JANUARY 26 ― The one glimmer of light that comes with Dr Mahathir Mohamad holding the education portfolio is the hope that he will finally have the authority to speed up his plan to reform national education, and cut down the amount of hours currently being spent to teach religious rituals in schools.
The latter can be largely attributed to the administration of Abdullah Ahmad Badawi who immediately succeeded Dr Mahathir.
In his zeal to leave his legacy of “Islam Hadhari”, Abdullah had proposed the J-QAF model a few years into his premiership.
The initials stand for jawi, Quran, Arabic language, and fardhu ain (obligatory religious knowledge) with the goal of among others getting students to read and write the jawi script, complete the Quran, and master basic Arabic ― in short, be a better Muslim and Malay, by the time they finish school.
The programme was started during Hishammuddin Hussein's tenure as education minister in 2005, and was reinforced in the curriculum after subsequent revisions.
Which means that it has been around a decade-and-a-half that religiosity has taken over school hours but the matter has reached a tipping point among many Malaysians online this month.
It came as a surprise to hear that many Malay parents who have yet to send their children to school are not aware that Islamic-related education now takes a solid four hours (or eight half-hour periods) of a primary school student's chunk of time in one week.
This includes one period of learning jawi, and two periods of tasmik ― sessions of individual Quran recitals.
That is as many hours that are being spent learning Malay or English.
In comparison, Mathematics takes five or six periods, and Science three or four periods, according to schools.
Arabic Language, which is offered as part of third language classes, takes another three or four periods.
Proponents of the Arabic classes tout the language as a valuable elective for students, and downplay the Islamic connection. And yet, the reality is much different.
While in essence any student is allowed to take any third language class (Mandarin, Tamil, and Iban are among other options), in many cases Malay students are expected to take Arab by default.
In most cases ― as in schools where there are none, or small ethnic Chinese population ― it is the only option provided.
The religious connotation is obvious. While Arabic does place fifth in the Power Language Index that measures how a language opens doors for its speakers, both French and Spanish which are ranked higher are never offered as options.
By placing second in the index, Mandarin would have been a much better choice as a default third language class.
Arabic only got a free pass because of the Islamic J-QAF module, and its so-called status as the “language of Heaven” among some Muslims ― itself a belief that has been debunked by the Federal Territories Mufti.
Proponents of these extra hours of Islamic education also stressed how this would free the children from attending extra Islamic classes or schools outside the usual school hours, and therefore lessen the burden of parents.
And hereby we see how the national education system has been subverted to be a vehicle of Islamic indoctrination. What should have been the personal responsibility of each parent to teach their children about their beliefs of choice — as it is with any other faith besides Islam ― has instead been taken over by the national education system which is borne by taxpayers.
The only people who benefit from this arrangement are parents who are simply too lackadaisical, even to indoctrinate their own children.
For example, the tasmik classes were originally planned to be after-school programmes in which students recite the Quran guided by teachers. In reality, these classes are often inserted smack dab in the middle of a school day.
If you are still reading, by now you should have asked: what happens to non-Muslim students during these hours of Islamic classes?
During Islamic Ed classes, non-Muslim students are expected to attend Moral Ed classes. But by now this refrain should be familiar: the reality is much different.
Non-Muslim parents have admitted that sometimes their children just relocate to the library to count down the hours. Many use that extra time to finish their homework.
And yet, there are also non-Muslim parents who complain that their children are being made to sit in those Islamic classes ― a subtle way of proselytisation, but something that some Muslims may not see as an issue.
If we are really concerned about how our children are being divided early on in their formative years, perhaps we need to look into how they are being segregated in school every week.
Or perhaps we need not worry anyway, as fewer and fewer Chinese parents are choosing to send their kids to public schools, and more and more Malay parents are following suit, partly because of this increasing religiosity.
After all, Islamic Ed only takes up four periods in SJK(C)s. And one has the chance to be responsible adults and mind your own children's religious education outside school.
But if you are a Malay parent looking for a less religious education in SJK(C)s, it must be kept in mind that those schools also offer fewer Malay and English classes, to cover a whopping 12 periods of Chinese Language.
For many parents who just cannot afford expensive private schools nor want their children to endure the competitiveness of SJK(C)s, the option seems to be to just grit one's teeth and be much more attentive to one's children's education.
And hope that Dr Mahathir does not disappoint.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.