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Malaysian education sinks deeper into Islamization

Some welcome the prominent position of Islam in the curriculum while some feel the goal of education got lost along the way

A mother arrives with her daughters on the first day of elementary school in Karak, Malaysia's Pahang state on March 21, 2022

A mother arrives with her daughters on the first day of elementary school in Karak, Malaysia's Pahang state on March 21, 2022. (Photo: AFP)

Published: August 30, 2023 10:37 AM GMT

Updated: August 30, 2023 10:38 AM GMT

The decision to bring Hadith teachings into the national school curriculum is seen as the latest government attempt to expand the Islamization agenda in schools.

The school curriculum has since the 1980s been injected with changes that saw religiosity taking over school hours and priorities. Some claim this has also encroached on the rights of non-Muslims.

The government’s recent plan to implement Imam Al Nawawi’s 40 Hadith appreciation module has been strongly condemned by the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism. They say it is unconstitutional.

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“There appears to be no provision in our Federal Constitution that allows such Islamic teachings in national type schools. This may be carried out in Islamic Religious Schools,” the council said.

Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim had to clarify that the hadith module was meant for Muslim teachers and students so they could understand the religion better. “We are not forcing it on non-Muslim students,” he reportedly said.

Non-Muslims are unlikely to be convinced. They have come to a point where any change to the education curriculum is treated with suspicion. They see this as an attempt to have a foot in the door of national type or vernacular schools and fear that the fate of these schools will be the same as the national schools.

National-type primary schools are those where lessons are taught in vernacular languages, namely Mandarin and Tamil, and non-Muslims form the bulk of the students. There are 1,300 Chinese primary schools and 500 Tamil ones. The students then progress to either national secondary schools or private ones.

National primary and secondary schools have Malay as the language of instruction, and Malays form the majority. There are more than 10,000 such schools with almost five million students.

Muslim students in national schools get more religious education compared with other subjects. Muslim students in primary school get four hours of Islamic education per week and those in secondary schools three hours. This comes up to 16 percent and 12 percent of school time respectively. During that time, non-Muslims attend moral education classes for two hours and do their own studies for the remaining time.

As a result, subjects like Maths, Science and English get fewer than three hours each in the 25-hour school week. This has been cited as one of the reasons why Malaysian students consistently scored lower than the average points in science, mathematics and reading literacy in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) ranking.

A World Bank economist said these haunting words in 2016, “The poor quality of Malaysia's education system is more worrying than the level of debt in its households.”

That was said seven years ago but since then hardly much has improved.

Apart from the downward slide in quality, there are also claims that non-Muslim students were made to sit in the Islam education classes and worried parents said this was a subtle form of proselytization.

The Islamic influence in national schools slowly emerged in the 1980s in response to revival in the Muslim world. Islamization accelerated when Anwar was made education minister in 1986. There was also an attempt by him to make Islamic studies mandatory to all undergraduates, but that was quickly withdrawn after intense opposition from non-Muslims.

Islamic curriculum was expanded in the mid-2000s and from then on school hours devoted to the teaching of the religion increased progressively.

Mahathir Mohamad, when he was made prime minister for the second time, said that he wanted to overhaul the education system.

"They are all learning about the religion of Islam and not learning anything else. Those who pass in schools are not very conversant with subjects that are useful for them to get jobs, but they are very good ulama (Muslim clerics)," he said in 2018.

The irony is that Islamization entered schools during his watch when he was prime minister in the 1980s. When he returned to government a few years ago, he also stood by and watched an attempt by his education minister in 2019 to make it mandatory for all students to learn khat, the Arabic script.

The United Chinese School Committees’ Association or Dong Zong vehemently opposed this move and was vilified by Malay-Muslim NGOs and political parties. Education is a pillar in Chinese society and they guard their schools fiercely.

The predominantly Chinese political party DAP, which was in government then, also opposed the move. “Once Chinese and Tamil schools add khat into the curriculum, it would be a case of the boiling frog,” the group said.

Mahathir called Dong Zong racist and responded caustically to DAP. This incident deepened the existing cracks in his government and a few months later it collapsed and along with it the khat issue.

Has Islamisation wrecked the education system? It all depends on who you ask. Some welcome the prominent position of Islam in the curriculum and feel religious values are important in society.

Some feel that the focus and goal of education got lost along the way and what is left are monoethnic (Malay) schools that downplay STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects and produce students with a low literacy and knowledge level.

This is why parents opt for private schools with international curricula and vernacular ones. Even Muslim-Malay parents.

Chinese primary schools have been seeing an increase in Malay student enrolment. Malay children formed about 15 percent of their total student population in 2020. This was an increase from 9.5 percent in 2010.

As for international schools, the enrolment has more than doubled since 2016. The 287 schools saw 107,000 students in 2020. Four years earlier, there were 45,000 students.

Reversing the Islamization in education is close to impossible. In a free fall, the direction is always downward.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.


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