Educational answer is not to keep religion out of national schools but to allow all pupils to be taught their own religion as Pupils’ Own Religion (POR) like Pupil’s Own Language (POL)

Media Statement
by Lim Kit Siang

(Ipoh, Wednesday): The proposal by Gerakan President Datuk Seri Dr. Lim Keng Yaik on Sunday that religion  should be kept out of national schools to encourage more parents to enroll their children in them (New Straits Times 3.5.05) has elicited quite heated reactions, with Utusan Malaysia yesterday carrying a front-page headline reportSyor Keng Yaik dibantah -- NGO terkejut isu agama diguna tolak dasar kerajaan perkasakan SK”, opening with the accusation that it was “an attempt to frighten non-Malays from sending their children to national schools”.

Keng Yaik had explained: "If you want to deal with religious issues, do it at home, in religious classes or at places of worship."

The Utusan Malaysia reaction is no surprise but what is most extraordinary are the reactions from the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi  and the Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak. 

Abdullah seems to have been stunned by Keng Yaik’s statement, although the

Minister for Energy, Water and Communication claimed that “this was one of three recommendations discussed at a Cabinet meeting on ways to improve enrolment in national schools”, raising the question whether they were attending the same Cabinet meeting.

Keng Yaik said the other two recommendations relate to having high-quality education and teachers with positive attitudes, especially in caring for their charges.

Abdullah chided  Keng Yaik  for making such a statement in the media and said he would ask the Gerakan President “on what he actually said which has hit the headlines in the newspapers".

Abdullah said Keng Yaik  had previously "in passing" asked him about the issue of religion in national schools but nothing was discussed.

 Najib was even more dismissive of Keng Yaik’s statement, declaring that the teaching and learning of Islam in national schools was a policy matter that could not be reviewed and would be continued.

 He stressed: "We hear all sorts of views about how to improve national schools to make them the school of choice of all Malaysians but there are certain fundamental matters that cannot be reviewed as they are policies.”

 Keng Yaik has yesterday clarified that what he had meant was that there was too much religion in the national schools, and not to keep religion out of national schools.

 Keng Yaik is right when he said that the Islamisation of the national schools is one reason for the low percentage of non-Malays in the national primary schools but very wrong when he prescribed the solution of  keeping religion out of the national schools to overcome the problem.

In December 2002, the then Prime Minister, Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad went public on this problem when he spoke about the national school system being “hijacked” from its original objective of catering to all races in Malaysia because “people who run the schools have other ideas”.

 This is what Dr. Mahathir said:

"The idea was to set up a school system that would cater to all races in Malaysia. But we find that the people who run the schools have other ideas. For example, when we provide for pupil's own language, they try to deny the right of the Chinese and Indians to learn their own languages, and they don't make an effort to provide the necessary teachers.

"They have also tried to introduce Islamic practices into the school system to the extent that non-Muslims have become alienated. For example, in the past, we had no problems with girls wearing skirts and boys wearing shorts, especially for games. Now boys are forbidden from wearing shorts, even for games, and even games are discouraged. These are individual interpretations of what Islam is all about, and eventually of course, this puts off the non-Malays and they go back to their own schools.” (New Straits Times 27.12.2002)

It is most regrettable that some two-and-a-half years after Mahathir‘s public admission of the “hijacking” the national schools  resulting in the alienation of the non-Muslims, the government is still quite lost as to how to address this problem.

I do not agree with Keng Yaik’s solution  as the educational answer is not to keep religion out of national schools but to allow all religions their rightful place in the schools in keeping with Malaysia’s multi-religious diversity, where all pupils are  taught their own religion as Pupils’ Own Religion (POR) like the Pupil’s Own Language (POL).

At present, it is compulsory for Muslim students to take Islam studies and non-Muslim students to take  the subject of  “moral education”.  This cannot be satisfactory from the nation-building standpoint, as all secondary school students, regardless of race or religion, should study civics together,  like the five principles of  Rukunegara, while they take their separate religious instruction.

Evidence that  Keng Yaik’s proposal that religion should be kept out of national schools is a “non-starter” is crystal-clear not only from the reactions of Utusan Malaysia but from UMNO leaders like the Prime Minister and the  Deputy Prime Minister.

 The rational and  sensible  national solution to this problem is to make national schools inclusive rather than exclusive as far as religious instruction is concerned, allowing all pupils in national schools to be taught their own religion. 

 Is Keng Yaik prepared to ensure that beginning with the Ninth Malaysia Plan, which marks the mid-point of the 30-year Vision 2020 to create a Bangsa Malaysia, all national schools will implement a “Pupil’s Own Religion” programme?

 Islamisation of the national schools was not the  major cause triggering over 90 per cent of Chinese pupils attending Chinese primary schools, as this phenomenon predated the Islamisation process, going back to the early 1970s when there was the sudden policy change in the shutdown of all English-medium primary schools.

This was why  by 1977, when Mahathir was then  the Education Minister, 87 per cent of the Chinese students were attending Chinese primary schools, or 478,849 out of a total of 550,545 Chinese primary pupils were in Chinese primary schools.

On Sunday, MCA Health Minister Datuk Dr. Chua Soi Lek said that 98 per cent of Chinese pupils enroll in Chinese primary schools while only 2 per cent go to national primary schools.  (Nanyang 2.5.05)

The reasons are simple – Chinese primary schools provide higher-quality education with better school discipline and greater teacher commitment. 

If the government is serious in wanting to raise the quality of education in the national primary schools, then it must be prepared to create the conditions which could produce greater teacher commitment, as by ensuring a truly multi-racial teaching service, with promotion and rewards based on meritocracy and not favouritism or discrimination of any kind.


*  Lim Kit Siang, Parliamentary Opposition Leader, MP for Ipoh Timur & DAP Central Policy and Strategic Planning Commission Chairman