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.
First published in The Malaysian Insider on February 16 2011.