Education policies to tackle racial and religious extremism

Dr Mohd Tajuddin Mohd Rasdi

Introduction

The main purpose of this piece is to suggest important policy changes in Malaysia’s primary, secondary, tertiary and administrative levels of education. These policy changes are phrased within the single perspective of improving the country’s racial and religious harmony. Malaysia is in a deteriorating state of racial and religious tension caused not only by irresponsible politicians but also by the education system itself.

If these policies are not seriously considered, there will be hope for our country’s racial and religious co-existence as outlined by our constitution and the spirit of Rukun Negara. In order to turn the downward spiral that the country is in, major structural changes need to be looked at in our education system. The new Pakatan Harapan government has only 5 years to make structural changes before the rise of mainstream extremist Islam and the racist Malay agenda will gather enough strength to dominate the social and political scenarios.

Racial and religious extremism: the issue of national imperative

The state of religious and racial relations has spiralled dangerously since the 13th general election in 2013. The level of racial and religious extremism has increased drastically over these few years. This racial and religious extremism was not only on the part of the layman, but more importantly by officials and leaders of public institutions, including the education system. The fact that many of these events were committed by education institutions is a testimony to the dangerous fault lines within the country’s citizenry. Needless to say, that the Razak Report that prioritises education in eradicating racial and religious tension has failed and is reaching a sombre mark of total meltdown.

Where extremism by individuals and the public is concerned, we are drawn to several examples of both religious and racial intolerance. The Laundrette issue recently paints a picture of a religious education that considers all non-Muslims are ‘unclean’. This view is backed a statement by a religious officer from JAKIM, Ustaz Zamihan, as well as the headmaster of a Madrasah in Penang who considers even the act of letting a non-Muslim barber hold the head of a Muslim as a ‘filthy’ act. The Taman Austin incident in which the beating of a Chinese who was honking at a traffic obstruction came very close to death. Although this particular event was swept off as a ‘rage’ incident, the underlying hatred of Muslims against non-Muslims cannot be denied. The Bible Burning Issue by Perkasa’s President Ibrahim Ali was a significant incident even though no Bible was burnt. The country almost fell into a May 13th Event with the Red Shirt Rally of UMNO’s own Jamal Yunos that saw red-shirt demonstrators carrying banners of ‘Cina Babi’ slogans and the word ‘Pendatang’ was clearly seen and heard on youtube. Incidents of churches being torched as well as non-Muslim gravestones desecrated are not to be claimed mere vandalism, but a deep fault in racial and religious relationships.

The extremism of officials in educational institutions, as well as the institutions themselves, leaves no doubt that the primary, secondary and tertiary levels of education are compromised. The incidents of headteachers implementing school policies disrupting religious harmony are numerous. There was the Balik Negeri incident where a headteacher reprimanded a group of non-Malay students during an assembly. There was the Ramadhan-Toilet Issue where non-Muslim primary school students were required to eat separately from fasting Muslim students. There was the Halal-Haram Drinking Glass Issue where the separation of drinking glasses was made in a no-alcohol event. There was also the reluctance of a headteacher to allow Indian students to wear Saree at a school event.

Worse incidents happened at Public Universities the Mufti offices. A conference to discuss apostasy was spreading anti-Christian sentiments, and held at UiTM. In another incident, UTM was under fire from the public for allowing a lecturer to teach that Indians are ‘unclean’ in the Tamadun Islam dan Tamadun Asia mandatory subject. The issue of declaring DAP as kafir harbi was initiated by the Mufti of Pahang who went to the press and declared that those who oppose the tabling of the RUU 355 in parliament can be considered hardcore enemies of Islam, the implications being that their life can be declared forfeit by any Muslim. The mufti does not seem to be able to reconcile several hundred years of religious education originating in a homogeneous social construct to a multi-faith and democratic social construct of present-day Malaysia.

There is no doubt that these racial and religious unrest are rooted in the formal and informal education of Malaysians. This section addresses the issue of formal education and how we can avoid another May 13th Event as well as move the country forward instead of being trapped in a quagmire of race and religious distrust among the citizenry.

Suggested Policy Changes and Rationale

The following suggestions aim at changing certain subjects taught at the tertiary, secondary and primary educational institutions, at teaching, revamping certain traditional subjects such as Geography and History and finally on the training of the teachers themselves.

Tertiary Level Education

The responsibility of citizenship in a democracy: A tertiary educational institution should produce graduates who understand that in a democracy, the citizen owns the country, that the citizen can and should advise the elected representatives in a cordial manner, understand that the civil servants are to serve and not the ‘authority’ and that the citizens are as much to be blamed or celebrated of the country’s failure or success.

Rationale: This ensures that if political parties use religious and racial issues for their narrow agendas, the educated citizens can take action by encouraging other citizens NOT to fall prey to these activities. The educated citizens can also lead the charge in civil society to affect change by educating the public in discourses and town hall meetings as well as setting up NGOs

Freedom of Thought and Critical Thinking: A tertiary educational institution should produce graduates that feel no compulsion of expressing their thoughts and ideas within the boundary of etiquette, and have a universal understanding of ‘good manners’ about any topic except the position of the Royalty in Malaysia.

Rationale: The freedom of university intellectual expression is paramount when the Civil Servants and Public institutions stray from the sacred duties of preserving racial and religious harmony in a healthy and progressive society

Philosophy and History of Religion as a Subject: A tertiary educational institution should produce graduates that understand the place of Religion and Thoughts within the Anthropological, Political and Philosophical Constructs.

Rationale: Religion is something to be held close to one’s heart but when living with people of different faiths, educated citizens must understand his or her religion in the broader construct of human civilisation in order to foster tolerance, understanding and acceptance. Accepting diversity is a key element in co-existence.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals: A tertiary educational institution should demonstrate that the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nation have been integrated within the curriculum of all undergraduate and postgraduate disciplines as well as the syllabus for practicum and soft skill development:

Rationale: The 17 Sustainable Development Goals beautifully outlines the social, economic, political and environmental construct that all human beings should be aware of and work towards regardless of race, religion or belief system.

Secondary Level Education

Mixing Between Cultures: All vernacular and religious schools should demonstrate that the students have undergone at least 40 working hours of mixing between cultures in every Year level and in every year, and must include visitation of at least two houses of worship for each student in their teenage life time.

All National Schools must ensure that each student visits at least two houses of worship in their secondary school time.

Rationale: This policy would ensure that there are no more students who can say that they have no friends of another race or have never been to the houses of worship of another faith.

Geography and Global Culture: The subject of Geography should be revamped and illustrate a 50% emphasis on Cultures and Belief systems and another 50% on the Physical, Political and Economic structures of human civilisations.

Rationale: The world is interconnected environmentally, socially, economically and politically. An environmental disaster or event can affect another country like open burning and the haze as well as religious terrorism propagated by the Islamic State or IS.

Rewriting of History as a Subject for Unity: All History subjects should be written in a manner that illustrates the failure and success of national activities as well as events in history was a product of all races and not attributed to any one race.

Rationale: Citizens of Malaysia should not be playing the blame game of which race is at fault in relation to the country’s history as well as they should all be proud of the country’s success.

Religious Subjects: All national schools should make available the subject of any religions as desirable elective component.

Rationale: Choices show a healthy democracy in action.

Primary School Education

Cultural and Language Studies: The primary school subjects should be revamped to allow for cultural and language studies chosen by the parent or guardians.

Rationale: Learning a third language can help in inter-cultural understanding and mutual co-existence.

Moral Studies: All students regardless of their belief systems would be required to undergo three years of Moral Study.

Rationale: all students shall be exposed that all religions have great moral contributions to humanity. This will avoid the feeling of bigotry.

Religious Studies: The subject of all religions shall be taught as a subject of parental choice in every year.

Rationale: Choices show a healthy democracy in action.

Administration

Quota of 30% for Non-Malay Teachers and Education Administrators: The Ministry of Education should ensure at all times that a quota of 30% for non-Malay teachers exist at ALL schools regardless of the state or territory

Rationale: This will ensure exposure of cultures and belief system as well as practices to both the students as well as the teachers and head teachers to avoid such religious misunderstanding

Quota of 70% Teachers Actually Teaching: The Ministry should revamp the present administrative infrastructure to ensure that 70% of the Education Officers are actually serving as Teachers and not as administrators in the Education Department.

Rationale: By eliminating much administrative waste through more empowerment at the schools, more teachers can be deployed and thus reduce the student to teacher ratio significantly.

Teacher Training in Religious and Cultural Context: All Teachers would undergo a two-week training in religious and cultural sensitivities which include an element of 2-day home stay at a home of a family of a different culture and a visitation of all houses of worships.

Rationale: This policy is important to avoid hiring teachers that came from a Religious School or the Vernacular School that isolate themselves from the larger cultural and religious contexts of the country.

Conclusion

The policies and rationales crafted in the writing above is absolutely critical for change to occur in structural forms as a start towards piloting Malaysia away from ethnic and religious extremism that would limit our country’s development for a new future.

The so-called “educated” citizenry who have finished secondary school and tertiary education must be the leaders for change in our society.

Rules and laws cannot ensure a permanent solution as the attitudes of the minds of the people must be changed from centuries of the narrow educational construct of ‘me and the other’ in social and political relationships.

Knowledge of science and technology are not the real keys to a proper civilisational success. Those who wield the tools and knowledge of science and technology must be imbued with the quality of human and humane constructs that places man as part of a globalised civilisational context rather than narrow religious, national and ethnic perspectives.

Dr Mohd Tajuddin Mohd Rasdi is a professor at UCSI University.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.