Malaysia will reap rewards if kids can discuss religions in primary school, groups suggest

Interfaith activist group Projek Dialog said educating children to adapt and accept cultural and religious differences at an early stage can help create a conducive environment for peaceful discussions on a thorny subject like faith. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng
Interfaith activist group Projek Dialog said educating children to adapt and accept cultural and religious differences at an early stage can help create a conducive environment for peaceful discussions on a thorny subject like faith. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng

KUALA LUMPUR, May 24 ― Children should be taught to discuss religions openly as this will help pave the way towards a more open society, suggested several civil society groups.

They say there is a definite need to foster interfaith dialogue at the primary school level.

Interfaith activist group Projek Dialog said educating children to adapt and accept cultural and religious differences at an early stage can help create a conducive environment for peaceful discussions on a thorny subject like faith, often at the heart of communal strife today.

“If we have the right syllabus written by the right academics and teachers trained in the right way, it will be a boon to the nation more than anything else,” said its lead programme manager Victoria Cheng.

“I think the earlier we introduce such topics, the better. If we wait till university before we discuss these topics, the harder it is for the young adult to adapt.”

Cheng is among those who disagree with Education Minister Maszlee Malik’s opinion that interfaith dialogue as part of the syllabus for primary school students is unnecessary.

Maszlee was responding to a proposal made by the Malaysian Youth Council that a special subject about religions be introduced in schools and universities.

The minister said his view was consistent with the ministry’s previous suggestion that every school and university should organise more cross-cultural programmes.

Federal religious authority Islamic Development Department of Malaysia (Jakim) has also publicly backed Maszlee and rejected the proposal.

Its director-general Datuk Mohamad Nordin Ibrahim said although Jakim does not agree with the proposal, it nonetheless backs cross-cultural programmes in schools and universities, so as to lessen misunderstanding between the faiths.

Cheng, however, said such programmes have failed to bring the country’s multiracial communities together because they lack the critical foundation needed to encourage students to be more open when discussing their respective faiths.

“Conversation in universities is so basic. It doesn't probe deeper and I think the fault lies in early education,” she said.

“There's no critical thinking or basic philosophy.”

In defending his decision, Maszlee deemed it more appropriate for schools to share about each other’s culture instead of learning about other religions.

He said the ministry feared that the move could yield more negative than positive results.

Like Cheng, Angkatan Belia Islam (Abim) president Mohamad Raimi Ab Rahim felt early stage civilisational studies would only lead to good things, but said perhaps it would be best to start “small” with focus given on identifying and appreciating similar values from various faiths.

“Is teaching different religions to pupils wrong? Absolutely not,” he said.

“It's only right that we learn about others, their religion and culture especially about South-east Asian religions and cultures to know and understand about people around us better.”

But Raimi said other “technical” factors could have prompted Maszlee’s decision.

“I think the main issue among educators is the complication that comes with adding another subject,” he said.

“Students are already complaining that there are too many subjects in schools now, there's a lot of work not just for the pupils but for the teachers as well.”

Raimi suggested that regulators make it seamless for students and teachers by incorporating civilisational study in the existing syllabus, instead of rolling it out as another stand-alone subject.

This way, he added, schools can keep the number of subjects small enough to keep students more focused.

Critics of the government claim the country has become more polarised since Pakatan Harapan took power, an allegation its leaders deny.

The multiracial bloc, albeit comprising one ethnic-based party, said it would put into place key political reforms to bridge the division, starting with freeing education from partisan interests.

Iman Research, a think tank that studies religious extremism, said shaping cultural and religious sensitivities at an early stage at a time of heightened communal distrust is crucial to address faith-based violence.

“In a world fraught with violent extremism ― white nationalists, terrorists et al ― hate has become a powerful cultural currency,” its director Dina Zaman said.

“Learning about other religions can also help build resilience if done correctly.”

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