I really don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

(Mohsin Abdullah is a veteran journalist and now a freelancer who writes about this, that and everything else.)

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Mohsin Abdullah
SJKC

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