The Malay Heritage Foundation


In the second session of the Wacana Warisan Series (WWS) webinar, Dr Azhar Ibrahim talked about the Jawi Script: Witness and Living Legacy to Our History. He shared that Jawi script, which is often associated with the Malay community’s identity, had played a very significant role in civilization and the spread of Islamic knowledge in the ASEAN region. According to Dr Azhar, without the mastery in Jawi writing, this will eventually lead the Malays to be detached from understanding the history of the Nusantara or Malay Archipelago, especially since the early arrival of Islam. This is because for over 700 years, Jawi is widely used in many domains spanning Malay language, culture, literature, arts, religion, government and intellectual capacity. 

Dr Azhar Ibrahim welcoming participants who tuned in to the webinar. (Credit: Malay Heritage Foundation)

Saturday, 27 February 2021 – The Wacana Warisan Lecture Series returned with its second instalment. This time round, Dr Azhar Ibrahim, a lecturer from the Department of Malay Studies, National University of Singapore, and Vice-Chairman of the MHF Board, delivered a webinar on “Kesaksian Sejarah dan Sumbangan yang Menghidupi” (The Jawi Script: Witness and Living Legacy to Our History).

He started the session by providing the context on how Jawi, as a calligraphy style, has developed over many centuries and stood the test of time.

Dr. Azhar providing examples of Jawi script being used in royal correspondences, decrees, and poems. (Credit: Malay Heritage Foundation)

Dr. Azhar pointed out that the Jawi script became prominent with the spread of Islam, superceding the earlier writing systems. The Malay community held the script in high esteem as it symbolises the gateway to understanding Islam and its Holy Book, Al-Quran Nul Karim. The use of Jawi script was a key factor driving the emergence of Malay as the lingua franca in the region, alongside the spread of Islam. One interesting fact, according to Dr. Azhar, is that Jawi was used not only amongst the ruling class but also the commoners as well. Islamisation and Malayisation of the region popularised Jawi into a dominant script.

Even when King Chulalongkorn made his first official visit as King of Thailand to Singapore around the 1870s, Jawi was also used. (Credit: Malay Heritage Foundation)

Dr. Azhar stressed the importance of knowing the history of Jawi script, “A Church of St. Theresa has Jawi writings (on the wall). If we do not know that the usage of Jawi is so widespread, we’ll faint. We will then question why Jawi is being used in a church instead!”. He went on to further explain that the New Testament (Bible) published in Singapore is in fact in Jawi script. Therefore, Dr. Azhar called for the Jawi discourse to be expanded not only from the perspective of the history of languages but more importantly, as a medium to better understand the history of civilisation as well. However, the preservation of Jawi can be considered unhealthy if it is confined to the realm of nostalgia only.

Product advertising illustrations using the Jawi script. (Credit: Malay Heritage Foundation)

Although there is a need to raise awareness to invigorate the interest in Jawi script (strengthening, promoting, and preserving) among the young, its learning cannot be entirely borne by the school. Dr. Azhar opined that there are many other ways in getting our young people interested. “I think our support is focused on school and the school sometimes uses this as an elective approach. Yes, I think it can. But if it’s just left to the school to carry out this effort, I believe it’s not fair at all,” he said. Dr. Azhar cited an example that “a competition to write Jawi characters in interesting fonts, can be made available for example, in t-shirts”.

Dr. Azhar highlighting the variety of responses and perceptions towards Jawi script. (Credit: Malay Heritage Foundation)

Dr. Azhar touched on the responses towards Jawi in the second half of the lecture, where in today’s reality, both the Bahasa Melayu and Bahasa Indonesia in Roman script, have become the dominant form to represent both languages. Both Bahasa Melayu and Bahasa Indonesia share a common parentage from the Johor-Riau Malay dialect.  About 97% of the vocabulary from standard Bahasa Indonesia is derived from the Malay language. Dr. Azhar is of the view that both the Roman and Jawi writings complement one another – while the former dominates, the latter makes it complete.

Dr. Azhar addressing questions from the virtual audiences during the Q&A segment. (Credit: Malay Heritage Foundation)

Summing up his lecture, Dr. Azhar concluded that Jawi writing is still pulsating and being practiced in the region, Europe, and even South Africa. He also cited some references for those who wish to read up more on the history of Jawi writing.  Dr. Azhar addressed several questions from the virtual audience. This was the first session to be conducted via both Zoom and FB Live. Close to 50 virtual audiences tuned in to the video webinar via both platforms.

WWS, one of MHF’s flagship programmes, is a series of lectures which aims to encourage the development of new and alternative approaches to the understanding of Malay history, economy, politics, society and culture. Beyond the clichés and convenient mainstream narratives lie many lesser-known facets about the Malay community in Singapore. It is a year-long programme (each lecture runs on a monthly basis), comprising 12 sessions from January to December 2021. Participants who attend at least 10 sessions will be given a Certificate of Attendance. WWS lectures will mostly be delivered in Malay.

Useful Links

Full Video
Part 1 | Part 2

Media Coverage
1. Berita Mediacorp (28 Feb 2021) – Pelestarian warisan, wacana Jawi perlu diperluaskan tetapi secara inklusif

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