If formal education is meant to impart knowledge to children in schools so that they can become moral, wise, responsible, productive and useful individuals, then the former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s recent lament about our national education system is a cause for concern.
Mahathir feels that there is an overemphasis on Islamic studies in the national education system at the expense of other subjects such as English, maths, engineering and science that he considers important for children’s future employment, especially in a world where science and technology play an increasingly pivotal role.
That is why he rightly calls for a balance to be struck between the pursuit of religious knowledge, which he acknowledges is especially important to Malay-Muslims, and an academic base to prepare a child for her working life and to harness her full potential that would benefit society.
The decision of some Malay-Muslim parents to send their children to Chinese vernacular schools may be understood against this backdrop.
Mahathir, who is also a former education minister in the 1970s, is troubled by what he sees as religious education that has gone beyond its original objective of instilling basic Islam in its teachings and values.
That said, he should not be overly surprised by the drastic changes that have occurred, particularly regarding Islamic studies and even the fact that some national schools have taken on a Malay-Muslim character. Such transformation obviously did not happen recently: it had its genesis way back in the 1970s and continued in the 1980s, when Mahathir was Prime Minister, and beyond.
The push for Islamisation in government institutions, including public schools, was facilitated by the increasing number of Malays in the civil service, especially after the implementation of the New Economic Policy, which rose from the ashes of the May 13 tragedy of 1969.
Additionally, the Islamic resurgence that emerged in the late 1970s, which was partly spurred by the Iranian revolution of 1979, provided the catalyst for Malay government politicians and officials to press for public policy change that incorporated a further emphasis on Islamic teachings and practices. This also affected the national education system.
We should also factor in the ascendancy of Malay-Muslim identity politics in this phenomenal change of the country’s political and educational landscape.
The zeal involved in Islamic education constituted part of the Mahathir administration’s strategy in the 1980s to stave off challenges from its political foe, the Islamist party Pas, in the political game of burnishing their respective Islamic credentials.
In short, Islamic studies of the present variety has been influenced by certain political developments and entrenched over the years.
If a reformulation of Islamic studies in schools is to be exercised, noble values such as justice, trust, integrity, compassion and dignity – which the religion enjoins its followers to uphold – should be given well-deserved attention and emphasis in the curriculum.
This is especially so when, say, injustices overwhelm the lives of the vulnerable, when corruption becomes the norm so that even the religious look the other way, when reckless cutting down of forests is made out to be God’s bounty for the taking, and when dignity is sold for a song in the relentless pursuit of power and wealth.
While emphasising the importance of such school subjects as maths, science and engineering, Mahathir frowns upon the arts subjects of history, literature and languages, which is unfortunate and myopic. These arts subjects provide students with crucial understanding and appreciation of various aspects of humanity and society and offer a vital moral compass.
History, for instance, not only tells us what happened in the past but also helps us to understand the present and anticipate the future. At the very least, history warns us that, to quote philosopher George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Looked upon, rather erroneously, by some as a subject of less “economic value”, literature offers human stories that invite us to reflect on our lives and cultures and unite us across space and time. It also has had a major impact on the development of society and exposed injustice.
When complemented by these other subjects, an enlightened approach to Islamic studies may well be able to help develop well-rounded individuals out of our children in schools. – The Malaysian Insight