TITAS is about cross learning in a multicultural society

— Rafizi Ramli
The Malay Mail Online
July 22, 2013

JULY 22 — I must begin by conveying my gratitude to Dr Lim Teck Ghee and S. Thayaparan for their views on the position I took with regards to the implementation of TITAS at private tertiary institutions (IPTS).

While the ensuing exchange of views on the matter had earned me many labels from some of the readers of Malaysiakini (including lumping me as another Umno prototype), I look at it positively. If Malaysia were to progress, we must be able to debate openly and accept criticisms both ways.

I will explain the basis for the position I had taken before I respond to some of the issues brought by both of them.

Will understanding of each other build a better Malaysia for all?

The most important question is the simplest: given the state of the society now, will we benefit from knowing more about each other? Can we reduce the misunderstanding and prejudice against one another if we have a better understanding of the fair representation of Islamic, Malay, Chinese and Indian civilisations since they form the greatest influence on our society?

I believe we do.

In fact, I think it will help a lot if younger Malaysians see each other’s perspectives positively even if they disagree on certain issues because stereotypes and polarisation is bad. Lack of understanding and appreciation of the basis for cultural differences in a multiracial society like ours does contribute to stereotyping and polarisation.

My support for TITAS stems from this very simple premise: I do not see anything wrong if we compel our youngsters to learn more from each other and about each other.

Much of the fuss about TITAS has revolved around the alleged creeping Islamisation that Umno is trying to sneak into IPTS. While there is a basis for the suspicion, yet we have totally overlooked the positive impact that TITAS may have on producing more Malays who understand and appreciate multiculturalism.

I spent my tertiary education and early working life in the United Kingdom.

I did my A-Levels in a Scottish boarding school — that means going to the chapel every morning together with the rest of the school for morning prayers. I did not sing the hymns yet I learnt to appreciate that Christians, like Muslims, also take the position that a strong emphasis on religious and universal values is good for the society. As a member of the school’s orchestra, once a year we performed in the church.

I started my working life in an accounting firm in London with 90 per cent of the partners who were of the Jewish faith. While the issue of Palestine had always been uneasy (so we avoided it), I got special treatment simply for being a Muslim. There was a small space in the office where we could pray (although there were only four of us in the firm who were practising Muslims) and I had extra holidays for Eidul Fitri and Eidul Adha.

In spite of this experience, I was not converted. If any, I become more grateful of my Islamic identity in a foreign land. It provided me with the strength and sense of solidarity with others. I came out a more sensitive and confident Muslim precisely because I understood Christianity, Judaism and other religions better.

Every now and then, I make sure that my interns come from the different faiths so that we learn from each other. One of my earliest interns (Galvin Wong who is now studying in Australia) taught me more about the Christian community in this country than I had ever learnt from any textbooks.

My point is: we should encourage our young people to be open-minded to learn about each other and of each other’s religions and cultures. I would not have been as open on multiculturalism if I had not gone through the process to appreciate the religion and culture of the majority ethnic group when I was a minority in the UK. If my experience as a Muslim minority in a Western (predominantly Judo-Christian) society has been positive, I am confident that if done correctly, it will have a positive impact in our society too.

It is dangerous to send a signal that any move that compels or encourages the cross-learning of religions and cultures among our young people is bad.

If we can agree on this premise, then we can concentrate on the practical problems that often cloud our judgment on TITAS.

If the concern is on the alleged unfair representation of other civilisations or disproportionate Islamic content in the syllabus, then we shall focus on fixing the syllabus. Yet we cannot object a subject that intentionally aims to promote greater understanding among the races on the excuse that the syllabus is flawed; it is akin to objecting the use of car because it carries a risk of accident!

If the concern is on the lack of manpower to teach the subject effectively, we should focus on mitigation plan to roll this out to IPTS. And so on.

This is where I might have differed with Lim and Thayaparan. While I take this as a major factor in arriving at my position on TITAS, I do not see much discourse from them on the need for cross learning. Much of their opposition to TITAS comes from their suspicion and cynicism of Umno which they alleged would have authored the syllabus to “reconfigure Malaysian and world history as well as civilisational studies taught in schools to fit in with their “ketuanan Melayu” and “ketuanan Umno” mindset”.

Should the state interfere in syllabus?

Perhaps another aspect of the issue that was almost left out completely from Lim and Thayaparan’s pieces is the state interference in deciding syllabus for institutions of higher learning.

I personally feel that the state must be given the instrument to compel certain values to be taught in institutions of higher learning. If the government is responsible for the well-being of society, it must be allowed to use education (including setting syllabus) to shape society, especially if education has proven to be an effective tool at societal reengineering.

If we are honest about a Malaysia that is free from race bias, we have to be concerned at the level of polarisation in our society. We are divided by economic classes and different clusters of people have less interaction with people of other clusters (the clusters maybe economic or racial in nature, or both). Even if the polarisation is not considered chronic, we should do our best to remove any form of polarisation because it leads to stereotyping in a society.

Against this backdrop, I think it is fair that a government of the day interferes with private tertiary institutions (as they had done with the public institutions in the past) to compel a subject that can promote understanding and greater appreciation among the younger Malaysians.

Whether it should be a universal and uniform syllabus imposed on all or private institutions are allowed to develop their own syllabus that later pass the accreditation process is a subject for further debate. But the debate is on the practical aspect of the implementation, not on the opposition to a subject that can promote understanding and appreciation of each other.

How Islamic-bias is the TITAS syllabus?

As much as Lim and Thayaparan were disappointed with my position, I too am disappointed that despite all the criticism and suspicion of TITAS, both of them did not touch at all on the most contentious part of TITAS i.e. the syllabus.

While I am sure both of them had indeed gone through the syllabus before; I am baffled why they did not comment on it.

Most of the readers who call me names had in fact not gone through the syllabus.

Based on the structure of the courses at the public universities, TITAS is taught over a period of 14 weeks. The breakdown of the time allocated for each component of the subject (hence a degree of emphasis) is as follows:

● Topic: Introduction to civilisation — definition, interaction between civilisation, growth and fall of civilisations; number of weeks allocated (2); weightage (14 per cent);

● Islamic civilisation — definition, development of Islamic civilisation, contribution, contemporary issues in Malaysia; number of weeks allocated (2); weightage (14 per cent)

● Malay civilisation — definition, Malay civilisation as the foundation, contribution, contemporary issues in Malaysia; number of weeks allocated (2); weightage (14 per cent)

● Indian civilisation — definition, values and society system, achievements and contributions, contemporary issues in Malaysia; number of weeks allocated (2); weightage (14 per cent)

● Chinese civilisation — definition, values and society system, achievements and contributions, contemporary issues in Malaysia; number of weeks allocated (2); weightage (14 per cent)

● Western civilisation — emergence, value system, achievement and contributions; number of weeks allocated (1); weightage (7 per cent)

● Contemporary issues of civilisations — concept of knowledge, challenges of globalization, survival of Islamic and Asian civilisations; number of weeks allocated (2); weightage (14 per cent)

● Summary — building civilisation past, present and future; number of weeks allocated (1); weightage (7 per cent)

The Islamic content of the syllabus is equivalent to the respective contents on Malay, Chinese and Indian civilisations. In fact, in a study carried out in 2002 in UUM to establish the effectiveness of TITAS, a majority of respondents surveyed believed the syllabus did not have enough Islamic content and had failed to raise an understanding of Islam!

While I may be sympathetic to Lim’s list of suspicions against Umno and its malpractices, it is irresponsible to make a blanket objection on the pretext that everything will be manipulated as Umno’s secret agenda without going through its proper merits if implemented correctly.

My record so far speaks for itself of my opposition to Umno and Barisan Nasional. Yet I did not enter politics to be dogmatic and prejudiced against anything and everything that happens to be initiated while my political opponent is in power. Doing so speaks volume of the respect (or lack of) we accord to the civil service. They may have to answer to an Umno federal government, yet there are enough independent and good souls in our civil service who want to do the right thing.

Crudest political opportunism?

I have tried to stay objective in evaluating the pros and cons of TITAS.

It is Lim’s right to think that it was political opportunism on my part when I voiced my caution not to fuel the right-wing elements of Umno with this issue, especially when I feel his (Lim’s) fair suspicion against Umno had clouded his objective assessment of the merits and demerits of TITAS.

Nor will I feel offended by Thayaparan’s comments, though I wish he had not so easily concluded that my response is “symptomatic of the intellectual poverty of many in the Malay intelligentsia” as if to assert his personal views that Malay intelligentsia is generally not intellectual.

The very language and stereotyping he uses is the very fuel that will be manipulated by irresponsible quarters to feed further the fire of divide in our country.

In the final analysis, I want to remain ideal in my political views. I want to speak for the benefit of Malaysians, not for the Malays, Chinese, Indians, Ibans, Kadazans or anyone. I want to be able to voice my opinion on policies that I think will bring greater goods to the majority of Malaysians and assist nation building, even if my views are not popular.

When we speak against NEP to the chagrin of the Malays, we did not do it to please the non-Malays. We were firm because it is fair and it is the right thing.

When I was adamant that Pakatan’s manifesto would not be written along racial lines and no mention of specific programmes for a specific ethnic group, I was vilified for weeks by Hindraf. It did not perturb me because the manifesto speaks for all Malaysians.

Thus, my support for TITAS has nothing to do with pleasing the Malay voters. I had benefited from greater interaction with different people and cross learning of different cultures and I believe each Malaysian will benefit too. Any issues with the implementation should be confined to the discussion on the practical aspect of TITAS not the philosophy of cross learning at our tertiary institutions.

One day, I hope to see a Malaysia made up of younger Malaysians who understand multiculturalism like my young friend Galvin Wong. For that to happen, it makes common sense for them to learn different cultures (even if it is imposed initially).

  1. #1 by Loh on Tuesday, 23 July 2013 - 10:30 am

    ///The most important question is the simplest: given the state of the society now, will we benefit from knowing more about each other? Can we reduce the misunderstanding and prejudice against one another if we have a better understanding of the fair representation of Islamic, Malay, Chinese and Indian civilisations since they form the greatest influence on our society?///–the author

    The Malaysian government has the peculiar ability of doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. All that are said above would be useful but not critical for the survival of the nation. Why then should we choose to impose on people who are pursuing tertiary education or towards a professional degree. Science students may not do well in subject excelled by art students, and why get them to spend enormous time just to know about others when they should know more about the subject preparing them for their career. If the government is interested to end polarization, and since not all citizens go to university should not the history syllabus be appropriately modified to teach them the true history of Malaysia and other civilizations?

    14-weeks is a long time, and students will have to spend much longer preparing for examination especially when they know nothing about any religion; Malaysians can choose to be atheist. The government may prepare a desk reference on the subject intended for TITAS and give to students for their reading pleasure. Indeed that might be more interesting to them.

  2. #2 by Loh on Tuesday, 23 July 2013 - 2:15 pm

    Instead of having the course taught in private universities, it should bt taught by BTN to civil servants.

  3. #3 by good coolie on Wednesday, 24 July 2013 - 9:16 pm

    We Malaysians don’t know what to learn.

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