DECEMBER 25 — A recent Pew Research Center study showed that in Malaysia, Muslims on average are more educated than adherents of other religions, that is they have more formal schooling compared to others.
It had measured the level of education of three cohorts: the “oldest” (born 1936-1955), “middle” (born 1956-1975) and “youngest” (born 1976-1985).
Pew found that in the country, Muslims receive an average of 10.2 years of formal schooling followed by Buddhists (9.8 years), Hindus (9.7), Christians (9), and those unaffiliated to the four religion groups (8.2).
The average period of schooling in Malaysia is 9.9 years, below the required six years of primary education added with five of secondary.
The study caught the attention of non-Muslims and non-religious in the country who felt slighted and had a hard time accepting the fact. It is as if their deep-rooted racism and prejudice made them believe that the Muslims are bound to be uneducated, backwards, and perhaps stupid.
But few of them asked the right questions.
For example, why do women consistently have fewer years of formal schooling compared to men, across all religions? On average, women went to school for 9.4 years while men did so for 10.4 years.
This might have to do with how in the early years of the country, women were not expected to continue their education and became housewives instead.
Some women were also made to wed early, some even before the conclusion of their high-schooling years. The Shariah law, up to this day, allows child marriages to happen by just requesting the consent of the authorities.
Despite that, the study has shown that over the years, women are not only closing the gender gap, but have lately overtaken the men.
Women from the youngest cohort here have more education compared to the men. Across all faiths. The biggest difference is among the Hindus where young women have 12.4 years while the men 11.4 years, and with the Muslims: young women (12.7) and young men (12).
This is, of course, a welcome fact that bucks the worldwide trend, where only Jewish women have surpassed the men, while young Christians, Buddhists and unaffiliated women have reached parity with men.
We should also ask, why do Muslims tend to be more highly educated? It has little to do with intelligence, but simply because Muslims have better access to education.
For example, even for those who are not academically-inclined can enrol in government-backed and endorsed religious schools and tahfiz schools, the latter where students are taught to memorise Quranic verses.
Tahfiz schools and the “pondok” system of religious schools were in the older days important institutions for the Malay community, as a centre of Islamic academia and reference that had the benefit of receiving knowledge from abroad.
As it becomes more institutionalised and displaced by state-supported religious schools, these schools have however been increasingly filled with juvenile offenders and drop-outs -- whose parents mistakenly thought that a little bit of faith could change their ways.
The recent high profile case of alleged sexual abuse involving such a school in Ipoh owned by no less than celebrity preacher Kazim Elias certainly adds fuel to the debate.
Furthermore, most Muslims here are from the ethnic majority Malays and Bumiputeras. Since 1973, affirmative action meant that 55 per cent of the places in universities were reserved for the Bumiputeras, until it was abolished in 2002 for meritocracy.
But even under meritocracy, critics argue that Bumiputeras still dominate public universities. A BBC report three years ago claimed that a whopping 77 per cent went to the Bumiputeras, which on paper is worse than the affirmative action years.
Non-Bumiputeras also argue that Bumiputeras have better access to scholarships.
In the case of Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM), Bumiputeras even possess an institution of higher learning that is reserved solely for them.
A recent Khazanah Research Institute study on socio-economic mobility showed that for ethnic Indians born to uneducated parents, only 5 per cent go on to tertiary education, compared to the Malays (33 per cent).
But Bumiputera privileges may not explain why the Christians, which make up a significant number of the Bumiputeras in East Malaysia, did not rank as high.
While historically Christians have better access to early education with the opening of missionary schools, it ranks second last in level of education — perhaps this has to do with the rural and interior setting of those residing in East Malaysia, with harder access to schools.
Similarly, smug atheists would scoff that the unaffiliated ranks the lowest in the study, and has the highest percentage of those with no formal education at all: 36 per cent.
The fact is the group is mostly made up of traditional Chinese religions, and folk religions among the natives and indigenous — which again would explain the lack of access to schools.
Atheists after all, only make up 0.7 per cent of Malaysians as of the last census in 2010, with no data of them existing prior to that.
The access to education is consistent across the world, a fact reflected in that Jews on average are the most highly educated among all with 13.4 years of formal schooling, above the 7.7 years world average.
The majority of Jews either reside in Israel or the United States, developed countries with good access to education. Of course, there are no Jews recorded in Malaysia.
In comparison, Christians, the unaffiliated and Buddhists ranked second, third and fourth. Muslims and Hindus received the least education, many of them either in the impoverished South Asian subcontinent, or in Africa.
Worry not that the Muslims are more educated, worry more about making access to education equal to all and closing the gap.
It should be noted that the study had merely measured the level of education attainment, and not the quality of the education — the latter something that constantly worries parents, especially non-Muslims who have found how Islamised the local system is.
As of late, there is even fear that certain education institutions have been infiltrated by jihadists, with the recent scare of Al-Madinah International University in Shah Alam whose syllabus and staff members have been put into question.
And above all, higher education is no guarantee of rational thinking, nor a progressive and egalitarian worldview — one just needs to look at Malay-Muslim hardliner groups, many of which had their origin in student groups, and even now are made up of overseas graduates.
Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all, and surely we do not need religious authorities to tell us that yes, we can wish others that!
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.