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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #77

Chapter 9: Islam in Malay Life

Reform in Islam

Islamization of Education

There was a time when religion did not have any role in the Malaysian education system. Public schools were completely secular. There were some Christian missionary schools during colonial times, but they did not attract many Malay pupils. Malay parents were fearful that their children would be converted, a not unreasonable anxiety given the proselytizing fervor of those early missionaries. Following independence, religion was still kept out of the schools. There were Islamic schools but these were private, small, and mainly in rural areas. They catered exclusively to children of poor villagers. Their mission too was equally modest: teaching the basic rituals of Islam. Typically they were the one-teacher schools, the madrasah. Not much was expected and not much was delivered. I briefly attended one of them.

In light of the 9-11 attacks, there is much attention paid to the goings-on in these madrasah. They are less educational institutions and more indoctrination centers. They breed the kind of fanatical adherents to the faith – rigid and intolerant – that are the bane of so many Muslim societies.

Sometime in the 1980s Islam began creeping into the formal school system, at first imperceptibly but later accelerated under the tenure of Anwar Ibrahim as Education Minister. Today, Islamic Studies is a core subject for all Muslims students. There was an arrogant attempt by Anwar at making it mandatory to all at the university level, but that was quickly withdrawn amidst intense opposition from non-Muslims.

The government also set up a system of public religious schools where the entire curriculum is consumed with Islamic Studies. The physical facilities of these schools are far superior to the madrasah but the intellectual climate is only marginally better. Universities that are supposedly geared for science and technology also have large Islamic Studies departments. The International Islamic University only very recently established engineering and medical faculties. Thus while the nation is in desperate need of scientists and IT graduates, Malaysian universities still churn out Islamic Studies graduates by the thousands. Their only avenue of employment is public service; they are useless in the private sector because of their narrow education.

At the time of independence in 1957, Malaysia had a substantial cadre of well-trained English teachers but none or very few in Islamic Studies. It amazes me that forty years later Malaysia is chronically short of English teachers but has a glut of religious teachers. Why this is so reflects the emphasis of the educational establishment.

Examine the typical school day. There are only so many hours, thus time devoted to the study of prophetic traditions and Qur’an must come at the expense of other subjects. It is not surprising then that Malay students do not excel in English, science, or mathematics. Too much is expected of them.

Malaysia is forever lamenting the shortage of Malays in the sciences. Look at the facts. One third of Malay students opt for religious schools, where there is little science taught. Of the remaining who chose national schools, more than half pursue the non-science stream. Thus only a third of Malay students are channeled into the science stream. Non-Malays have no religious or ethnic studies to distract them.

In the religious schools it is, as expected, all religion. Thus if their graduates do not get accepted into Islamic Studies at local or Arab universities, they are stuck. There is little transferability. Every year thousands of these students are stranded, unemployed or simply unemployable. These are the youngsters who have plenty of time to demonstrate on the streets. The system has failed them and they have every right to be angry.

Clearly, the religious schools must be revamped. I would broaden their curriculum to include English, science, and mathematics. Religion should only be one subject, not the all-consuming curriculum. Likewise secular schools should relegate Islamic Studies as an elective or at least de-emphasize it. The manner in which religion is taught too should also be changed, away from rote memory and emphasis on rituals and catechisms, to understanding the underlying concepts and essence of the faith. Use the vast literature and scholarship in Islam to develop critical thinking among the students. They should be exposed to the rich and diverse viewpoints within Islam so as to broaden their intellectual horizon.

Religious schools are popular with Malays because of the Islamic cachet. Unlike secular schools, they have low dropout rates. Malays value education when wrapped in Islamic garment. Because of this natural affinity it is all the more important that the government should not fail them.

In the decade following independence, at the height of nationalism and resurgent pride in Malay language and culture, a generation of precious young Malay minds was wasted in the relentless pursuit of the national language policy. The dreams and hopes of thousands of promising youngsters were crushed when they discovered that their hard-earned certificates and diplomas were worthless. Today Malaysia is repeating the same mistake with its zeal and emphasis on Islamic Studies. Sadly like before, the victims are again all young Malays.

The cause of Islam is enhanced greatly if future ulama have a broad-based liberal education. It would also give them a wider and better perspective. If nothing else, it would disabuse them of their arrogant certitude. They would then be less likely to resort to simplistic recitations of the hadith or the Qur’an when confronted with complex problems. Perhaps then they would make real and meaningful contributions to their ummah.

I am equally alarmed at the current intellectual fad of “Islamization” of knowledge, that is, the attempt to put an Islamic imprint on all disciplines, especially the natural sciences. Invariably it means the adulteration of science. Thus we have Islamic “scientists” who have never seen, let alone used, a test tube! Yet another absurd example: Malaysian Islamic scholars trying to blame the jinn (devil) for the recent onslaught of computer viruses! Such incidents only expose their woeful ignorance of science. The insight and wisdom of science are also ultimately derived from God and we should respect that without having to dilute or spin it into one’s preconceived ideas of what is Islamic. Science is science; there is no such thing as Islamic science just as there is no such thing as Western science. Hydrogen combines with oxygen to produce water, in Islamic Saudi Arabia as well as in atheistic Russia. Likewise, two plus two equals four, whether in Islamic mathematics or Greek numerology.

Science and religion are complementary, not adversarial. Science attempts to explain the physical world around and within us, while religion answers man’s basic spiritual needs. Advancements in science has benefited mankind immensely, we should not belittle those. But no matter how well off man is materially, there will always be the spiritual void that needs to be filled with religion. The seminal difference between science and religion is this. In science you have to see in order to believe. With religion, first you believe, then you see.

In trying to discern differences where none exists, Muslim intellectuals and scientists are wasting their energy. They would be better off trying to elucidate the secrets of nature. That after all is the essence of science. Such activities as “Islamizing” this and that simply mask their dearth of intellectual ingenuity and curiosity. They cannot discover anything original in their own discipline and thus spend their time concocting schemes at such puerile intellectual pursuits as “Islamizing” established principles.

A more sinister aspect to the activities of these Islamic “scholars” is that they are hiding behind their Islamic credentials as a back door to success. Unable to advance on the usual merit, they put on the Islamic garment. Religion has always been the refuge of scoundrels, including academic ones. With the emphasis on Islam in Malaysia today, nobody dares call these academics to the carpet. Instead they are being rewarded with promotions and honors for “uplifting” the image of Islam. In truth, scientists like Abdus Salam (1979 Nobel laureate in Physics), Ahmad Zewail (Chemistry-1999) and thousands of others quietly toiling in their laboratories to uncover Allah’s secrets, do more to enhance the image of Islam than third-rate Muslim scientists cloaking themselves in the veneer of the faith.

In many ways the Islamization of Malaysia generally and of the government specifically, is reminiscent of the communist ways in the old Soviet empire. Then young Russians knew that the way to the top was not by excelling in their own field but by the back door—through the party. Thus unable to be productive as scientists or engineers, they found it much easier to be promoted by displaying their party credentials. Likewise Malay scholars and professionals today, unable to shine on their own merit, found it easier and more rewarding to embellish their Islamic credentials. Malay civil servants, lacking in executive ability and innovative ideas, exuberantly display their ardor for Islam (at least superficially), so their own incompetence could be easily overlooked.

I see only continued and increasing influence of these Islamists on Malaysia’s educational and other institutions; Malaysia risks degenerating into an Ireland of the 1920s. If this trend is not reversed, the nation and Malays specifically will continue to be mired in mediocrity.

Next: Islamic Economics


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