Friday, January 28, 2011

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The silence of good people

History will have to record that the greatest tragedy
of this period of social transition
was not the strident clamour of the bad people,
but the appalling silence of the good people.

Martin Luther King Jr
1929 ~ 1968

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Distortions in Malaysian history textbooks

I previously posted the CPI Commentary which expressed deep concern with the extent of Islamic content in Malaysian history books. Based on a paper written by two Australian academics, the issue is not that there is no place for Islam (or religion for that matter) in the said textbooks, but its overwhelming prominence in the nation’s history.

Authors Michael D. Barr and Anantha Raman Govindasamy contend that distortions in Malaysia’s history book are part of a deliberate programme of Islamisation that can be traced back to Dr Mahathir’s premiership. Of this, few Malaysians will dispute. What is alarming is the lack of a response to the imposition of an Islamic identity upon a nation that still has a large percentage of non-Muslims in the population.

Reproduced below are excerpts from the full paper (Pt 1 and Pt 2) which puts the spotlight on recent developments and where that might lead us:

The Islamisation of Malaysia: religious nationalism in the service of ethnonationalism

Part 1

Thus, by the time Malaysia entered the third stage of Dr Mahathir’s Islamisation program, the national culture had already been transformed into one that made non-Muslims feel marginalised, if not defensive. The third stage, beginning in the late 1980s, proved to be an intensification of this pattern, and it brought non-Muslims and Muslims into direct confrontation. The third phase focused on expanding the capacity and jurisdiction of the Syariah courts and legal apparatus, and standardising various states’ Islamic organisations (Hamayotsu 2003: 56). In 1988, the Malaysian Parliament approved constitutional amendments in the Federal Constitution and added Article 121 (1A)(Malaysian Federal Constitution 2006), which reads: ‘The [civil courts] shall have no jurisdiction in respect of any matter within the jurisdiction of the Syariah courts.’ This initiative was followed by all the other states in Malaysia in restructuring their Islamic legal institutions. The climax of Islamic resurgence occurred in September 2001 when Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad declared Malaysia to be an Islamic state (Martinez 2001: 474). These changes had a direct impact on the non-Muslims. Local government followed the state religious departments’ lead by introducing local initiatives that reflected the Syariah values being entrenched at the higher levels of government. For instance, even in the ethnically and religiously heterogeneous state of Melaka, state-sponsored ‘snoop squads’ of up to 60 members began monitoring social activities among the youth, looking out for immoral activity. This ‘moral policing’ targeted Muslims in particular, but little care was taken to distinguish between Muslims and non-Muslims (Kent 2005). Local governments also began limiting non-Muslim places of worship by refusing building permits and land allocations, and pro-actively destroying non-Muslims’ worshipping sites (Lee1988: 412). Moreover, on a national level, the civil courts began refusing to consider child custody cases when any party was a Muslim, claiming that jurisdiction on such matters lay solely with the Syariah courts.

Part 2

The old textbook, which was used until 2002, was titled Sejarah Peradaban Dunia: Tingkatan 4 (World Civilisation History: Form 4) (Ministry of Education Malaysia 1999), and was a broad civilisational history of the world. It contained six chapters titled (in English translation): ‘Early Human Civilisation’, ‘Islam Changed Human Civilisation’, ‘The Transition of the European Society and Its Impact’, ‘Revolution and New Phase of Human History’, ‘Western Imperialism and Local Reactions’, and ‘Moving towards International Cooperation’. In this textbook, Islamic history was presented conceptually as having a central place in world history as the religion that ‘changed civilisation’ by contributing to an improvement in world civilisation, but this conceptual centrality was not allowed to overwhelm the syllabus: it was studied in only one chapter out of six, with other chapters studying, for instance, Indian, Chinese and European civilisations. The syllabus also discussed in detail the pre-Islamic period in South-East Asia, with much emphasis on Hindu-Buddhist influence in the Malay world.

In the revised version, however, Islamic history was given an unprecedented prominence, occupying fully half of the book. This textbook, titled prosaically Sejarah Tingkatan 4 Buku Teks (Form 4 History Textbook) (Ministry of Education Malaysia 2002a), consists of ten chapters, five of which focus on Islamic history: ‘Islamic Civilisation and Its Contribution in Mecca’, ‘Islamic State in Medina’, ‘The Formation of Islamic Government and Its Contribution’, ‘Islam in South-East Asia’, and ‘Islamic Reform and Its Influence in Malaysia before the Arrival of the Colonial Powers’. The other five chapters survey the early development of civilisation per se: Indian and Chinese influence in South- East Asia (in Chapters 1-3), ‘Developments in Europe’ (Chapter 9) and ‘The British Policy and Its Impact on the National Economy’ (Chapter 10). The chapter on the British in Malaysia sits incongruously in a book on civilisational history, but its presence, along with Chapter 8 (‘Islamic Reform and Its Influence in Malaysia before the Arrival of the Colonial Powers’) serves to articulate the rest of the book very firmly into the history of Malaysia.

Read authors Michael D. Barr and Anantha Raman Govindasamy's 2-part paper at the Centre for Policy Initiatives website here and here.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Malaysian History textbooks: Whose history?

On Oct 23, Education Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced that History will be made a must-pass subject for the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia from 2013. This puts the subject on par with Bahasa Malaysia in its degree of importance.

The ministry will also introduce a revised SPM History curriculum in 2017, for in that year those who begin One in 2013 would have reached Form Five.

Fresh elements to be incorporated when the History syllabus begins its new cycle are 'patriotism', 'citizenship' and 'the constitution', which by extension implicate the so-called social contract.

Muhyiddin said the reason for the move to expand the History syllabus is so that patriotism can be instilled in Malaysian youths.

On Dec 16 - responding to objections raised by some quarters on his proposal - Muhyiddin(left) guaranteed that the government did not have any "ulterior motives" and reiterated that the government in its decision "only wants to introduce a history education to appreciate [patriotism] to help them [the Fifth Formers] become more patriotic".

Is this the real agenda of Umno and the Ministry of Education bureaucrats and their support group of academics or is this another Umno political lie?

In response, a middle-rank leader of the MCA (not the party president or deputy president or any of the other non-Malay BN party chiefs who have gone mute, dumb and deaf on this issue) has urged the Education Ministry to review the "imbalanced" account of the country's history in the school textbooks.

The present national narrative imparted to students - alleges the MCA - favours one race and one religious civilisation. According to Loh Seng Kok, the deputy chairman of the MCA publicity bureau, a review is necessary to rectify the shortcomings to "prevent ethnic disharmony in our nation".

Strong words, but from a level of leadership that carries little weight.

Furthering Ketuanan Melayu-Islam interests

Historian Dr Ranjit Singh Malhi, who has written some revision books, recently pointed out that not only do the secondary school history textbooks contain exaggerations and mistakes, but they have also "been used to promote political interests".

For example, Kapitan Cina Yap Ah Loy played a major role in the development of Kuala Lumpur as a commercial and tin-mining centre but the Form Two history textbook had only one sentence on Yap as "one of the persons responsible for developing Kuala Lumpur".

The Hindu civilisation of Lembah Bujang in Kedah - which can be traced back to the first half of the first millennium - is dismissed in just two paragraphs whereas the communist contribution to helping Malaya gain Independence is omitted.

Besides the expurgation or omission of key events and developments in Malaysian history, in which non-Malay and other civilisational contributions have been prominent, there is a conscious and concerted attempt at propagandising Islamic elements into the curriculum.

A concerned parent complained in her letter to the editor that the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) writers assigned by the Education Ministry have not confined the textbook content to history alone. "Instead they have extended its boundaries seemingly to push a certain agenda. In the process, our history textbooks seem to have taken on a quest of its own - to win the hearts and minds of our children for that particular agenda," she wrote.

History as Islamic Studies

The introduction to the Four Four History textbook by the panel writers begins with "Syukur kepada Allah s.w.t. Tuhan Yang Maha Agung, selawat dan salam ke atas Rasul utusan yang mulia, para sahabat, dan mereka yang berada di jalan yang benar hingga ke hari kemudian kelak".

Students belonging to other faiths, who Muslims do not consider to be walking on "the true path to the Hereafter", will apparently have to re-orientate their mindset in order to do well in this subject.

The introduction to the Form Five textbook by the director-general of the Education Ministry starts on the note of "Syukur ke hadrat Allah s.w.t. kerana hasrat dan wawasan Kementerian Pendidikan Malaysia untuk menerbitkan semula buku teks KBSM dan KBSR telah terhasil".

The Education DG Abdul Rafie Mahat found it expedient to thank Allah for the success of his ministry's vision to republish the textbooks under the revamped syllabi.

In fact, two out of the four writers of the DBP writers selected to do the job for the Form Four syllabus are specialists in Islamic history. Their knowledge of Malaysian history and the history of non-Islamic civilisations, however, appear dismal.

Not only is an overwhelming proportion of the Form Four history textbook devoted to Islam (115 pages), conversely the other religions are barely given a passing mention; Hinduism gets half a page in Chapter 3 on the early civilisations of southeast Asia.

The concerned mother who wrote the letter, already widely disseminated online, has charged that History in Malaysian schools "seeks to influence the young minds of our children who come from various faiths, to follow the prophet [Muhammad] ... who is repeatedly praised throughout the chapters.

"Students are repeatedly exhorted throughout the book to emulate him as a role model in life", added the concerned parent. It is quite true what the letter writer observed, as flipping through the History textbook pages, one comes across the said exhortations which are indeed explicit and in those exact words (see endnote).

Do they write History in this way in other countries and do national textbooks elsewhere repeatedly exhort impressionable young minds to follow the behaviour of an individual who features overwhelmingly in their History curriculum?

Furthermore, this subject is a compulsory pass - fail History, fail SPM; no credit in History, no Grade I in SPM. Students are thus coerced to memorise the above brainwashing and internalise the indoctrination or else they will not get through their secondary education.

Non-Muslim parents are correct to worry about the five bulky chapters (out of the 10 chapters in the Form Four textbook) devoted to Islamic history and civilisation because they have been written "in a way that seems to be conditioning the minds of our youth to accept Syariah laws as the basis of our legal system in the future".

Schools becoming madrasahs

These concerns of worried parents have found serious academic backing.

Two academics from Australia's Flinders University in their paper 'The Islamisation of Malaysia: religious nationalism in the service of ethnonationalism' similarly noted that the upper secondary History syllabus "is a more traditional celebration of Malay nationalism, with barely a mention of Chinese or Indians".

Michael D. Barr and Anantha Raman Govindasamy, who co-authored the paper, believed "the overtly Islamic textbook... was not the result of a whim on the part of the authors, but part of a systemic [Islamisation] programme".

They pointed out that the term 'ummah' in its unqualified use in the context of Chapter 4 of the Form Four History textbook "carries the clear message that the Muslim perspective is being privileged in this history".

Barr and Anantha Raman added: "The imposition of an Islamic metanarrative at this point can be neither accidental nor incidental.

"It must be regarded as a deliberate attempt to impose a new form of identity on both the Muslim and non-Muslim children. This conclusion becomes even more pointed if we look beyond the teaching of history, and consider that the Islamisation process has permeated the entire schooling experience for those students who attend national schools".

Sane, progressive curriculum thrown to the winds

With the two authors' permission, CPI will be reproducing their paper in full tomorrow. Barr and Anantha Raman's Flinders University paper was first published in the Australian Journal of International Affairs, Vol 64, No 3, in June 2010.

The paper unequivocally provides evidence that the Malay and Islamisation of the school syllabus has been taking place for some time.

Muhyiddin's recent announcement of this impending move by the Education Ministry portends the final nail in the coffin. A sane and progressive curriculum that meets the needs of a multi-racial and multi-religious society is thrown to the winds.

Meanwhile, the National Union of the Teaching Profession (NUTP) has similarly voiced its concerns over History becoming a compulsory subject and the potential impact this will have on students.

On Nov 27, NUTP revealed that the present passing rate for History is around 60 percent.

That the remaining 40 percent of the batches who sat the paper previously have failed it means more students than ever will fail the entire SPM when the Education Ministry decision takes effect in 2012.

Make no mistake. If Malaysians do not raise their voices now and stand up for their concerns, not only non-Malay but also Malay parents and students will reap the bitter harvest of this step backwards in our education system.

This commentary was released by the Centre for Policy Initiatives.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Christianity 101

For a long time, Basic Christianity by John Stott was my favourite go-to book for seekers. As Christianity 101 for people with serious questions, it is credible and well-reasoned, presenting readers with a Person in whom one must decide to believe in or reject. It’s hard to imagine that the book was first published in 1958. It’s still an excellent introduction except that the venerable book may not appeal to people who are asking different questions today.

If there’s one book better suited to – if I may be bold enough to suggest – replace Stott’s volume, it’s Don Carson’s The God Who is There (not to be confused with Schaeffer's book of the same name). Like Stott’s book it focuses on the gospel, but this time, it invites readers not just to embrace the claims of Jesus, but to be a part of an eternal story.

The subhead Finding Yourself in God’s Story, is thoroughly appropriate as finding God is certainly about locating oneself in a drama-in-progress. Carson understandably tips his hat to this generation’s quest for a sticky metanarrative, and it’s possibly a rejoinder to emerging types with a fixation on story as well.

I like it for its fresh take on familiar questions, presented with knockout clarity and depth while maintaining faithfulness to big-picture doctrine. Respectful and not condescending, it is obviously written for people who have the vaguest ideas about Christianity. Carson didn’t set out to be preachy, but I thought I detected the faintest hint of smugness that might not sit well with some. Nevertheless, it’s the one book I’m more than happy to recommend to anyone who wants to know what Christians believe.

If you’ve got a sceptic who doesn’t give a toss about the claims of Christianity, but who might (and it’s a big might) want something less ‘theological’ in tone, something closer to a conversation or a spiritual journey, what then?

Here are 2 books I would suggest in a heartbeat: Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz, and Philip Yancey’s Rumors of Another World. Miller’s Blue like Jazz has pop-culture street cred (for a start it has Jazz on the cover) while Yancey’s appears to be more ‘literate’, replete with references to writers and poets. Both are thoughtful and a real delight to read, but don't look for the standard presentation of core beliefs in these books. These are sympathetic accounts of a search, an exploration, a heartfelt look at the paradoxes of faith. But they're great books to have at hand.