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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, June 20, 2021

Race, Religion, and the Politics of Education In Malaysia (Part 6 of 10)


Race, Religion, and the Politics of Education in Malaysia

What Price Affirmative Action?

M. Bakri Musa


[Presented at the Asia Pacific Research Center (APARC), Stanford University, Palo Alto, Ca, April 28, 2003, chaired by Prof. Don Emmerson. Conditions have only worsened since.]


Sixth of Ten Parts:  Enter The Islamists!


The late 1980s saw a heavy emphasis on Islam in national schools, together with the vast expansion of the religious stream. Non-Muslim students in national schools soon felt increasingly out of place and began opting for vernacular schools. Many Malay parents on the other hand felt that national schools were not “Islamic” enough and began shunting their children to religious schools.


            Personal piety aside, Malay parents had plenty of other reasons for choosing religious schools. Unlike their secular (national) counterpart, these schools were focused on religion, with committed teachers. Parents and the community too were deeply involved believing that they were doing God’s work. As such these schools experienced few disciplinary problems, no bullying, teenage pregnancies, or drug problems. In today’s environment, those were significant achievements.


Despite their meager resources and less-than-ideal facilities, their students excelled. The only problem was that their entire curriculum was consumed with religious studies. Their backers claimed that they were also taught science and mathematics, but at the most elementary level. There were also no fine arts, music, or enriched extracurricular activities. Those were deemed “un-Islamic.”


There were a few individual success stories of their excelling outside the narrow discipline of Islamic Studies, but those were the outliers, far from being the norm as the backers of religious schools would like us to believe. For the vast majority, their dream and only option would be a job in the rapidly expanding Islamic establishment, as being a member of the moral squad, again doing as they see it, God’s work.


I do not know which came first, the fast expanding religious bureaucracy that demanded more workers from the Islamic stream, or the glut of religious graduates that had to be employed.


In post-9-11 these schools received extra scrutiny because some were teaching an extremely fanatical and intolerant brand of Islam. Many of their teachers were trained at conservative religious colleges in Pakistan and the Middle East. They sympathized openly with the Taliban and Osama bin Ladin.


The crowning achievement for the Islamists was the Organization of Islamic Conference’s sponsorship of the International Islamic University (IIU) in Malaysia. Since it was designed to take students from other Muslim countries, IIU adopted English as its medium of instruction. That immediately created problems vis a vis the national language policy that would have all universities use Malay exclusively. To overcome this legal hurdle, the government had IIU declared not an educational institution rather a private corporation and thus exempted from the language stricture. So it was registered under the Companies Act within the Ministry of International Trade and Industry. Clever!


The remarkable aspect to the whole legal shenanigans was the unusual silence of the language nationalists. They did not raise even a whimper of protest, demonstrating that among Malays, nationalism is secondary to Islamism.


Unlike many Islamic universities, IIU has professional faculties like Law, Engineering, and Medicine. The narrow curriculum of those religious schools however does not prepare their students for such studies. As such IIU has to take students from the secular stream.


With its fortuitous choice of English as the medium of instruction, IIU graduates command a premium in the marketplace. IIU has many other distinctions; many of its students are trilingual – English, Malay, and Arabic. Many know a fourth, their native tongue. Not many universities could claim this distinction of such linguistically gifted students – a definite plus in this global diverse market. IIU also has the highest percentage of international students of any Asian university.


            Islamization of Malaysian education created two dangerous trends . One, it further segregated and polarized Malaysians, not only between Muslims and non-Muslims but also between conservative versus progressive Muslims. It further reinforced ethnic and religious identities instead of fostering a common Malaysian outlook. Two, as Malays are increasingly opting for these religious schools with their narrow curriculum, they are again being poorly served.


            The challenge is to modernize these religious schools as well as reduce the influence of religion in the national stream. A daunting task! The Islamic establishment would not take kindly to any diminution, or even threat thereof, of its role and influence. It is unfortunate and tragic that Malay leaders have yet to recognize this, let alone begin to remedy this festering problem. Unchecked it could be Malaysia’s undoing. If this modernization of Islamic schools were to be executed poorly and without sensitivity, that would provoke the ire of the Islamists. They in turn could incite the masses.


            Islamization of the education system created the worst of all situations. It was accompanied by a marked deterioration in quality except for the bright star of IIU, and the system does not foster a common national identity. As the religious stream does not prepare their students for the modern marketplace, Malaysia is again creating educational inequities, except this time it is through the deliberate and willing choice of the participants, principally Malay parents and Malay policymakers, unlike earlier inequities that were imposed by the colonialists.


Next:  Seventh of Ten Parts:  Private Sector Participation



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