In an interview with the New Straits Times on Sunday, Professor Khoo who was one of the architects of the Rukun Negara after the race riots of May 13th, 1969 expressed his disappointment that "race relations between Malaysians are at their most fragile in nearly 40 years."
This clear cut statement from one of Malaysia's most respected academics clearly carries weight and it runs contrary to the perpetual feel good messages which are political leaders are prone to spew, particularly during the festive seasons.
More importantly, he sees one of the root cause of disunity amongst the various ethnic groups in Malaysia as "a national school system that has become more communal despite its supposed non-ethnic and non-religious status".
He blames the education system which has become more communal despite its supposed non-ethnic and non-religious status for the growing division between the races. Khoo, 69, says politicians planned their strategies according to the actual situation and hence fed on the problem.
"They feel that if they strengthen the position of the Malays, the Malays will think as one, and then they will always get votes from the Malays," he said.The response from various parties came fast and furious. From some, it was the predictable "same old, same old". In a follow up report by the New Straits Times the very next day, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Dr Maximus
Ongkili who is in-charge of national unity, gave the predictable spew on how pretty the picture of race-relations are in the country.
I disagree with Khoo’s statements. The tolerance level and maturity among Malaysians have increased, although sensitivity about certain issues remains high.It is unfortunate that our government leaders continue to act like the Emperor with his new "clothes".
In a multiracial society, what’s required is appreciation of diversity, tolerance of differences and full commitment by all parties to eliminate obstacles to unity.
I am further impressed by the fact that Professor Khoo places the need to be a Bangsa Malaysia first, and Chinese second. After all, we are all Malaysians.
"If I were very much a champion of the Chinese, how could I get across to the Malays? What we need today are more bridge builders, not ethnic champions."Professor Khoo, being an educator by nature calls for the teaching of "cultural history" to help bridge the race-relations gap. He believes that the teaching of history in Malaysia is "too political" and hence probably faces high levels of revisionist pressures, "preventing children from learning more about other cultures".
Hence by teaching "cultural history", there may be less revisionist pressures on the text and children can be exposed to "cultural reality". It will not be easy in todays world of increased religious sensitivity though. By teaching on Chinese cultures, without will inevitably deal with the semi-religious practices which is part and parcel of events like the Mid-Autumn Festival or Vesak Day, there will be segments of the communities who will argue that the teaching of such will violate the sanctity of their religion.
We cannot have leaders who continue to turn a blind eye to the fact that our education system is creating a significant racial rift in our Malaysian communities and continue to claim that everything is well. Not only is the system not helping the integration process, with racial markers present all over our education system e.g., vernacular schools and Mara Junior Science Colleges, we are helping the disintegration process as well.
Read also "The Separation of Races" and "Our Education, Our Future".