Clueless or opportunistic defenders of TITAS

by Dr. Lim Teck Ghee
Saturday, 27 July 2013


As soon as one academic government yes-man appears to retire from the public scene, another all too quickly rushes to fill the vacancy. The latest academic political wannabe is Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Prof. Teo Kok Seong who has said that the course would benefit the Chinese, and that Chinese leaders should support its introduction.

Offering little in the way of empirical evidence or intellectual argument, he has provided the breathtakingly brilliant and original insight that “TITAS in private higher institution is to resolve the issue faced by citizens who do not know our history and civilisation. The ultimate purpose is to create better understanding, foster unity and inculcate the development of a national identity.”

According to Prof. Teo as reported in Utusan Malaysia (23 July 2013), the compulsory teaching of the subject is to streamline the social sciences in public and private universities and to foster humanism in the undergrads.

And to drive home the importance of the compulsory subject, he links his defence of it to the lack of understanding among private school students “of the country’s history and the basics in the country as [seen in] the sex couple Alvin Tan and Vivian Lee….”, said a Malaysiakini report headlined ‘ Titas would benefit the Chinese, says don’ (July 23).

Prof. Teo appears bent on justifying his position as Research Fellow of the Institute of the Malay World and Civilization and the conferment of a Datukship on him.

If that is his intention, he should have gone further and asked perhaps for the public flogging of the couple and the withdrawal of citizenship of those against the Ministry of Education’s effort to create better understanding and greater unity among students. An even harder line would endear him more to the higher ups and secure greater official recognition.

Rafizi and Chun Wai: TITAS supporters

Unlike the clueless Professor, MP Rafizi Ramli has come out with a more reasoned piece to explain his support for the course. The article which has appeared in Harakah has been titled, “Armed with data, Pandan MP Rafizi Ramli shoots back at critics of TITAS”.

And what was the data presented to shoot down critics?

It was a table reproducing the breakdown of TITAS’s syllabus and showing how its “Islamic content” is equivalent to the other topics on Malay, Chinese and Indian civilisations, with 14 percent weightage of the total course.

The reproduction of the official syllabus appears to be the extent of the critical inquiry and homework that the MP has done in response to the concerns of members of the public. Surely Rafizi, who is well regarded for his sharp acumen, is not buying into the official propaganda sheet and should not behave as if he was the TITAS course public relations officer.

If so, he will be joining the group editor of The Star Wong Chun Wai (left), who in an opinion editorial piece rhapsodized over the course and how it had benefitted him in his profession and illuminated him on Islamic civilization.

Chun Wai’s experience of the course goes back to 30 years ago and it was in a completely different context from the present one – a context he has conveniently omitted mentioning.

He may have his strategically-mentioned “private decent collection” of books on Islam to brag about and as a showpiece for his guests to view but he really needs to send his reporters to do serious investigative work on the teaching of TITAS – and history in schools – and their shortcomings if his op ed is not to be rubbished as another fawning pro-government piece of propaganda.

Surely the elementary course “Media 101” would have taught him that any editor worthy of the profession’s ethics would put his staff to verify and write on the complaints and concerns of the public, especially on such an important issue.

Some key issues to address

As my views on the subject are well known, I will not repeat my arguments against the course, ad infinitum. I would like though to draw the attention of Prof. Teo, the PKR Pandan Yang Berhormat and the Star editor to the concerns raised by two commentators on the issue.

The first is from a good friend to me in private e-mail communication on the topic and which he has given permission to reproduce.

“Given that this topic is a sensitive one and the undergraduate’s study load is not particularly light these days, we need to be rigorous right from the beginning and ask whether we really need this subject and does it need to be compulsory. Rafizi Ramli argues that the government should intervene in the affairs of the public to set values. For me there is a problem with how he interprets government intervention. I would not object to the government intervening as a counterbalance against a clear negative force (e.g., the great powers of organisations that are free to pursue the goal of profit maximisation). Government intervention and value-setting needs to be justified well and be democratically sanctioned. Or else government intervention could get out of hand. And so the government’s action to introduce TITAS should be deliberated upon with more care and discernment in this spirit. Way before saying “let’s go ahead and do it”, we must thrash out questions like: (i) what is the harm here that justifies introducing a compulsory subject of this nature; (ii) would introducing a compulsory subject minimise the harm identified in (i); (iii) how exactly does Rafizi Ramli expect TITAS to affect values in a beneficial way, what are the exact mechanisms involved here?

Myrdal had argued in ‘The Political Element in The Development of Economic Theory’ (1929) that as objectively as an economist might like to treat a research topic, personal values and the values embedded in economic theory will creep into his study. This inescapable problem of an actor having his own value positions and these influencing his actions applies in the case of a government too, which clearly have ideologies, including ideological positions that not everyone in society might agree with (e.g., Umno’s ‘Ketuanan Melayu’). So although introducing civilisational studies might sound good in principle, in reality things are a lot messier than one might think. Who prepares the syllabus, their agenda, who teaches the syllabus, the institutional setting in which a subject is taught – all of this are susceptible value biases and subtle injections of partisan ideology. Rafizi Ramli overlooks this. He listed the equal weightage given to each civilisational topic and the study duration allocated for each, but what makes him think that the notes for one civilisational topic will not be longer than another, or that the merits of one civilisation will not be hyped up compared to another, or that one civilisation be painted in less flattering light that another (or selectiveness occurs with regards to the teaching material such that some information is suppressed to downplay some civilisations and elevate others)? This sorts of things have already happened in the Islamic Civilisation studies taught in Malaysian public universities – I am aware of a case in which an ustazah had ridiculed a non-Islamic faith in her lecture. The students kept quiet, she got away with it. Lastly, the title of the subject, ‘ Islamic Civilization and Asian Civilization’ (TITAS), already hints of a certain bias. Why not ‘Civilizational Studies’?”

The second is an excerpt from a reader in a national daily. Titled, “ Call for unbiased intellectual position’, the letter to the editor states:

“In a classroom setting, with a teacher who is biased towards one religion, and then in a position to bias debate – [the answer is] no (to the question, “wouldn’t the country move forward and Malaysians be global citizens by learning about Islamic civilization”) [….]

Moreover, regarding the academics who have been tasked to design, teach and evaluate the soundless of the university syllabus, there should be a duty to have only academics who can demonstrate neutrality on these issues.

Malaysia is not in a strong position to produce such scholars, given its weak standing internationally in unbiased religious studies.

That is especially true in a nation that actually imprisons ‘heterodox’ Muslims (such as Syia) or actively persecutes others (such as Ahmadiyya). Is it reasonable to expect in a nation with a government that engages in such persecution that it will allow such instruction to be academically unbiased?

Moreover, in a nation that (the government) defines and mandates that an ethnicity (Malay) be defined as universally adherents of a religion (Sunni Islam), that it will allow such full academic freedom?

Indeed, in a Malaysia in which academic freedom is generally viewed by those outside as being incomplete, as well as by some within, the onus must be on such academics to conclusively show that they are free of all such bias ab initio… “

Finally, it is necessary to pay heed to the response of young Malaysians who have recently undergone the course in the public institutions. Three of these responses which have appeared in the internet media are reproduced below.

1. “I was a student of UTM Skudai, and from my experience TITAS is just another religious class masked under the pretext of ’empowering students with world knowledge’. I have been in numerous arguments with my TITAS lecturers who belittled other religions at every turn. And the TAS part or Tamadun Asia Tenggara part is just a sham to touch on more Islamic civilization and administration across South East Asia. We already have 7 out of 11 topics in Form 4 Sejarah textbooks talking about Islam….”

2. “I was an undergraduate in UKM and did TITAS in 2005-2006. I have to agree …that the TITAS syllabus was heavily biased towards Islam as a religion. The author of the text book tried to justify every achievement by great Islamic scholars with quotes from Quran implying it was foretold…”

3. “One very simple solution to this issue: Remove the “Islam” word and anything in the syllabus that leans heavily towards any particular religion, and call the subject ‘Asian Civilizations’. The subject would immediately become interesting again, not a rehash of what we were forced to learn for 6 consecutive chapters in Form 4.”

  1. #1 by waterfrontcoolie on Sunday, 28 July 2013 - 11:52 am

    If the Almighty is as simple as ALL religions have advocated in their scripts; would the human race need to through all the problems they had faced in the last 4 to 5,000 years? If sins can be forgiven just by words then we are all sinless; that would be the simplest. Yes, we need more than mere propaganda to erase our sins!

  2. #2 by sotong on Sunday, 28 July 2013 - 12:26 pm

    One cannot continue to run a government with hidden narrow political agenda through dishonesty, deception and manipulation.

    You lost all credibility and integrity to continue to govern.

  3. #3 by Jeffrey on Sunday, 28 July 2013 - 1:05 pm

    One of the clearest indications of why or how increasingly this place holds no promises or future for Nons (except of course for those who are “clueless” or “opportunistic”) is not only because of the likes of TDM harping on race and Chinese ‘dilemma’ but on matters like TITAS touching on religion even a staunch Opposition Pandan MP like Rafizi Ramli (with ‘sharp acumen’ & dedicated to eradicating corruption) should think and argue likely with conviction that the government – which he opposes for playing race/religion cards should intervene in the affairs of the public to set values including those like TITAS!

  4. #4 by good coolie on Sunday, 28 July 2013 - 1:29 pm

    Is everyone free to express views that conflict with that of the teacher, lecturer, or examiner? Can the government guarantee that academic freedom will be respected, so that bias in favour of a certain religion/culture can be neutralised or countered in true academic fashion?

    I understand that this is not possible with Form-4 students for obvious reasons. We thus have students regurgitating truths that they do not believe in, getting early lessons in being intellectually dishonest. Would more mature students – undergraduates, for example – be as malleable merely for the sake of a loan or scholarship?

  5. #5 by sheriff singh on Sunday, 28 July 2013 - 1:57 pm

    Can anyone who is familiar with TITAS tell me whether the syllabus include chapters on Sikhism or the larger Christianity faiths and their contributions?

  6. #6 by ENDANGERED HORNBILL on Sunday, 28 July 2013 - 2:04 pm

    Hello Muhyiddin,

    Can I respectfully (trying very hard to say this, as you can guess) ask that you read Goh Chok Tong’s speech to his alumni, Raffles Institution. It is not earth-shaking wisdom; some say, it’s even elementary. But the fact I ask you to read this means I have a very low regard of yr abilities and common sense. So read you must.

    You see, for the good of Malaysia, UMNO and everyone else must transcend racial and religious politics. The world is not going to wait for Malaysia to get its act together. The world will speed ahead and Malaysia may crash into a bottomless abyss if its politicians behave like there is nothing else that matters except kampong politics.

  7. #7 by sheriff singh on Sunday, 28 July 2013 - 2:08 pm

    ‘… We already have 7 out of 11 topics in Form 4 Sejarah textbooks talking about Islam….’

    There could be common cases where the lecturers and the authors of TITAS themselves have very scant knowledge of the religions and contributions of other civilisations. They can only look through their biased Islamic lens for that is all they know and are familiar with.

  8. #8 by Bigjoe on Sunday, 28 July 2013 - 2:09 pm

    Did Prof Teo question Alvin Tan and Vivian Lee to determine if they knew the country’s history? As far as I know no one even bother to ask them if they understood anything..Alvin Tan and Vivian lee are known to be academic scholars, Alvin in LAW – hard to believe they did not know the country’s history..

    Saving the couple did not know Alvin Tan and Vivian Lee did not know the country’s history is equivalent to Mahathir saying he did not know what Anwar did to Ghafar Baba in the in the 1993 UMNO election. Yeah. Right..

  9. #9 by Bigjoe on Sunday, 28 July 2013 - 2:12 pm

    Or better yet, what he did to Sabah and all the happenings since his time all these years..

  10. #10 by bangkoklane on Sunday, 28 July 2013 - 2:46 pm

    Is it possible that we have an Islamic dilemma here? Over the years the local universities have produced so many Islamic studies graduates that the government cannot find jobs for them anymore? So let’s have TITAS compulsory in private universities and colleges. Wow, problem solved.

  11. #11 by DAP man on Sunday, 28 July 2013 - 4:13 pm

    Can anyone expect a government that plays on Malay and Islamic supremacy to treat the other civilization as “equals” or with scorn.
    Even a toilet issue has been exploited as a fair action because what the “Superior Race” decides for the inferior race is always fair and to be defended at all costs.

  12. #12 by Loh on Sunday, 28 July 2013 - 4:36 pm

    We know now how Chinese can ever be appointed professor. The other way is to be a Ridhuan Tee.

  13. #13 by tuahpekkong on Sunday, 28 July 2013 - 8:38 pm

    I studied History until Form 3 only. In those days, students from the Science stream did not have to study History, it wasn’t compulsory. I remember that the History topics were quite balanced, unlike today’s History topics which are lopsided. To argue that knowing our history and civilisation alone would foster unity and inculcate the development of a national identity is rubbish. We also require Government policies which are conducive. Otherwise it would be akin to constructing a building and later destroying it.

  14. #14 by bruno on Sunday, 28 July 2013 - 9:41 pm

    During the time when we were students,I seldom ever heard people talking Malays,Chinese,Indians and Seranis this and that.Now there is not one day that people will stop talking about this race and that race.Go figure.

  15. #15 by PoliticoKat on Monday, 29 July 2013 - 2:28 am

    Okay so we learn about Islamic civilization in the middle east, north Africa and southern Europe (800-1300 AD) Great! Awesome.

    Will we learn anything about the Malays, their culture and history?

    Will learning islamic civilization help give non-malays a better understanding of the Malays?

    Will the Malays ever learn about the history and culture of the chinese, Indians and orang asal?

    Perhaps that is the problem. We know next to nothing about each other! Learning about Islamic civilization tell us little about the Malays. And nothing is taught about the chinese, indians or orang asal.

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