Monday, July 24, 2006

Ethnic Relations Course : An Alternative Proposal

Finally, I'm back in the US and I have decent internet access once again. I had a good time meeting family and friends (including some who read this blog) in the 1 month that I was back. It was a reminder to my wife and I that we do want to return home when I eventually finish my PhD (though we might take a few detours along the way).

So many issues to discuss but I think I'll start with one which is closer to home which is the latest fiasco on the Ethnic Relations course and textbook in UPM. Tony has blogged about it here and here and I want to chip in with an alternative proposal to a "textbook".

I disagree with the idea that there should be ONE textbook on the teaching of Ethnic Relations in Malaysia. The practice of historical revisionism has been discussed by Tony and many of our readers. The fact is, every writer / author would approach a certain subject, for example, the May 13th 1969 riots, with a certain bias or agenda in hand, sometimes consciously, often subconciously.

Even if the writers / authors try their level best not to have an agenda, the very process of research might tilt towards a certain perspective. There will be / has been writings on this incident viewed from different perspectives. If you're interviewing, for example, only Chinese KL-lites who lived through the incident, their accounts of the riots would be different from Malay KL-lites who went through the same experience.

Instead of relying on ONE textbook (which is a very typically Malaysian thing to do -study ONE book to pass your exams instead of reading from a variety of sources), I propose that a variety of writings / articles should be used instead.

I'm personally surprised that Prof Shamsul AB is the project director for this new subject given that he should know that there has been different academic perspectives offered on the subject of race relations. He himself has authored many books and articles on the notion of Muslim and Islamic identity and how this has been contested over the past decades.

Other Malaysian academics who have written on this subject from different perspectives include Colin Abraham, Francis Loh, Terrence Gomez, Sumit Mandal and Johan Saravanamuttu. It is interesting to note that Johan Saravanamuttu was asked initially by the Ministry of Higher Education to be the head of the technical committee for the subject but pulled out because the Ministry wanted to fast track this project while Johan wanted it to be piloted first.

The problem with this course and the other compulsary courses in our public universities (Malaysian Studies, Islamic Civilisation, Malaysian Citizenship and languages) reeks of brain-washing instead of encouraging critical thinking and healthy debate on thess matters.

The notion that there should be ONE textbook on the issue of the civil rights movement in the US for example would be laughable in any university of repute here in the States. Instead, students are exposed to a variety of readings and allowed to argue their own points of view (no matter how biased) based on the texts that they have read. Good grades are given to points well-argued and not on taking the "government's" or the "university's" position.

But maybe that's going too far in our public university's context. To think that we might actually consider teaching our students to think critically! How seditious a thought!


Anonymous said...

the problem here is the local universities are degree-mills. it's easier to use a one-size-fits-all approach than to teach these undergrads critical thinking, which thru your example is by having students to actually research on the topic at hand instead of memorising a single textbook. the fact of the matter, and the reason why our education system is in such dire straits, is because of how we view at education in the first place. degree-level education has fallen to the level of a compulsory high-school cert, by which, i mean to say that its become so common and almost mandatory. our public universities are simply unprepared. so somethings got to give, in this case, academic standards. im just so disappointed at how things are going, most of time i dont even bother wanting to know anymore.

clk said...

If you have many perspective, we gonna have "problems" in marking mah? No "sample answers" to follow mah! Headache for examiners and lecturers...How to explain the various scenarios..? Since there's no right or wrong how to award marks? I don't think many of our examiners are up to mark to examine/ critic the various scenarios/views.

In M'sia, we only have one view and perspective..the Govt's current official view only; which also changes according to who heads the Govt.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes we are too quick at pointing the finger to students (eg, unable to cope lah, only know how to memorize lah, etc), when the problem may be the university lecturers, many of whom are not used to reading, let alone analyzing, many articles of diverse opinions and are only capable of teaching by plagiarizing other people's lecture notes.

Anonymous said...

What we could have is one "textbook" as the main reference. This is done in all universities and main reading. However students should also be given a list of reference journals and recommended reading materials that they should source on their own.

That is University.

Anonymous said...


Makes me wonder when a book is not a book....

Anonymous said...

The author of the said "textbook" must be damned lucky to monopolise the market.

Anonymous said...

text book? may be reference book and not text book. a lot of different between reference book and text book.

only my 2 cents

Anonymous said...

I believe that the problem is that students not encouraged to be skeptical (which is also a problem in Singapore, by the way).

Anonymous said...

Minister of Higher Education Ill Advised: Peers in Parliment No Better (Hansard 18 July 2006, p. 94 - 111)

The original position of the Minister should have stand, namely, the academic freedom of historical representation and analysis, even very bad ones should be subjected to proper rebuttals in the academia. Instead, the Minister decided to defend the lexicon and finer points of the written word. While there is basis to the contention, the downside is that the MHE got involved and took sides in the academic points of dispute, which was unnecessary.

First of all, the publication was a compilation of papers. There are good and bad papers, papers that contradict each other on some positions, and differences in the level of analysis and comprehensiveness. At the end of the day, the academicians should not yield their domain to politics or politicians. Of course, the extent to which the calibre of our academicians to defend their own reputation may be in doubt, but in the academia, individuals have to be responsible for their own body of work.

Gloss-overs or make-overs or outright errors, being in the printed word makes it possible to catch lazy academians with their pants down or their zippers open. This is why publishing is part of the scholastic yardstick. It doesn't mean that something is printed and bound and called a book carries with it automatic authority. It is meant for dissemination, consumption and discussion among the academicians so that positions are staked out based on written work, not hearsay or timely speeches.

Naturally, the common man on the street is intimidated by anything in print. Unfortunately, many many stupid things have been written by many proclaimed academicians, preserved in posterity for the analysis of succeeding generations. Nobody gets everything right, not even Einstein, and no academic work escapes criticism. Lazy work, however, makes it easy for the critics.

The point being that the problem of academic integrity and quality remain. The solutions to the UPM guidebook episode has helped to foster no improvement in either, and therefore remained a hollow exercise of political intervention and intimidation of errant academics, nothing more and nothing less. A society ruled by timely edicts and mandates from the upper echeleons encourage the surrender of thinking individuals.

When human rationality and reason fails, the shame is shared by us all. The black spots in our history is a lesson for Malaysians, who cannot evade responsibility simply by sharing or spreading the blame. Common sense failed to prevail and all of us owe the victims an apology, and amends must be made. Understanding the tip-over points that has contributed to the violence is an exercise in forgiveness, not further prosecution by extending inter-communal blame.

We can still see the same threats being repeated, reason and civility abandoned with the excuse of breached sensitivities. We still see Malaysians who threaten the use violence instead of dialogue; hidden and not so hidden threats of physical conflict are accepted as part of the game, and; mob-like behaviour is entirely permissible with the slightest provocation.

Welcome to Malaysia. When we cannot reason, sulking is not the option - acting out like a child is.

A Cygnet Shin

Further references

Anonymous said...

What is the most surprising about all this is? The country is now trying to raise its competitiveness via innovation and entreprenuership rather than just growth by foreign investment and input-driven and yet it believes that its old system of surpressing intellectual discourse and truth still does not matter.

If we want to copy Singapore that grow via foreign investment and efficiency gains than there probably is room to just continue to surpress our students and young population freedom to think. However Singapore has shown and what the western world, particularly US and Europe has always believed, that freedom to think and intellectual discourse is the foundation of thousands of ideas that entreprenurship and innovations springs from.

Singapore already realize that the biggest danger to its pouring billions into investment research is its surpression of freedom and individuality. All of those money could come to waste if there is no diversity of ideas and honest open discourse.

Southern Johor being a Shenzhen/Hongkong? More like New Jersey before the 1980s.