Much Ado About History!
Does The Past Hold True For Us?
Eugene Yapp, NECF Executive Secretary, Research
Much has been said about the controversial History textbook used by Malaysian secondary school students. The matter received heightened attention when a concerned mother wrote an open letter that was published in Malaysia Today.1 She wanted to know why our school curriculum has been written with a religious slant by writers of only one religious persuasion, and why Malaysian students are subsequently compelled to focus disproportionately on one religion without a balanced view of others. The present secondary school history curriculum has been around for awhile but it was only recently that it has attracted a certain level of attention and criticism.
Arguments and discussions abound as to whether the topics covered by the subject's textbook amount to a fair and accurate representation of past events, and if they meet the acceptable standards of teaching materials for a textbook. Professor Azmi Sharom from the University of Malaya for example, castigates the present textbook as having an overemphasis on Islamic civilisation and even within those confines, laments over the elements of Islamic theology that are found. He therefore calls for a serious review and reworking of the present secondary school's history curriculum as it is "very imbalanced".2 On the other hand, the Ministry of Education (MOE)'s attempts to explain away the curriculum's emphasis on Islamic civilisation in its statements have been far from satisfactory. However, despite the public sentiment on the issue, the MOE has not appeared to review or rectify this state of affairs, which only raises questions about its inaction or the delay in action. Could it simply be due to indifference or worse still, a lack of political will to redress the situation?
Christians who are called to be "salt and light" (Matt.5:13 14) to this world and who have been mandated to "speak the truth in love" (Eph.4:15) must therefore ask critical questions about this impasse. Philosophers like Jurgen Habermas and Michel Foucault warn that there is an inextricable link between truth, power and social relations. Other social thinkers like Steve Lukes pointed out that rulers may prevent their subjects from having grievances by manipulating their perception and preferences until they view the existing order of things as natural or unchangeable.3 Drawing on Steve Lukes' view, we have to ask if our schools' biased history curriculum can be seen as a tool to shape impressionable, young Malaysians' minds in order to justify the existing order of things simply because it is perceived by some as divinely ordained.
If this is indeed the rationale behind the overemphasis on Islamic civilisation, doubts will rightly be cast on the sincerity of Prime Minister Dato' Sri Najib's notion of 1 Malaysia. History must rightly take her place as the study of events and human dealings in the past that have shaped the world and our nation's destiny. Her value lies in being an instrument of information and education with the capacity to nurture and shape the young minds of a country's future generation so that they may be useful citizens locally and globally. To further this end, it is imperative that the account of past events and their significance be kept as accurate as possible within a balanced perspective for the nurturing of a balance personality.
So we ask the question, what then can be done? I take my cue from Dr Colin Abraham in his comments on a similar issue. He wrote a letter to Malaysia Today with respect to the novel Interlok as a suitable secondary textbook.4 Dr Abraham suggests a specific body be established to oversee matters related to curricula review and the selection of suitable textbooks for our school students. On the specific matter of our History textbook, we would like to add that, apart from MOE officials, Dewan Bahasa Pustaka academics and other educational agencies, Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) representatives should also be included in this specific body tasked to review the curriculum and recommend suitable textbooks for our children. In this way, all can contribute to the wellbeing of our educational curriculum and ensure transparency and scrutiny in textbook selection and content for the sake of our children and nation.
Christian parents: Are we willing to take up this mantle and be involved in our PTAs? It has been observed that non-Muslim Chinese and Indian parents are increasingly enrolling their children in private or international schools. Others whose children are in the vernacular or national schools rarely play a part in the PTA or concern themselves with its affairs. Indeed, as Datin Noor Azimah of Parent Action Group for Education (PAGE) says, "many parents bravely talk and talk about the weaknesses of the educational systems, yet when it comes to standing up and walking the talk, they disappear into the wilderness, nowhere to be found... but the few who (do) stand up for a cause find themselves standing, sadly alone". 5
Does this quote reflect the actions or inactions of Christian parents when it comes to things of national interest in our educational system? If the church is to be found relevant and involved in nation building, Christian parents must first take baby steps in the area of education before taking the giant leap into the public arena of human rights, politics and public policy reforms, etc. Can we do that for 2011?
God bless the church for the sake of Malaysia!
1 "School History Textbooks - Historical Facts or Political and Religious Propaganda?", Malaysia Today, 16 December 2010
2 "Balanced worldview via history", The Star, 30 December 2010, p42
3 Steve Lukes, Power: A Radical View, 1974
4 "Unlock Interlok", Malaysia Today, 26 January 2011
5 "Best to forge unity at school, but...", NST, 27 January 2011, p17.