Swap STAM For STEM To Enhance Malay Competitiveness
M. Bakri Musa
[I interrupt the regular serialization of my Liberating The Malay Mind for this commentary. The serialization will resume next week. MBM]
In 2016, nearly nine thousand students, almost exclusively Malays, sat for the Sijil Tinggi Agama Malaysia (STAM-Religious High School Certificate). The results were announced last week with great fanfare.
Also last weekend, and with even greater fanfare, was the glittering mega event at Putrajaya, “Reviving The Islamic Spirit” (RIS) conference. That was the first time it was held outside the Muslim-minority West and in a Muslim-majority country. The organizers made a big point on that.
Careful observation would reveal that, the government excepted, in the modern sectors of Malaysian life and economy, Malays (and thus Muslims) remain very much in the minority and at the margins. Only the overwhelming presence of the Malay-dominated government in the marketplace masks this stark reality. Malaysia’s ostentatious minarets and other very visible artifacts of Islam give visitors and natives alike a false sense of achievement.
So in reality, having RIS in Malaysia did not alter the conference’s traditional and overall Muslim-minority ambience.
Judging from the luminaries and the trappings, the conference must have cost a bundle. However expensive, it pales to the opportunity costs of the squandering of precious Malay brains through STAM. Malays and Muslims would advance more if we get rid of STAM and revamp our religious schools.
Religious schools in Malaysia and elsewhere in the Muslim world should be more like those in the West. Meaning, produce their share of the nation’s scientists, entrepreneurs and engineers. These schools should not be monasteries or a refuge for Malays escaping from this world.
The world is heavy into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) but Malays are rushing into STAM. Ever wonder why we are still behind? The only sliver of hope was the slight drop in the number of candidates last year.
The Islamic cachet sells with Malays. More Malay parents enroll their children in Islamic schools, greased by the deterioration of the national stream.
STAM’s curriculum is narrow, restricted to Islam and Arabic. Even Malay is not offered, while English is only an elective, not as a formal subject but a prep course for the Malaysian Universities English Test (MUET). Malays forget that the language of RIS is English. How could they understand the message of the conference without knowing English?
The only universities STAM students could enroll in, apart from local ones (and only if they pass their MUET), would be Arab ones, hardly the leading centers of learning. The courses those students could pursue are even more constricted.
Outside the religious establishment, the only jobs STAM graduates could get would be as tour guides for visiting Arabs. These students could not even be their camel herders. Even if those students were lucky enough to be one, the only thing they could do for their sick herd would be to pray.
Islamic education in Malaysia and the Muslim world is outmoded and irrelevant. The Arabs are scratching their heads on how to modernize their archaic system. However, do not expect any utterance at the RIS conference on this critical daunting issue facing Muslims.
The central fallacy if not arrogance of contemporary Muslim scholars is the obsession with the “Islamization” of knowledge, the view that there is a uniquely Islamic version or perspective. That conceit flies in the face of reality as evidenced by the wide spectrum of views within Islam throughout history as well as now. Muslim ulamas and leaders however, would prefer the flock to be like sheep, subscribing to the only one true version of Islam, as they see it.
Ancient Muslim scholars saw no such distinction between the secular and religious; the leading ones were both scientists and ulamas. Those ancient Muslims did not hesitate learning from the atheistic and polytheistic Greeks. Early Muslims would go to China if they had to in the pursuit of knowledge even though the Chinese did not believe in Allah.
I do not know whether there was any irony intended when Syed Naquib Al Attas, the champion of this Islamization, was honored with the Al Ghazzali Achievement Award at this RIS!
A saying attributed to Martin Luther has it that a Christian cobbler would best demonstrate his devotion to God not by carving intricate crucifixes on the shoes he makes but to make them sturdy and cheap so as to be durable and affordable. You serve God by serving your fellow man, not by endlessly reciting His Glory. He doesn’t need that.
A comparable hadith has it that a man was admitted into Heaven because he once removed a thorn from a path, thus saving others from hurting themselves; likewise, a prostitute who brought water to a dog dying of thirst. If those were the rewards in Islam, imagine what it would be for the engineer who built the road or bridge so villagers could bring their produce to market or their sick child to the hospital! Also imagine the reward for a veterinarian!
STAM does not prepare you to be an engineer or a veterinarian. The current Islamic education reduces our great faith to a set of rituals and our Holy Koran to a mere talisman, no different from the dried grass strands our animist ancestors hung to ward off evil spirits. Want to pass your examination, recite the Koran; want to heal your illness, likewise.
This vast chasm separating Islamic leaders, religious and otherwise, from reality and the masses is the most formidable challenge facing the ummah.
Consider corruption, the blight of all Muslim societies. Not a word was uttered at that RIS conference. I met one of the American speakers before he left for Malaysia. Knowing that I was from there, his first words after the customary salutation was, “Return the billions to the people!” he jested, in reference to the 1MDB scandal. I hope he did mention that at the conference.
Another speaker at RIS was Afifi al-Akiti, a local fellow now a don at Oxford. He was once asked while on a government-sponsored trip back home on the scandalous corruptions now blighting Malaysia. He grinned and pleaded ignorance, his being away from the country for so long! What a cop out! Either that or he was so cloistered in his cramped Oxford office and equally restricted discipline to be aware of the outside world.
Throughout history, ulamas and scholars were formidable bulkheads against the excesses of leaders. Today these scholars have been co-opted by the state and given impressive titles and equally generous stipends. I am reminded of the wisdom that Heaven is full of rulers who were close to scholars, but Hell is full of scholars who befriended rulers.
If Muslims are serious about reviving the spirit of our great faith, begin with the simple Koranic injunction: Command good, and forbid evil. The rest is but commentary. Condemning the corruption, injustices and flagrant human rights abuses of your host country would be an excellent start. As for serving God by serving mankind, young Malays would achieve this better through pursuing STEM than STAM.
In doing so, perhaps when RIS would again be held in Malaysia, it would be truly in a Muslim-majority country in all respects and sectors.