Ideas: Where we’re at with national unity

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on October 18, 2021 - October 24, 2021.
Ideas: Where we’re at with national unity
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If the issue of national unity is considered honestly, we will realise that the superficial treatment that many politicians give it has almost created a sense of indifference among the rakyat about its importance. Moreover, there is no sign that this lack of concern is about to change soon.

Ironically, there has been no dearth of attempts to inculcate national unity among the people. One policy after another has been introduced to promote it. Among them are the National Service Training Programme (abolished in 2018), the 2006 National Education Blueprint, “Bangsa Malaysia” policy, and the “Wawasan 2020” and “1Malaysia” concepts. The latest effort was announced in February when former prime minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin launched the National Unity Blueprint 2021-2030.

It is very clear why we need national unity and that fostering it involves addressing many components of the issue. To get there, however, is both a delicate and complex process.

Education’s role in fostering unity

Education is undeniably a crucial element in strengthening national unity.

Like it or not, though, the reality is that the education system in Malaysia is fragmented along multiple lines and has been so for a long time. This cannot continue if we want to move forward together as a nation.

The debate about the public/private education divide is just one aspect of the challenge. There are also concerns about the divergence between the religious and national school systems, and between the national and vernacular schools.

In addition to these standard forms of schooling, alternative systems like home schooling further contribute to the fragmentation of national education.

To complicate the discussion on the role of education in national unity, the repeated changes to the curriculum and medium of instruction for science and maths are also factors that have affected the people’s outlook on the issue.

If we add other dimensions to the already complex nature of our education system, say the issue of inclusive education, other areas for discussion are opened. For now, let’s take a general look at the role of education.

How do we know that the attempts at national unity through education have, thus far, been relatively unsuccessful in reaching its targets?

For starters, the introduction of the obligatory Ethnic Relations (Hubungan Etnik) course at universities is a clear indication. The Ethnic Relations class in universities has been touted as “a new phase of multiculturalism” in education. However, if anything, its existence highlights two things: first, that national unity has not been properly fostered in the primary and secondary stages of education and second, the responsibility of fostering a sense of unity among students has now been shifted to tertiary education.

However, that is clearly a tall order. Moreover, it distracts attention from the challenges of preparing young people for employment. By the time students reach university, they need to focus on acquiring the necessary skill sets that are sought after in the job market.

To make the universities shoulder the burden of achieving in one semester what 11 years of schooling should have done works against the main purpose of university education. Furthermore, we wouldn’t have to worry about inculcating the spirit of national unity at the university level if this had been done successfully earlier.

At the same time, it is equally important to acknowledge that this attempt to foster unity has noble intentions. It’s just that in terms of its practicality, the “unity” that is fostered through this course is superficial. All that becomes of it is essentially that students put themselves through the exercise because it is compulsory to pass the course in order to complete their degree.

So, where are we now? Our political culture needs to be freed from its communal chains and our education system is quite the unsolved puzzle. Not exactly a pretty picture, but is it all doom and gloom for Malaysia when it comes to national unity?

Perhaps not. I am optimistic about our future partly because there is no such thing as a perfect model for national unity. All societies need to work at it. Even for the most developed countries, a complete and absolute sense of national unity among its people is unattainable.

In general, our sense of national unity isn’t as bad as it is made out to be by the politicians. Of course, we’re not without flaws and definitely not without our fair share of disagreements but overall, I think we’ve done quite well for ourselves.

Malaysia is one of a few countries where multiple ethnic groups live quite peacefully together. No one thought we could, especially not the British after granting us our independence, but we have proved the naysayers wrong. National harmony didn’t just last for a few years (with the exception of the 1969 racial riots), it has lasted for 64 years. That in itself is already a commendable feat.

The way forward?

Coming back to the role of education in national unity, it is clear that the approach to fostering national unity during primary and secondary school years must be paid serious attention.

Ideally, the fostering of unity must begin at home. This would be the best place to sow the seeds of inclusiveness but in reality, family circumstances vary greatly and are subject to many factors that could affect outcomes. These factors include the role of parents in inculcating values and family dynamics involving ethnic issues, for example.

Therefore, as the school environment is generally more neutral in nature, the scope for fostering national unity within its ambit through structured learning experiences holds more promise. This will require approaches that go beyond rote memorisation of cultural values. The idea of “learning for learning’s sake” should be explored as an avenue to cultivate national unity among the young.

Another area that should be examined is the revision of our national history syllabus. It is evident that the time has come to develop a well-rounded and inclusive understanding of our history that encompasses the cultural diversity of Malaysia as a whole.

All in all, Malaysia is on the right track. We may never reach the ideal concept of unity but compared with the past, there is a higher chance today of building a more solid foundation for the version of national unity we have for ourselves.

This is due to an overall stronger willingness to have frank and civil discussions of our grievances with one another where previously, inter-racial dialogues were marred by hesitance to address sensitivities, leaving important things unsaid.


Elisha Mohd Fadzil is a research intern at the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS)

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