Oxford study: Teach students about all religions to foster unity

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PETALING JAYA : Multi-faith education should be explored as a way to improve understanding, tolerance and appreciation between members of different religious groups.

This is one of the suggestions made by the authors of an Oxford University study on the day-to-day nature of ethnic relations in Malaysia and the factors that encourage and impede meaningful inter-ethnic interactions and understanding between the main ethnic and religious groups.

They suggest that young people be provided with multi-faith religious education and inter-religious contact in order to increase integration along religious lines, especially when people are highly religiously identified.

This could be carried out over the school holidays, and ideally with pupils who have not had much prior exposure to religions other than their own.

Also, schools can have cooperative learning and inter-group contact. This can be carried out over school holidays to increase buy-in from schools, pupils and parents.

Another suggestion is for the government to publish data on social mobility indicators to convey its commitment to fairness, transparency and accountability.

Creating and maintaining mixed neighbourhoods will be a great help in integration and this can be done through the government’s housing policy.

Community cohesion can be strengthened, the CIMB Foundation funded report said, by creating and maintaining more public social and leisure facilities in neighbourhoods.

Titled Attitudes and Ethnoreligious Integration: Meeting the Challenge and Maximizing the Promise of Multicultural Malaysia, the study was done by Dr Ananthi Ramiah, Professor Miles Hewstone and Dr Ralf Wölfer.

The study, carried out in September-October last year, involved 503 Malays, 500 Chinese and 501 Indians and covered all states in Peninsular Malaysia.

Among its findings are:

  • Respondents had a marked preference for friends of their own ethnic group and a more favourable attitude towards their own ethnic group. This tendency was particularly pronounced among Malay respondents;
  • Promoting positive inter-ethnic contact was shown to have the potential to yield favourable changes in attitudes;
  • Respondents from all ethnic groups identified more strongly with their ethnic group than they did with being Malaysian;
  • Integration efforts (such as “1Malaysia’” that emphasize being Malaysian may not benefit majority and minority groups in the same way; results show that non-Malays may respond by developing more positive attitudes towards others but it may have no effect on the Malays. This is because they may associate being Malaysian (national identity) with being Malay (ethnic identity);
  • Mixing, and particularly friendships in the neighbourhood and workplace, was associated with more favourable outgroup attitudes;
  • A large proportion of Malays did not think the government’s economic policies were equitable, and about half of the samples from each ethnic group were highly dissatisfied with their economic standing relative to their ethnic outgroups. Nearly half of Malay respondents felt that their group was highly discriminated against compared with two-thirds of non-Malay respondents;
  • Nearly half of Chinese respondents reported a strong desire to emigrate from Malaysia, while more than half of Indian respondents reported a strong willingness to participate in collective action;
  • Respondents identified strongly with their religious groups, particularly the Muslims and the Hindus. Perceiving core similarities between religions and having more meaningful conversations with friends from religious outgroups were shown to have the potential to improve religious tolerance; and
  • Greater diversity, positive inter-ethnic contact and social support in the neighbourhoods were associated with better mental health, while negative contact and inter-ethnic tensions in the neighbourhood, along with feeling discriminated against, were associated with poorer mental health.