From The Malaysian newspaper New Straits Times 21 December 2002 CASE IN POINT: Show a bit more faith in national schools
by Umi Khattab*
MANY are pondering why certain groups of people in society seem obsessed with religious education to the extent that they have chosen to place their children in what is commonly referred to as Sekolah Agama Rakyat (SAR), lacking confidence in the national education system and in what the Government sees as best for the people.
If religion could solve all our woes, we would not need science, medicine, government, money, clothes and food.
Sure, there are schools of thought that profess science, technology, money, food, clothes and governments are all about religion and that religion must be the basis to our thoughts, acts and deeds.
Thus, instead of shutting down SAR, let's close down national schools, since it is claimed they have lost their lustre, and open more religious schools and universities. These will produce better brains and earn better jobs for Malaysians in general. In fact, these religious schools will nurture disciplined Malaysians who will never betray the Government.
Many religious gurus and their fans go to great lengths to outwardly manifest their belief in order to seek approval from and impress their community.
A lifetime is spent on religious obligations preparing from as young an age as possible for the afterlife.
Some are known to make religion a business. They build schools, banks, manufacture and retail products and form associations and political parties.
This is carried out through a process of fee collection, donations and fund-raising, all in the name of heavenly blessings. Many write books, publish news organs and fill websites propagating a particular version of their faith, mythologising and profiteering lucratively in the process. Because of the blind obsession with their faith, many do business with no regard for other communities, failing as such to Malaysianise, Asianise and globalise their products and ideas.
There are some shops and offices that insist I must take off my shoes before entering. Most times, I change my mind, and move on to another that does not impose or inconvenience me - as a customer I have the power to decide.
A handful of these gurus become billionaires while the seduced majority remain impoverished.
Thus, religious pursuits if not placed under checks and balances, can lead to the creation of rogues and scoundrels who will make religion a trade and a political game.
Because of threats from the Islamic opposition party - Pas - the Barisan Nasional Government appears to have lost its sense of multi-religious and multiethnic responsibility. So much effort went into accusing MIC and MCA of being unpatriotic when the issue of a single school system was raised and debated. Writing elsewhere, I myself, in different words, advocated the abolition of vernacular schools and the introduction of multi-lingualism under one roof and the need for Malaysians to actively master more than one language for meaningful ethnic integration and useful employment.
Now, as we take the first step in cleaning up non-mainstream schools such as the SAR, little regard is given to the secularisation of education, as though it is a sin to even mention it. Discourse on religious education in Malaysia blatantly disregards the spiritual needs of ethnic minority communities that together make up almost 50 per cent of the population. They have no God and no spiritual quest, but they have a mother tongue. The teaching of religious education in national schools must be approached almost like the teaching of languages. I say religious education, not Islamic education because the spiritual needs of all Malaysians must be respected and reflected in the education system. Schools must introduce students to as many religious traditions as possible and encourage pupils to understand various religious principles and thoughts. All religious books and scriptures must be made available in school libraries. In other words, the responsibility of national schools must be towards nurturing a Bangsa Malaysia, made to understand fundamental differences and similarities in religious beliefs and practices and in the process acquire skills to live together in harmony.
More detailed religious instruction can be offered outside the curriculum in Saturday classes open to all ethnic groups who should be free to choose to attend an Islamic, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu or Bahai session, or not to attend at all. Furthermore, as SAR get absorbed into national schools and as these schools appear more Islamic in outlook, presumably giving more time and emphasis to Islamic education, non-Muslims will naturally move out leading to a win-lose situation. The fear among ethnic minority nonMuslims is the possible emergence of an Islamic national school system, which may, in theory, preach equality and fair treatment of non-Muslims, but in practice, create a segregated school environment.
Many ethnic minorities, including some Malays, for a long time opted out of the national school system, because they preferred a secular environment of learning.
In order to win, Malaysian Muslims must ask, why the minority non-Muslims are not demanding religious instructions in national schools as they are for the preservation of vernacular schools. Non-Muslims in general tend not to fuss over religion nor drag it into schools and politics. This, however, must not be misconstrued as their being irreligious or in any way less religious.
These communities, I understand, draw clear lines between science and faith and do not waste time politicising or sensationalising religion. To many non-Muslims, faith tends to be a private matter, while language is a public one. But this does not mean the Government must totally disregard and disrespect the spiritual needs of an increasing minority population in the schools of today. As things stand, Malaysia seems to be in many ways divided along the lines of Islamic and non-Islamicness. This is evident in the legal, education, financial, social and political institutions. The national education system too, if not thought out well, will grow into a national Islamic and non-Islamic system. National schools must have a selling point - a differentiation - to draw citizens of the country to fill up the seats, sit comfortably next to each other, and learn in a socially healthy, politically equitable, multi-cultural environment. I wish all readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
* The writer is associate professor in the School of Media and Communication Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.