"... The process of Cabinet determining the content of and approving a module or syllabus cannot and should not be tolerated by any university worth its name.Background
This time it is Ethnic Relations. Next it could be Development Studies or maybe even History. Where will this end, then?
I consider Cabinet interference in and approval of a fully academic matter, such as this, to be the final nail driven into the coffin of University Autonomy."
- S. Husin Ali
Excerpts: Read here for more
In October 2004, The Government decided to make Ethnic Relations a compulsory subject for all university students beginning with the 2006/2007 academic session.
Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) developed a teaching module on Ethnic Relations.
The MCA deemed UPM's course book on ethnic relations as unsuitable teaching material as the facts were incorrectly presented and unbalanced. MCA president Datuk Seri Ong Ka Ting said the country's independance was achieved by all races and any references or textbooks used for the purpose of teaching ethnic relations must be balanced and take care of the sensitivities of all races. "The book must also take note of all contributions by the communities in working together to achieve independance," he told reporters after the party's presidential council meeting today (July 18, 2006).
The controversial Ethnic Relations module taught at Universiti Putra Malaysia was withdrawn.
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said the Cabinet felt that sensitive racial issues should not be incorporated in a book used by students.
".... The Minister of Higher Education recently announced that the Ethnic Relations Module (23 January 2007 Version) for universities had been finally approved by the Cabinet.
The Erosion of University Autonomy
On the withdrawal of the Universiti Putra module:
These are important questions that touch on the fundamental principle of University Autonomy.
Would it not have been better if it was withdrawn by the University itself? Would it not have been more appropriate and pertinent for the University to correct and improve its module, taking into account all views and criticisms expressed inside and outside Parliament?
Traditionally, the University has been regarded and guarded as a leading light and centre for free pursuit of knowledge and truth. To fully succeed in this pursuit a university needs Academic Autonomy.
The University CANNOT and should NOT allow interference, what else domination, by any vested political and economic interests.
But this does not mean the University should not consider and adopt views from the government or business community that can help its search for knowledge, truth and development.
.... in Malaysia, for some time, University Autonomy has been systematically eroded.
University of Malaya, which, during its early days enjoyed autonomy, has now joined younger universities, that are directly controlled or strongly influenced by the Government.
Democratic processes belong to the past.
(These Universities) are totally dependent financially on the Government. The academic staff is subjected to different Government Acts and Regulations (e.g. UUCA and “Akujanji”). The main officers, from the Chairman of its Board and Vice-Chancellor, down to Deans and Heads of Department are now almost all direct or indirect appointees of the Government.
Basic freedoms of university staff and students have been so effectively curbed that:
It is not surprising, therefore, the quality and standards of local universities have been deteriorating.
most of the university staff have imbibed servile government servant mentality, while almost all of the students are reduced to be no more than high school students.
The process of Cabinet determining the content of and approving a module or syllabus cannot and should not be tolerated by any university worth its name. This time it is Ethnic Relations. Next it could be Development Studies or maybe even History. Where will this end, then?
I consider Cabinet interference in and approval of a fully academic matter, such as this, to be the final nail driven into the coffin of University Autonomy.
The Cabinet-Approved Module on Ethnic Relations
".... the module must satisfy certain important criteria, such as being at least objective, balanced and critical.
We get details in every chapter regarding government policies and plans of action in various fields.
- Many terms and concepts introduced (in the Module) are NOT adequately discussed; in many cases the authors depend on “Kamus Dewan” for explanation.
- There is NOT a single reference to any well-known theory or finding that can help students to understand the nature and problems of ethnic relations.
- There is NO effort to make even elementary comparative study of different countries with multi-ethnic or multi-racial composition and problems.
- There is NOT even a satisfactory introduction to the social and cultural milieus of the various ethnic groups in the country.
- In describing history, the module unfortunately EXCLUDES the roles of groups and individuals outside the government or pro-government circle. There is NO mention of such historical parties like the Kesatuan Melayu Malaya (KMM), Parti Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya (PKMM), Parti Rakyat Malaysia (PRM), Parti Buruh Malaya (PBM), their coalition the Barisan Sosialis (FS), and of course the Parti Komunis Malaya (PKM).
- Whether we agree or not, the positions and roles of these parties and their leaders, like Ahmad Boestamam, Dr Burhanuddin, Ishak Hj Muhammad, Abu Bakar Bakir, Abdullah CD and even Chin Peng vis-avis ethnic relations cannot be ignored, but need to be evaluated. The module does not appear to give any opportunity for this.
- Many pages are devoted to contemporary parties, surprisingly more for Sabah and Sarawak than the Peninsular. Their roles in politics and ethnic relations are prominently outlined. The Democratic Action Party (DAP) manages to get a few lines of mention. But there is NOT a word on Parti Keadilan Rakyat. The module could be more up-to-date and less selective.
On the Political Process
The concept of the Malays as political masters (“Ketuanan politik etnik Melayu”) is accepted as a matter of fact. These are presented unquestioningly as being aimed at and effectively contributing towards national harmony and unity.
They are summed up in the following sentence (translated from the original in Malay):
“The concept of power sharing, fair distribution of national income, equal opportunity in education inter-ethnically, freedom of religion guaranteed by the Federal Constitution, protection of minority groups, and now Islam Hadari as well as other policies, have been able to guarantee multi-racial and multi-ethnic harmony in our country” (p. 152).While accepting these, contrary views should not be set aside.
The contribution of the Opposition in general is referred only twice, even then in very damning terms.
The module claims that Government formula and efforts to promote ethnic unity is attacked by the Opposition, which tries to create disunity (“pembangkang yang cuba memecahbelahkan”) (p.32).
In another instance, this Module insinuates, avoiding giving names, that the Opposition was responsible for the May 13 Incident (“Ini dijelmakan melalui pencapaian parti pembangkang …… Bibit-bibit pertentangan …….akhirnya mencetuskan suatu pertentangan terbuka lagi berdarah”) p.50.
Is it sheer coincidence that the tragic date is mentioned immediately after this sentence?
Even ignoring the above, we find that there is LITTLE evidence of the module being evaluative or critical.
Let us confine ourselves to specific aspects in three areas, namely, economy, education and religion.
On Economic Development
In the economic sphere, admittedly there has been much progress since Merdeka, although not as impressive as in Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. Many aspects of Government policies aimed at promoting unity have caused much ethnic strain. One such policy is the DEB, adopted in the wake of 13 May Incident.
The Module strongly reflects the official position in defending the DEB and Malay Special Position.
But it is not sufficient to continue reproducing old rationale and arguments that were used over 36 years ago.
Now the scenario has changed and it needs to be taken into account.
True, the economic conditions of the Malays have improved. Incidence of poverty has decreased substantially; but it may be shown statistically that socio-economic inequity has increased. A greater number and percentage of Malays have succeeded in different professional fields.
There are more Malays in business and industry. But there is great uneasiness that the DEB has been used to enrich only a selected few.
These have implications on ethnic relations. The implications become more serious when government leaders defend it in the name of “Ketuanan Melayu”.
On the other hand, there is growing demand for a new agenda of economic development that does NOT discriminate ethnically, but favour the poor and marginalized from all ethnic groups.
Surely there should be an attempt for the Module to draw attention to these scenarios.
In the field of education, National Schools with Bahasa Malaysia as medium of instruction were aimed at creating a united nation.
Ironically, existing language and education policies have divided instead of unite. They have led to ethnic polarization in and among schools.
The module touts “Sekolah Wawasan” for promoting unity. But Government has almost scrapped this idea, after protests from non-Malays and Malays.
According to government figures, only seven percent (7 %) of students in National Schools are non-Malays, while about the same proportion of students in National-type Schools are made up of Malays.
Most of MARA schools are confined to Malays, although there is an attempt now to admit non-Malays up to 10 percent.
But this percentage does NOT reflect the composition of population ethnically or economically. It creates ethnic dissatisfaction.
There is also ethnic polarization at university level. The majority of undergraduates in public universities are Malays not so proficient in English, while in private universities the majority is non-Malay more proficient in English.
At the same time, we have growing number of universities that cater almost exclusively for an ethnic group.
The module does not touch on these rather dangerous trends.
Religion can be a thorny problem for ethnic relations.
The module makes an attempt to provide the essence in the teachings of Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity. Together they take up ONLY TWO pages.
THREE pages are given to Islam Hadari (not the teachings of Islam as such), as a basis for understanding, harmony and peace for Malaysia and the whole world. (Strangely, more than five pages are devoted to the National Service).
Recently many issues and incidents relating to conversion and apostasy have sparked inter-religious tensions and suspicions. These issues have to be handled with great wisdom and care.
There should be no problem in discussing Islam Hadari and its role, objectively and in balanced and critical manner.
But it becomes a problem when the Module appears to turn a blind eye to real issues that threaten ethnic harmony and national unity.
In conclusion, it must be emphasized that University Autonomy demands to be cherished.
The University must be free and independent to evolve its own modules, courses and other academic matters.
This is almost the LAST bastion.
Borrowing the words of the renowned poet Rabindranath Tagore on another matter, the university should genuinely be a centre “where knowledge is free and the head is held high”.