edunation: Upholding nationalism in national schools

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on December 18, 2017 - December 24, 2017.
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The Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia (PAGE) has always advocated that national schools the first choice of parents as their children embark on the most important journey of their lives — seeking knowledge, fostering good citizenry and nurturing humanity.

This wish is aligned with the aspirations of the Ministry of Education for the people of Malaysia to be united as one diverse entity as laid out in the Rukunegara. While there may be several types of schools at primary level to suit their respective ethnicities, young Malaysians will come together as they progress to the next stage of secondary education as teenage students, save for the minority Chinese independent, residential and religious schools.

Unfortunately, in recent years, this aspiration has been marred by frequent and unsettling policy changes on language as well as a perceived Islamisation of national schools, or to be exact, a Malay-nisation of how Islam should be practised. This is the problem.

As I write, more parents are considering alternatives to the national education system, which is now dubbed the Malay school, and these include Malays who feel intellectually stifled and prefer a more global outlook and broader perspective for their children.

As it is, we are experiencing unhealthy, record levels of brain drain. While it may appear as a mere statistic, the long-term effects can be staggering for the nation as a whole, for obvious reasons.

Islam is the official religion of Malaysia. How–ever, Malaysia is not an Islamic country, although it is guided by Islamic principles. No doubt, Islam is a way of life for every Muslim but this does not entitle us to impose our beliefs and practices on each other or on non-Muslims. Islam also exists to protect any minority that feels threatened or sidelined, yet this often remains mere rhetoric and is conveniently overlooked.

It is safer and less confrontational for Malay parents to move their children to other types of schools than to remark openly — forget even questioning or forever be condemned — on the over-Malay-Islamisation creeping into schools. The following phrase was spotted on a Facebook page of a reformist and religious adviser to an opposition leader who has since been “quietened” by the authorities: “If your religion teaches you not to question, then your religion is hiding something from you.”

The Ministry of Education should not be afraid to question either.

National news organisation Bernama (“All schools in Kuantan must hold mass prayer before students go home” on Nov 29) published a report on a verbal directive from the District Education Office of Kuantan compelling primary and secondary schools in its area to conduct a mass prayer, presumably daily, in any suitable part of the school before the students head home. This was mandated because prayer is considered one of the key elements in character building. However, the solution lies in making better decisions in imparting knowledge.

For a Muslim, praying five times a day is compulsory and is a pillar of Islam. The effort to organise congregational prayer in national schools is commendable. However, while such a prayer is highly recommended, it should remain voluntary. Any Muslim student should be allowed to opt out of these congregational prayers without having to face any embarrassment, humiliation or punishment. It should neither inconvenience nor disrupt the Muslim student if he prefers to head home to have a nutritious meal with his family, cleanse himself with a shower, then say his prayers in solitude or in congregation with his parents and siblings.

Islam does not compel, coerce nor impose its beliefs on anyone, especially non-Muslims. If there is an outcry by a minority that their rights are being trampled on in schools, it should be given due attention and must be addressed by the education authorities. A solution beneficial to all parties must be found.

I have been told that non-Muslim children often run home from school to their parents with tears in their eyes because their Muslim “friends” tell them that they will rot in hell because they are not Muslim. Some say religion, like politics, should be left at the school gate. Malay-Islamisation is so ingrained in national schools that it would be difficult to separate the two. But what can be done still is to contain it. We have responsible school leaders who are our beacon of hope and we trust them to ensure minority rights are equally protected.

National schools have to live up to their name. National schools must practise a certain level of pragmatism to accommodate all students. National schools should portray and practise an inclusive spirit and atmosphere for all young Malaysians irrespective of ethnicity, culture or religion. A polarised nation will only destroy our colourful yet delicate fabric of diversity.

Let us begin the new academic year in 2018 with a new mindset and refreshing scientific innovations for a change. Till then, happy holidays and may the new year be a progressive one.


Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim is the chairman of Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia, which is an educational lobby group that serves as a channel between concerned parents, the Ministry of Education and other educational stakeholders

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