Conference Reports

Education in Multi-racial & Multi-religious Society: Divisive or Unifying?

Date: 20-Nov-2002

Education in Multi-racial & Multi-religious Society: Divisive or Unifying?

MSRC-KAF Intercultural Discourse series

Nov 20, 2002

Hotel Nikko, KL

Organized by M’sia Strategic Research Ctr & Konrad-Adenauer Foundation





Tan Sri Awang Had Salleh

(Former Vice Chancellor, UUM)

Datuk Abdul Rafie Mahat

(Director General, Min. of Education M’sia)

Dato’ Peter Ng

(Council Member, M’sia Assoc. of Private Colleges)

Dato’ Prof Dr Hashim Yaacob

(Deputy Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, UM)

Mr. Peter Schier

(Representative to M’sia, Konrad-Adenauer Foundation)


"To address the question as to whether education in a multi-racial and multi-religious society enhances unity or on the contrary creates further division."


Despite the ongoing efforts to encourage racial & religious harmony in Malaysia for decades, racial polarization is still displayed and tensions among religious groups persist. One of the efforts made by the local government has been through education. Undeniably, education has narrowed the imbalances and inequities in the society; it has also at the same time widened the gaps of racial polarization. Ideally speaking, education plays a crucial role in producing unity in a multi-racial and multi-religious society like Malaysia. However, reflecting upon the history of Malaysia, education appears to be one of sources of division in the society. Even the decision in using a particular medium of instruction brings forth a certain extent of racial uproar. Perhaps one should further examine the underlying dynamics in intergroup conflict. The dialogue presented on this day focused on the role of education as unifying or divisive factor. It concluded that unity in diversity should be the baseline for educational policy making.


  1. Education was highly contentious, claimed Tan Sri. One may say that education in Malaysia is successful because the majority seems to benefit from it. But how does one gage success since it takes a long time to bear visible fruit?
  2. Datuk Rafie believed that education could be both divisive and unifying depending on individual perception. The national philosophy of education has been aiming towards national unity. However, in order to look at today’s education, the progress of education in the past and the dynamics of educational systems (with difference in medium of instruction, purposes and structures) since the colonial time must be examined. He said the seed of division was already sown in those days with the establishment of vernacular schools each with its own unique characteristics. Such characteristics were retained until today in both national and private schools. Therefore vision school is one of the ideal methods to unite children of all vernacular schools without altering those characteristics. Datuk Rafie was also convinced that what we achieved today was a result of compromise in the area of education, and therefore unity could be achieved with some form of compromise politically and socially. Some of the existing or emerging problems might be due to the fact that implementation did not go in line with policy.
  3. From the perspective of private education, Dato’ Peter Ng said private institution was a melting pot of diverse cultures, from the classroom context to community experiences. However there was a pocket of students who struggled from social inequity (stratification is a serious issue especially between the "haves" and the "have-nots"), academic incompetency and discriminatory attitudes from other students. Promoting diversity could be divisive on one hand because of ignorance in the underpinning unity in both individual sense and collective sense. Dato’ Ng also questioned the effectiveness of the current tertiary education, whether it strengthened the minority students (e.g. Orang Asli) as it was always redefined by Western curriculum. He stated the needs for in-depth study of all cultures and focusing on common values which might benefit the society, while recognizing that insufficient disagreement made education ineffective.
  4. Dato’ Prof. Dr Hashim Yaacob gave four elements of the present definition of education: (1) to give intellectual, moral & social instruction, (2) to develop character or mental power, (3) to systematically instruct, and (4) to train and instruct for a particular purpose. Element #3 was a gray area, while the last element posed certain danger due to different interpretations. The end result of education was very much depended on the type of instruction, the instructor and the ability of those who were instructed to weigh right and wrong. He was also convinced that Murphy Law was the order of the day: if things can go wrong, it will. The apparent divisions in the campus of public institutions were no longer confined to ethnicity but gender as well. "‘Perpaduan’ is last if not absent from the students’ mind," he said. Until people are sensitive to their surrounding, education remains divisive. Education should be multipurpose, not for a particular purpose and instructors should be well trained in sensitivity. While cultivating the sense of patriotism may be another method to unify the people, there was a need for paradigm shift. In order to compete globally, mastering English language and change of attitude were crucial, Dr Yaacob said. Additional problems came from self-righteous students and silent majority.
  5. Mr. Peter Schier maintained that education should serve the interest of unifying a society. In Germany, education appears to achieve its goal of unity until students reach the grade 4 when they must attend religious classes. Students are divided according to their own religious background. He asserted that politicians had hijacked the subject of religion, and thus there should be a strict separation between religion and politics/state. The goal of unifying people should not be melting pot but unity in diversity.
  6. Some responses from floor:
  1. World religion class for secondary schools was proposed. For a harmonious society, there needed the application of the golden rule: ‘Do to others as you would want others do unto you.’ The separation of students for agama and moral classes was challenged (Dr Yaacob believed that the issue of agama and moral classes was not easy to tackle. Datuk Rafie reminded the participants that the Malays demanded moral class for their children as well. He said while it was impossible to put all religious studies in the curriculum at the moment, it could be done in some other way).
  2. The undercurrents in Malaysia society were too strong, i.e. the Malays wanted Islamic education, while the Chinese wanted Chinese language. Thus there should instead be a focus in creating world citizens, preparing Malaysians to become world class workers.
  3. Things should be allowed the way it has been as long as we could get along with each other. Consciously pushing everyone to integrate was not necessary. If it must be done, the first thing to do was to get rid of ethnic based parties, i.e. UMNO, MCA & MIC.
  4. One should study the social stratification, sectarian disengagement & ambient problems with underlying real world hostility.
  5. We were the victims of our own history, political and educational systems. There must be a pragmatic idealistic approach. Instructors were important in influencing the minds of the young people.
  6. Were the educational policies divisive by design? Educationists should to be given rights and proper platform in policy making because education started with men and ended with men.
  7. The deterioration of the standard of education created polarization as students were not taught to think and to debate.

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