Education Society

[2318] Increasing the appeal of national schools by reducing the role of religion

Prejudice against any group depends on generalization for it to take root successfully in one’s mind.

Although I have to admit that sometimes there are voices in my head whispering ethnic prejudice and stereotype, I typically find it hard to harbor such sentiment for long. I have friends of ethnicities different from mine. If I succumbed to such prejudice, I must necessarily think badly of them. I appreciate my friends and thinking badly of them disturbs me.

I take comfort that I know many of them do not fit into prejudicial descriptions that exist out there. I know my friends violate such prejudicial generalization, hence falsifying it. This forms my first barrier against such prejudice.

I am only one person, whose preference and experience are not necessarily shared by others. Yet, I do think the idea that a person’s familiarity with individuals of different ethnicity acting as a contradictory force to prejudicial generalization can be extrapolated to others’ thinking. The idea encourages one to evaluate a person based on his or her action or words instead on others’ who share the person’s ethnicity.

This is why I support any platform encouraging interaction between individuals of different ethnic backgrounds. This is why I support the national school system and frown upon any system contributing to ethnic segregation, despite the shortcomings of the national schools, and despite my appreciation for choices within the Malaysian education system.

While tuning in my blue iPod to the BBC in London recently, I caught David Cameron announcing that multiculturalism has failed. He lamented the policy of passive tolerance that has caused individuals to segregate themselves according to their ethnic background. From far, British society is multicultural but a closer look may justify Cameron’s concern.

Although the situation in Britain is different from that in Malaysia, there are communities in Malaysia that segregate willingly.

The education system in general does not help in breaking this trend. The Malays mostly go to national schools, which are Malay or Muslim-dominated. The trend repeats itself in the vernacular streams.

There are exceptions. Some national schools are diverse, especially those that are well-endowed and located in urban areas. Some vernacular schools are diverse as well. It is worth stressing again that these are exceptions, however. There are simply not enough children from different ethnicities learning in the same classroom when one assesses a majority of these schools individually. This limits the opportunity for interaction.

There are many reasons why that trend prevails in the national schools. I will not go into all of them. I intend to highlight only one of them in hope of bringing focus. Others can highlight other factors if they wish to do so.

Religion, specifically Islam, plays too much of a role in the national schools. That erodes the idea that the national schools are national, hence inclusive. When one religion appears to dominate, the idea of inclusivity bows down to exclusivity. The dominance may cause parents with other religious beliefs — as well as those without belief — distrust in the national schools being able to provide their children with the necessary education without instilling Islamic belief.

Worse, the heavy presence of Islam in the system creates the perception that non-Muslims are second-class citizens. This is best demonstrated when Islamic prayers are said during school assemblies. While students of other beliefs are encouraged to pray in their own way when the Islamic prayers are said, the practice does say a lot about which religion takes the foremost position.

Another example is the segregation that happens during Islamic lessons. Non-Muslims typically are asked to shift to a different class where they are expected to go for moral studies while Muslim students stay in the same class. That happened during my time as a student in a national school.

While the practice more than anything else is a matter of convenience — most students are Muslims — it does create the perception that, again, Islam is the religion of the national school and other religions do not deserve attention. Still, the ultimate reason they were segregated is that one group is labeled by the state as Muslim and the other as, well, others.

The perception is dangerous because children learn something about inequality. The greater danger is that these students may accept the lesson as simply the way things are in Malaysia, when such inequality should be fought instead of condoned.

There are other more sinister examples. One includes an incident several months back when a student was caned because he brought pork for lunch to school. Islam prohibits Muslims from consuming pork and that wrongly guided the action of the responsible school official to cane the non-Muslim student. The wider implication is that the example suggests that non-Muslim students should follow Islamic teachings. This links back to the issue of trust mentioned earlier.

The perception that non-Muslims are second-class citizens is not something non-Muslim parents would want or should let their children accept. Malaysia belongs to all Malaysians. Religion should not matter.

If attendance at the national schools encourages acceptance of inequality by these young students, then non-Muslim parents who believe in equality have a reason — likely another reason out of many — not to enroll their children in the national schools. This ultimately hurts the national schools’ function as an unofficial social integrator within Malaysian society.

One solution is to separate religion from schools. The national schools should be made blind to religion in a way that religion stays only within the necessary lesson. Religion should not be included during school functions and not in science classes, but only in religious classes.

The separation can remove the apprehension non-Muslim parents have about the national schools with respect to religious belief, hence making the system more appealing to non-Muslim parents. Muslim parents meanwhile can continue to be assured that their children will learn about Islam during Islamic lessons, if they wish their children to learn it.

Perhaps as part of larger liberal values, all students should be allowed to choose what they wish to learn, regardless of their religious beliefs in the spirit of free inquiry. This also includes the arts and the sciences. No longer will students be segregated during lessons based on religious beliefs but they will be separated based on their interests and curiosity.

Hopefully, after making national schools neutral of religion, we will be a step closer to becoming an inclusive national system to encourage interaction, where individuals of one ethnicity befriend those of another to acquire the idea that his or her friend contradicts many of the prejudicial generalizations that exist out there.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved

First published in The Malaysian Insider on February 16 2011.


[2073] Of busting the myth of the monolithic community

What happened on a Friday in Shah Alam — when a group of individuals protesting against construction of a Hindu temple chose to do it by parading a severed cow’s head knowing full well that Hindus hold the cow sacred — is disgusting. There are ways to protest but the method employed by them is so despicable that it should be unthinkable and, hence, unspeakable. Malaysians who believe in a more inclusive future have every right to be angry at the protesters, whatever their political inclinations may be.

So reckless was the action that it left far too many thinking individuals with a revolting aftertaste that lingers on the tongue, even days after. It reminds too many Malaysians of one of the worst facets, if not the worst, that Malaysia can offer. It invokes all kinds of negative emotion: fear, sadness, disgust, anger. Pessimism reigns.

Regardless of debate regarding the ideals of Malaysia, this is no way to enter August 31, or September 16.
On the other side of the coin is the romantic Malaysia at play however.

If one concentrates just barely, one would realize an oft-overlooked but yet obvious and crucial fact in the whole episode. It is a fact that is capable of holding the tide of pessimism as the Hoover Dam to the Colorado.

It is a fact that the one who is standing up for a minority group against the majority is Khalid Samad, a Muslim Malay. It is a hopelessly clichéd romantic narration in which a Malaysian of a different background stands up for another Malaysian of different background.

Nonetheless, this important fact deserves greater attention because it provides a concrete example in combating generalization that leads to the perception that a community is homogeneous in its opinion and that that opinion is one where all Malays are out to oppress the non-Malays. It is especially useful in undoing views that the whole majority population — every Malay — is bent on pushing the minority aside with impunity.

For the action of a very limited number of individuals, there are those who condemn the whole Malay population as they condemned the outrageous protesters. This generalization is unfair and unbecoming of anybody that dreams of an inclusive Malaysia.

That generalization is absurd. More than absurd, it is dangerous because that itself leads to a greater downward spiral into bigotry. While they themselves claim to abhor bigotry, they themselves are falling into the same trap that forms the basis of such bigotry.

It cannot be emphasized enough that one large factor contributing to the racial and religious mess in Malaysia is the perception that ethnic groups in Malaysia are monolithic and that there is no individual but only a unit listening to the hive mind inside each of this group.

This is not a conflict between Muslim Malays against the minority. Rather, it is a conflict between inclusiveness and intolerance. For this reason, for their offence, these barbarians deserve focused criticism with the spirit of inclusiveness. But not with further bigotry and racism.

Any criticism that has with it a hint of bigotry and racism — in this particular case, by equating the whole Malay population with that of the few barbarians — is counterproductive. Such criticism against the protesters only justifies and strengthens the flawed notion of monolithic community because it attacks other Malays and Muslims who are innocent of the appalling act done on Friday in Shah Alam. When these Malays and Muslims are unfairly criticized, the likelihood of them to fall in line with the perceived communal pattern increases to worsen the situation.

The presence of Khalid Samad — not him as a person per se but the fact that he is a Muslim Malay — standing in opposite to the position of bigots forces anybody contemplating to unfairly commit that gross generalization. The role of Khalid Samad makes good the abstract criticism that has been made against the perception of monolithic community for the longest time.

Granted, such roles as that played by Khalid Samad frequently plays out in smaller settings every day around Malaysia and, in fact, around the world. Khalid Samad is not an exception to a generalization. Instead, the generalization of monolithic community is downright wrong.

Unfortunately, those who hastily generalize too often are too blind to see so small a deed. What they need is a big one to convince them.

With the temple controversy becoming a national issue, the role Khalid Samad has assumed provides Malaysians with an opportunity to demonstrate and convince themselves how flawed the notion of monolithic community is. It provides a chance to smash the idea of homogeneity to smithereens.

That is something Malaysians should celebrate and that should be the spirit as Malaysia celebrates its day, be it August 31, September 16 or any other day for that matter.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved

First published in The Malaysian Insider on September 1 2009.