Reform TITAS to ensure fair and balanced teaching of civilisation studies — Lim Teck Ghee and Din Merican

JULY 23 — We owe a debt of gratitude to Pandan MP Rafizi Ramli and other supporters of the proposed Islamic and Asian Civilisation Studies (TITAS) course for opening the Pandora’s box on the educational value and desirability of this officially decreed course previously imposed on public universities and now planned to be extended to private universities.

For now, there has been nothing offered by way of justification or in defence of the course design by the Deputy Prime Minister and Education Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and his subordinate, Higher Education Department director-general Morshidi Sirat, to allay the concern that the introduction of the course is politically motivated to serve the ruling government’s agenda, and not the interest of our young.  

We should have no illusions that even with the spotlight of public criticism strongly on it, the authorities will not continue with the planned enforcement of the course. The political stakes are too high for the minister of education, soon contesting the Umno elections, to do an about-turn.

Recognising that it is well-nigh impossible to expect the authorities to withdraw its proposal, we urge Rafizi and others in favour of the course to support the following measures to ensure that TITAS does not become another platform to load our young with politically, racially or religiously skewed knowledge. A narrowly conceived, ethnocentric and politically biased TITAS is counter-productive in a world characterised by diversity and pluralism and in our homeland which is one of the major cultural and civilisation crossroads of Asia.

If indeed the intention is noble and aimed at instilling cross cultural learning and appreciation of the major civilisations of the region among all students, Malays and non-Malays, surely no one in their right mind will object to the safeguards below to ensure that this intention is achieved and not subverted.   

Proposals for reforming TITAS and ensuring transparency and public accountability in its implementation

1. Make the course an optional and not a compulsory one in both public and private universities

2. Post the present content of the required course on a website that is accessible to the public and request for feedback on it. This should include any compulsory textbook requirements and other special conditions imposed by the ministry

3. Do away with the system of ministry-ordained recommended or required texts written by half baked or officially-sanctioned academics in favour of one which allows the use of diverse authoritative texts

4. Permit the use of English as a medium of instruction for the course in both public and private universities to encourage exposure to the rich corpus of English-language material. The insistence on Malay as the language of instruction in private institutions is unreasonable as students should be allowed to study in the language that they are most conversant with, especially on what is held up to be such a critical subject. Also the ministry is not defraying the costs of the course and has no right to impose such a condition.   

5. Appoint a team of independent education experts to undertake an open review of the current course content and teaching methods

6. Introduce changes to ensure that what is being taught is inclusive of all civilisations — great and little. The pre-Islamic civilisation of Malaysia including that stemming from our Orang Asli and Orang Asal heritage which has been marginalised in our educational system needs to be given a special place 

7. Since Islam had its origin as a religion in the Middle East, its inclusion in the course on Asian civilisations needs to be justified.

8. Strive to have multi-racial and multi-religious teams of lecturers and instructors to conduct the course. This will be the best check against racial or religious bias in any form and help to ensure inter-racial understanding and academic balance.   

We emphasise that our fears of the course being hijacked by prejudiced and opportunistic politicians and bureaucrats as well as partisan lecturers are real and not imaginary. We have seen this happen time and again with various compulsory courses run by the government agencies and in the schooling system.

Besides what we have proposed above, key stakeholders such as the vice-chancellors of public and private universities must use their positions and authority to carve out autonomous positions. They must honour their mission of providing relevant and quality education by ensuring that any ministry-required compulsory course is free from political interference and political bias, and has primarily or purely educational and intellectual reasons to account for their inclusion in the university curriculum.

Vice-chancellors of private universities in particular should not take the easy way out or pander to the dictates of the authorities on TITAS just so their teaching licences are easily renewed, and other government-required approvals are expedited. Their students are paying hard-earned money to receive a non-state sponsored education. They are entitled to a TITAS course that is balanced and free from the blinkers and bias shackling the national educational system.   

Finally, to ensure that TITAS and other ministry-imposed courses lead to the opening and blossoming rather than closing of young minds, we need transparency, accountability and a vigilant public.  We cannot expect it from the Ministry of Education or from politicians who may have been lulled into false optimism based on their educational experiences abroad.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malay Mail Online.