PETALING JAYA: Dr Mahathir Mohamad claims there is an overemphasis on Islam in schools at the expense of the kind of education needed in an increasingly demanding world.
“It’s almost as if every student is going to be an ulama,” he said.
He told FMT he believed the focus should instead be on technology and the sciences.
Mahathir, who was education minister under two prime ministers – Abdul Razak Hussein and Hussein Onn – said the overarching emphasis on religion had overshadowed what religious education was intended to achieve, which was to instil the teachings and values of “basic Islam”.
“They are increasing the number of hours, the number of periods, to teach Islam beyond what is needed by an ordinary Muslim,” he said. “As a result, children don’t learn other knowledge, especially science and maths, which are very important now to make a living.”
He called for a balance between instilling students with Islamic values and developing an academic base that will allow them to thrive in the working world.
He said the push for more Islam in the curriculum was not a government policy but the agenda of “certain ministers and civil servants” to promote the religion.
“They have their own interpretation of what is needed in schools to increase the knowledge of the religion,” he said.
He attributed this shift of priorities to policymakers who, he alleged, pandered to a section of their Malay base in order to maintain political support. The cost of this, he said, was that children were deprived of the education needed to thrive in an ever-changing job market.
“In Malaysia, the Malays, for example, are of course very religious. They want to study religion, but religion doesn’t qualify them for work as engineers or lawyers.”
He also said liberal arts education, historically popular among Malays, did not meet current and future demands of employers.
“Now, the stress is on technology. If you don’t study technology, you will not have any employment (opportunities). If you study history, languages and things like that, you will not get employed.”
Mahathir added that the education system now had a role in building character because more parents were working and were not full-time caregivers, thus placing more responsibility on schools and teachers to mentor students.
“If students believe in hard work, obviously they will be able to succeed,” he said. “But if they believe in just getting free money from the government, they will not succeed.
“In the past, parents would teach their children good values. They would tell the children you don’t steal, you don’t do wrong things, this is a sin, this is a crime and all that.
“But now the parents are all working. They don’t spend enough time teaching their children. So we have to teach the children from the kindergarten level.”