Shift varsities’ focus towards rebuilding Malaysia

There is a need to change the focus of university research from science and technoloy to understanding race relations and religion. (Bernama pic)

By Mohd Tajuddin Mohd Rasdi

The euphoria over the aftermath of the GE14 must end with a footnote that, though it was an historical and important event, it was only one battle in the 60-year-old war of bridging the racial and religious divide.

Although the new PH government can make policy changes that can turn the tide of this ongoing war, it is in the hearts and minds of the young and educated that the real battle should rage.

Public universities and private learning institutions are, to me, the advance forces that must prepare the ground for a more effective invasion to win the war on rebuilding Malaysia.

Malaysia may have paid a huge price on racial and religious tolerance and harmony when science and technology took centre stage in research and publications at both public and private universities. Where is the social sciences now? Hardly anyone cares.

A peak at the high research area shows all the science and technology aspects of research but hardly any on religion and race relation. Why is this so? My simplistic answer is that most public university academics are Malays and most ministry officials are also of the same group.

Malay academics and officials are in a very comfortable comfort zone. Most Malays, professors and other academics included, take the simple stand that it is never the Malays who are at fault in racial disharmony. It is always the Chinese, sometimes Hindraf Indians and Sarawakian Christians who become the bogeymen.

Non-Muslim academics in public universities dare not touch the issues of race relations and Islamic extremism with a ten-foot pole. They would be risking their promotions and positions in the universities.

Private universities are filled with academics too busy with teaching loads to make sure their institutions make enough to pay their salaries and even if they raise issues of race and religion, the university vice-chancellor or owners may be called up by the ministry with a polite or not-so-polite warning.

So there you have it, the two main reasons of apathy and fear as to why our university world rankings may be on the up but our country goes further down in the critical aspect of bridging race and religious divide.

Research thrust

I would like to suggest that the ministry in charge of higher education make race relations and religious tolerance as the main research thrust and let economic and science and technology take a back seat, just for a decade.

Funds should be allocated to tertiary education scholarships, research and community enhancement projects on the subject of race and religious understanding.

Promotion of academics should be measured by how much impact their work has on the immediate community as well as the larger society in terms of race relations and religious tolerance.

Children’s books, popular books and text books on these subjects to educate the populace as well as the teachers of secondary schoolers must be prioritised.

Academics should also be evaluated positively on how much media appearance and civil society discourse they get into.

The successes of conferences by universities must be gauged not only on the quality of papers but on the number of attendance by non-academic audiences.

Presently, the only audience of a paper presented are the chair person and the next presenter.

Evaluation on how the academics work closely with schools in order to aid teachers in implementing and measuring the outcomes of projects that would result in racial tolerance and religious understanding should also take center stage.

The MyRA (Malaysian Research Assessment Instrument) marking schemes must be revamped in favour of more discourses than papers as well as books, projects and media appearances and civil society engagement.

Racial imbalance

On the aspect of racial imbalance in private universities, three things can be done easily. Firstly, the government and other millionaire companies should provide a quota of scholarships given to Malay students to go to good private universities in Malaysia.

Secondly, the hefty sum of taxes paid by private universities to the government can be reconfigured so that 30% of the taxes paid is refunded to the universities as scholarships for Malay students to study at that university.

Thirdly, a special Malay stream programme can be created at private universities for Malay students weak in English, perhaps at the certificate and diploma levels.

I think Bahasa Malaysia should be given some priority at private universities without jeopardising their so-called “international status”. I still remember a lecture on internationalisation given by Prof Shams Sani of UKM where he said that internationalisation was not about language or medium of instruction but more about the content of knowledge that other civilisations find important to share.

The university-required subject of Tamadun Islam dan Tamadun Asia should focus more on visiting different religious buildings and documenting community rituals.

Visiting of specific ethnic enclaves are also a must in order to impart on the young the bare faces of society rather than seeing them in words and pictures. This subject should take on an anthropoligical approach rather than its present classroom lecture-based method.

Attending discourses debating and expounding race and religious issues by civil society should also be a must for the all MPU, or Mata Pelajaran Universiti, subjects.

With respect to infrastructural development, I would like to recommend that all public universities be equipped with an ecumenical centre for students of religions other than Islam. Future universities funded by the public purse should cease making the mosque as an overarching and dominant icon but more subdued and open to all students.

With Umno and PAS still singing the same tune and a majority of Malay voters still trapped in a race and religious construct of nation building, the 15th general election (GE15) can still turn the tide of war against any effort of rebuilding Malaysia towards our coveted aim of religious and racial harmony. If both the public and private universities keep on doing what they are doing, the battle for Malaysia will never be won.

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.