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The Pongal issue left many Malaysians shaking their heads in disbelief. What has become of our Ministry of Education (MOE) that it would see fit to send out a circular warning Muslims not to get involved in Pongal, the annual harvest festival celebrated by Malaysians of Indian origin?

The MOE circular alluded to guidance from JAKIM, the all-powerful Islamic agency that now exerts extraordinary influence on all aspects of national life. Mujahid Yusof Rawa, the minister in charge of religious affairs, insists that Jakim was only “giving its opinion of the etiquette that needs to be followed by Muslims when attending the celebrations of other faiths.”

It is, of course, a disingenuous argument given that Jakim is considered the ultimate authority on all things Islamic; its “opinions” have almost fatwa-like authority. Cut through jargon and the message is clear enough.

The controversy over the Pongal issue is, of course, part of the wider debate going on in our society about the kind of education system that is best suited for the nation. It is a battle that pits Islamists against secularists, moderate Muslims against Wahhabi fundamentalists, and Malays against non-Malays.

Managing these different, often competing, expectations is one of the biggest challenges the nation currently faces.

After decades of Wahhabi infiltration, MOE itself has been gradually transformed into a frontline agency for the promotion of Islam, Islamic culture and Islamic values. Federal, state and local educationists have taken it upon themselves, with or without central direction, to promote Islam at all levels of the education system.

With many officials, professors, headmasters and teachers convinced that they have a religious obligation to do everything in their power to promote and deepen the faith, religious propagation (or indoctrination, depending on how one views these things) has become both intensive and pervasive. Some would argue that it has taken on a life of its own and is now an irreversible process.

To compound matters, many Malay parents seem to want a school system that prioritizes religious education. Any talk about reducing the number of hours devoted to religious education is, therefore, anathema to them.

A principal at a leading private international school in the country related that the first question many Muslim parents ask him when enquiring about enrolment is how many hours of Islamic education their kids will receive at the school.

Given this mindset, some argue that if our national schools become less religious, many Malay parents might simply opt to send their kids to private religious schools which are proliferating throughout the country.

Even at the preschool level, religious schools are attracting huge numbers of students. PAS’s Pusat Asuhan Tunas Islam (PASTI), for example, has an enrolment of more than 100,000 with schools in almost every district in the country.

To put it starkly then, education, at least as far as Malay students are concerned, is already irrevocably Islamic in its orientation and well beyond the reach of reformist politicians and educationists. Dr Mahathir may lament the religious bent of our education system but there’s little he can now do to change things. The policies that both he (and Anwar Ibrahim) introduced in the 1990s to outmanoeuvre PAS by championing Islam have now come home to roost.

Non-Malay (particuarly Chinese) expectations, on the other hand, are just the opposite. They want a completely secular school environment which focuses on scholastic achievement. Vernacular education, seen as an important bulwark against attempts to dilute Chinese language and culture, is also important to them.

More than anything else, however, they view the creeping Islamization of our schools with great angst.

Many non-Malay parents genuinely feel that their children are no longer safe from Islamic proselytization in national schools. While Islamic agencies might see this as a natural part of their mandate, for non-Malay parents it is their worst nightmare.

As our national schools become more and more religiously orientated, the exodus of non-Malays from national schools has gathered pace. The fact that Malaysia has, on a per capita basis, the highest number of private schools in Asia is a clear indication of the loss of confidence in the national school system.

Even enrolment in vernacular schools which was until recently declining has been given a new lease of life as parents flee the national school system in search of better education and a safer environment for their kids. Interestingly, about a fifth of the 520,000 students now enrolled in Chinese-medium schools (SJKC) are mostly Malay.

In the meantime, under assault from right-wing Malay groups and suspicious of attempts to undermine vernacular schools, Chinese educationists are dgging in.

In a recent media interview, one Chinese educationist even insisted that schools should focus exclusively on education and not touch on issues like promoting national unity.

Such is the level of paranoia and distrust among Chinese educationists that they fear that under the rubric of promoting national unity, teaching Jawi or implementing the vision school concept, overzealous officials might seek to dilute the unique character of Chinese schools.

Their concerns are easy to understand given the way right-wing Malay groups use these issues as cudgels to harass and intimidate Chinese schools and demand their closure.

What all this means is that we now have, in effect, two separate education systems – an increasingly Islamic one for Malays and a fiercely secular one for non-Malays. As a consequence, education has lost its efficacy in promoting national unity and shaping a sense of shared identity. And, as education goes, so goes the nation.

If this trend continues, we could end up with two distinct and mutually exclusive ethno-religious groups coexisting uneasily within the confines of a common geography, each with their own distinct religious orientations, culture, and social values and norms. Indeed, some would argue we are already there.

Where do we go from here?

Dr Mahathir has long complained that our national schools have become more and more like religious schools and says he wants to limit religious education and give more emphasis to the teaching of English, science, technology, engineering and mathematics. He also says he wants to make our national schools attractive to all races.

If he is able to build a school system that emphasises high scholastic achievement and nurtures respect and tolerance for diversity – the way our schools used to be before politics and religion messed it up – many will flock back to our national schools.

As acting education minister, Dr Mahathir is, once again, in a position to push education reform. It will not, however, be an easy task. At 94, with his political stature diminished and with his days in office numbered, will he have the clout and the time he needs to change a well-entrenched and change-resistant bureaucracy? And can he persuade both Malays and non-Malays to accept a drastic overhaul of our education system? We’ll know soon enough.

[Dennis Ignatius |Free Malaysia Today | Kuala Lumpur | 24th January 2020]