Lousy start for acting education minister Mahathir

What a bad beginning for the acting education minister. I wouldn’t be surprised if former minister Maszlee Malik is grinning, now that he no longer has to deal with troglodytes.

It was just a few days ago, on Jan 10, that the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement that Dr Mahathir Mohamad will be the acting education minister until such a time when he decides to appoint someone as education minister.

But before he can even warm the seat (I wonder if he has actually had time to sit on the education minister’s chair or even enter that office), his cup of issues is not just overflowing but boiling over.

The latest issue to cause a rupture in the fragile disposition of multi-racial Malaysia is a directive by the education department to all schools instructing that Muslim students should not participate in activities connected to the Ponggal festival. This is because, the circular states, the Malaysian Department of Islamic Development, better known as Jakim, has declared Ponggal “haram” as it is a “celebration for Hindu worshippers”.

Many netizens have questioned the ignorance of those who call it a Hindu festival. They rightly point out that it is a cultural festival which originated from an agrarian milieu where farmers harvested the first stalks of padi and placed the rice grains together with milk into an earthen pot and cooked it. As the rice cum milk boils and overflows from the pot, they rejoice, as it marks good tidings.

Ponggal is to thank God for his bounty and to thank Nature, particularly the sun, without which all life will perish, for providing man with food, and, therefore, life.

The first thing the acting education minister must do is send these civil servants, including the good people at Jakim, for a course on the culture of the various races of Malaysians.

It’s a shame that these people have been living so long in Malaysia and do not know anything, or know little, about the culture of their fellow Malaysians.

The prime minister should make it a point that all senior civil servants, especially those in decision-making positions – whether Malay or Chinese or Indian or Kadazadusun – learn the basics about the cultures of all groups of Malaysians, including the Orang Asli.

This will ensure they make better informed decisions and not make decisions based on false premises.

The directive also set six conditions for Muslims: they should not wear any clothing related to Hinduism such as the clothes worn by Hindu priests; they should not use paraphernalia such as chains or floral garlands, or apply ash on their forehead; they should not be involved in any sort of ritual; they should not enter places of worship when rituals are being held; they should not insult Hindu gods; and they should wish friends and neighbours but without lowering the status of Islam (membelakangkan Islam).

I’m sure no one would argue with the last two conditions.

I wonder how the acting education minister will deal with this. Will he ignore it, knowing that such things will soon pass over? Or will he chastise the officials responsible for the directive? Will he have a “chat” with the officials at Jakim, which came into existence during his first stint as prime minister?

These are, really, distractions that Mahathir does not need. He knows he has little time and much to achieve, including in education.

In a way, it is good that this incident happened just as he takes on the reins of the ministry, even though temporarily.

For it reinforces the reason why non-Muslim parents fear sending their children to national schools which are today largely national in name only. And it explains why everyone is concerned that schools are not playing the role of enhancing inter-racial and inter-religious unity.

The prime minister himself is cognisant of the problem. In his speech at the annual dinner of his alma mater, Sultan Abdul Hamid College, on Dec 21, 2018, Mahathir said too much focus on Islam in schools had made students ill-equipped for jobs.

“Someone”, he said, “changed the curriculum in school and now national schools have become religious schools.”

“They are all learning about the religion of Islam and not learning anything else. As a result, those who pass in school are not very conversant with subjects that are useful for them to get jobs, but they are very good ulama.”

Saying the school system was producing many ulama, he added: “And when you have too many ulama, they always differ from each other, and they mislead their followers and they quarrel with each other.”

In April 2019, he lamented how Islamic education in schools had failed to produce upright citizens. Mahathir said the focus was on Islamic rituals and the do’s and don’ts but not on Islam as a way of life, which meant the teaching of certain values.

Let’s hope Mahathir can decouple religion from national schools so that more Chinese and Indian parents will send their children to these schools.

But he also has to contend with the mushrooming international schools which are attracting a large number of urban children. Parents feel the teaching standards here are admirable, way better than at national schools.

So he has to improve the standard of education and, importantly, the standard of teaching. That, of course, will be a herculean task. I do not expect him to succeed because he has too little time, the system is irretrievably flawed, and teachers and others used to the current ways will resist him.

In addition, politicians out to gain popularity or win the next election, will stir the emotions of parents and others to protest the changes, especially those involving Islamic curricula.

There are many more issues, of course. All he has to do is refer to the thousands of papers produced at workshops and seminars over the years, and polls about the education system, to know what they are.

I do not envy the acting education minister. But then, he wanted the portfolio from day one. Remember, he named himself education minister and only appointed Maszlee after he was reminded by Pakatan Harapan leaders and the public that the PH manifesto says the prime minister shall not hold any other portfolio.

But I suppose no one will say anything about holding the post in an acting capacity. Whatever it is, Mahathir should know that many of the problems today, including his complaint that national schools have become Islamic schools, have their roots, if not their trunks, during the period when he was prime minister and Anwar Ibrahim was a member of his Cabinet.

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