In a YouTube video, Mufti Menk, a prominent Muslim preacher, reminds his audience about one’s desire to go to paradise. In a light-hearted manner, nonetheless to make a jolting and profound point, he says, “Everyone wants to go to paradise. But to get to paradise, you need to die. But no one wants to die.”
It seems that more and more people are obsessed with the hereafter. Though securing a safe haven in the afterlife is an aim we strive to achieve, many of us forget, or rather need to be properly taught, how good conduct contributes to human welfare and how good deeds benefit others in this lifetime. For this too can be a way of securing a ticket to heaven.
It is indeed jolting to accept the advent of the “green wave” and the increased popularity of the PAS political party after the 15th general election. Are the younger generation from the Undi18 pool becoming more “religious”, in that their choices are influenced by those they perceive would lead them to heaven? Could they have been indoctrinated in the past and/or swayed by guerrilla election tactics to make that selection? Were they nurtured and conditioned in their formative years in ways that have left an impact on their minds, or is it just herd mentality to obey authority without question? Many observers were quick to point to the state of our education system that emphasises religion and the indoctrination method of teaching as factors that led to such an election result as a natural outcome.
The topic of religious studies overriding other more important worldly subjects has been brought up on numerous occasions. It is evident that the time allotted for Islamic studies and its related subjects in primary school is more than that for science, mathematics and English. The result of this, which we can see, is that it is not helping to improve the performance of our students in the STEM subjects and English.
However much we envision a more balanced and non-polarised education system, with heterogeneous, diverse and multi-racial national schools, the fact remains that the majority of the schools are homogeneously Malay Muslim. Being homogenous and culturally dominated by a group of people of the same race or religion is not the problem. We see many countries in the world which are successful and where their society is made up of a single ethnic group. This is true of most of the top performing countries in education, like China, Finland, Singapore, Japan and South Korea, where the majority of the teachers and students are dominated by one race. However, their performance in educational attainment is in the top tier. It is evident that monoculturalism is not a barrier to achieving excellence in education.
The issue that we need to address is instilling the culture of excellence, as well as accountability. Countries with high performance in education have that in their formula. Their teachers are excellent and the curriculum, programmes and support system are excellent in achieving the overall objective of quality education.
Improvements outlined in the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 (MEB) cannot happen without some drastic changes taking place. The need to improve overall human resources and leadership quality at the Ministry of Education (MoE) is clear. This is the major reason why the MEB is slow to progress, because there are too many obstacles and unremovable obstructions that are detrimental to its progress. It is not just about improving teacher capacity, although that is the key component. But overall, leadership in schools, district offices, state departments and various sections of the MoE must also be of a certain quality and calibre.
If we want to improve performance in STEM and English, these subjects must be accorded the same status as religious studies. Currently, Islamic studies as a subject has a separate department within MoE, hence the focus and attention it gets.
Earlier this month, there was to be the launch of a programme to be implemented in all Johor national primary and secondary schools — a salutation and blessings to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) that was to replace the ringing of the bell. This was to be recited as well as played during recess and as students enter and exit class. According to the organiser, the Johor district education department said it would serve as a reminder to Muslim students to appreciate the Prophet. But the announcement of the programme made its way to social media and netizens were up in arms about its application in national schools. It is no surprise that the programme received public criticism, which then led to the launch being cancelled. But the big question is, is there a check and balance mechanism for religious officials to ensure that programmes designed for national schools adhere to the ethos of the national school? Are these personalities being checked to prevent overzealousness? This is an example of measures that are neither progressive nor serve to develop an individual’s skill set. This sort of initiative further erodes the perception of the quality of national schools.
Some of these “well-meaning” actions must be stopped, blasphemous though it may seem. This is one of the latest examples of how the national school is seen as becoming more Islamic and moulding students who would just follow the herd and obey orders.
Can this type of ingrained culture be changed? Will we be able to get quality people at the MoE to work together and realise the dream and vision of moving mountains to ensure that our children get the quality of education they deserve?
Tunku Munawirah Putra is honorary secretary of the Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia, an educational lobby group that serves as a channel between concerned parents, the Ministry of Education and other educational stakeholders
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