The appointment of the new education minister, Maszlee Malik, was not without controversy. Accused of being an Islamist and a supporter of Zakir Naik, Maszlee has nevertheless gained the support of a number of prominent politicians like Ong Kian Ming and Lim Kit Siang.
In Ipoh, however, a group of younger, conservative Malay teachers oppose his appointment, not because they think he will be focused on Islam, but because they imagine that he will revamp the education system and make it more western.
So who is the real Maszlee? He has been portrayed as an Islamist whom many fear will continue where Anwar Ibrahim left off when he was the education minister in the 80s, when the tudung and other Islamocentric policies were introduced. Many, including Malays, fear a return to this manufactured closed-mindedness in our children.
On the other hand, one parent has already started the ball rolling for a frank discussion about vernacular schools. She attended a national school and claims that her biggest disadvantage is her inability to read Chinese characters.
But Elaine Cheh is reluctant to send her children to national-type Chinese primary schools (SRKJCs), saying: “As an ethnic Chinese parent, I do not wish to send my children to a school that is super strict and laden with homework (like SRKJCs).”
However, she does want her children to be able to read and write Chinese. She believes Malaysian Chinese are among the most fluent in Mandarin in Southeast Asia, and attributes this to the SRKJCs which teach Mandarin as the first language for six years.
While many Malaysian Chinese are proud of this, she has reservations about its divisive effect on the nation, and wants the new administration to look into making the education system more unified.
Many parents have rallied behind her. One of them said: “If racism can be eradicated from national schools, and if either religion is not taught in schools, or all religions are taught, 1Malaysia can become a reality.
“Otherwise, when one religion is king, others will be treated as second-class citizens.”
These parents have another three questions for the new education minister:
- The history syllabus presently starts at around 1500, which was when Islam was introduced in Malaya. Will he continue with this syllabus?
- Schoolchildren are currently asked to learn about the entire “golden age” of Islam as well as Islamic civilisation. Other periods of world history are given limited coverage. Will Maszlee change this to reflect current events in world history?
- Will Maszlee issue a statement saying that schoolchildren do not need to wear the tudung if they do not wish to?
For decades, the school environment has been dominated by religious bigots, and the different races have been afraid or reluctant to mingle.
Some non-Malays are discriminated against and bullied because other Malay children have been indoctrinated with the belief that they are the superior race.
Others come home traumatised because they have been told by their Muslim peers that they are “kafirs” and will burn in hell.
If Maszlee is open-minded as he claims, will he listen to these concerns and make school a happy place, conducive to learning for all?
Mariam Mokhtar is an FMT columnist.
The views expressed by the writer are not necessarily those of FMT.