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.

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