Malaysia’s national education
system has become a source of Islamic indoctrination and racial bias. Regressive
teaching methods and segregation are producing an angry and radical generation
of young Malays, threatening the country’s national unity and stability.
By Umair Jamal
In Malaysia, education is becoming a battleground for the moderate and the extreme right.
Branded “indoctrinating factories for Malay
children” by human rights lawyer Siti Kasim, Malaysia’s national
school system is dividing the country along ethnic lines. Ethnic segregation has become a major problem
in Malaysia’s education system even though the institutional role of education
should serve as a unifying force for the country’s multi‐ethnic society.
Furthermore, the country’s education system, which is heavily
influenced by Islamic teaching from first grade right up to university, has
become a source of tensions and youth radicalization.
schools widen ethnic divides
The debate rages about whether Malaysia’s vernacular schools should continue. The
country’s education system has not been decolonized. For instance, parents from
each of the three major ethnic groups—Chinese, Indian, and Malay—prefer to send their children to vernacular schools, where their individual
languages and cultures are taught.
Research suggests that Malaysians are unlikely
to make friends
outside their own ethnic groups
at schools due to the ongoing segregation of different ethnic communities at
educational institutes. This lack of diversity denies young Malaysians the opportunity
to develop interethnic friendships. It creates metaphorical barriers between
this way, existing political, economic and
social inequalities among the diverse ethnic groups in the country have found
their way into the country’s education system. In Malaysia, politicians rely on ethnic voters for support and have never pushed to stop
these cultural boundaries penetrating the education system.
recent study entitled Ethnic
Boundary among Students in Malaysian Primary Schools and Social Interaction: A
Conceptual Framework found that the existence of ethnic boundaries via
vernacular schools has enhanced stereotypes in Malaysia and fueled racial
biases in the country. “The education system that divides the students
according to their mother tongue and ethnic difference is a less effective
means of cultivating integration and mutual understanding among students,” noted the study.
The country’s political elite doesn’t appear to be worried about the issue as politicking continues to dominate the debate. The segregated education system in Malaysia has become one of the causes of ethnic polarization in the country. To foster greater ethnic integration, it is vital that the Malaysian education system is desegregated as soon as possible.
Malaysia’s education system radicalizing the country’s youth?
Complicating the issue is the Islamization of the Malaysian education system, leaving the country with a prejudiced, intolerant and radicalized youth. Faith is now an essential part of schooling in Malaysia education. For instance, many Malay parents are unaware that their children are receiving four hours of Islamic-related teaching per week.
The teaching of Islamic education is not only
mandatory for Muslim students but at times also enforced on non-Muslim students.
Non-Muslim parents have complained
that their children are made to sit in Islamic teaching classes and at times are not even given the opportunity to take
Such indoctrination at schools is impacting
on students’ behavior. It promotes rigidity and does not encourage lateral
thinking. Former minister Zaid Ibrahim had this in mind when he lamented how the country’s schools
and universities concentrate too much on politics and religion to the detriment
of promoting reading, writing and thinking. He complained that “the culture of having an
intellectual and pluralistic approach to understanding the world, including
religious tenets, had not taken root in Malaysia. In fact, such an approach is frowned
upon and considered blasphemous.”
Such an approach in schools could lead Malaysia’s
students towards extremism. Malaysia’s security agencies fear that extremist
ideologies are gaining
ground among university and school students and
militant groups like the so-called Islamic State (IS) may use the opportunity for
Their concerns are not without justification. Since 2014,
police in Malaysia have arrested over 420 people for being affiliated with IS.
At least 40 of them were college or university
students. In January 2017, two students from Al-Madinah International
University were detained by police for channeling funds for IS. To date, eight secondary school
students have been arrested for assisting the group’s militant
activities in Malaysia.
The proliferation of Islamic teaching in schools has fostered
other conservative attitudes. Malaysia’s authorities plan to indoctrinate
school children against transgender rights. With
the introduction of a so-called Social
and Reproductive Health Education program, the
Ministry of Education aims to “warn” all school children about what it
perceives as the threats and dangers of being lesbian, gay, bisexual or
transgender (LGBT). Such a move would, in theory, curb the growth of the LGBT
community in the country.
It is a backwards step. Malaysia needs to allow its young
people to ask tough questions about sexuality, religion and the role of
different ethnic groups in the country’s development. Schools
should not be a place to drive wedges between the country’s different racial
communities and enforce religious teachings.
The creeping Islamization of Malaysia’s
education system is fast becoming a national security challenge. As the approach is being pushed
at policy level, Malaysia is sitting on a ticking time bomb. The growing sense
of alienation and despair among Malaysia’s students is fast becoming a threat
to both the country’s stability and its students.