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Controversy over compulsory Islamic studies on foreign campuses

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By Yojana Sharma and Emilia Tan
         
An Islamic studies and Asian civilisation course, compulsory for students in Malaysia’s public universities, will also be mandatory for all private university students – including those at foreign branch campuses – from 1 September.

Amid controversy over the course content, Muhyiddin Yassin, Malaysia’s deputy prime minister and education minister, said the move was intended to “streamline the requirements” of private and public universities.

Vincenzo Raimo, director of the international office at the University of Nottingham in the UK, which has a branch campus in Malaysia, said the subject was being made compulsory across the board, including at foreign branch campuses.

TITAS, as the religion and civilisation course is known by its Malaysian acronym, has sparked considerable debate within the country, particularly among non-Malay communities.

Critics have called on the government to make the subject non-compulsory for non-Muslims; Malaysia has significant Hindu, Chinese Buddhist and Christian minorities, many of them attending private universities because of restricted places at public institutions.

Just over 60% of Malaysians consider themselves to be Muslim, according to official census figures.

Consultations on TITAS have been held with private universities and foreign branch campuses over the past year. Malaysia hosts eight foreign branch campuses and has just over 50 private universities and more than 400 private colleges.

In a written parliamentary reply on 11 July, Yassin said foreign students in private institutions would also be required to take Malaysian studies and Malay language courses. At Nottingham University’s campus in Malaysia, three hours a week will be allocated to the compulsory subjects.

Previously some students who had already studied TITAS could be exempt. “There are no exemptions under the new regulations,” Christine Ennew, provost of the University of Nottingham Malaysia campus, told University World News.

“Like other institutions in Malaysia, we have been delivering teaching in areas related to TITAS for some considerable time and already have significant capacity in this area, but we will need to scale up provision, and this will have significant cost implications.”

The subjects already taught at Nottingham’s branch campus include Malaysian studies, moral or Islamic studies and Bahasa Malaysia, the national language.

“We delivered these subjects to students as a supplement to the standard curriculum,” Ennew said, adding that the purpose of the courses was to provide students with some grounding in the national language, an understanding of the country’s history, and awareness of religious and moral debates.

But some academics have said that the use of many Malay terms in the course could make it particularly difficult for students who do not speak the language.

Controversy

Since July the issue has become highly emotive, with some critics accusing the government of ‘creeping Islamisation’ and pandering to Islamist groups that support the government.

Although the government’s stated aim is to promote national harmony, critics' concern is that the focus will be on Islam and that students risk being taught by religious fanatics with little exposure to other religions.

Islamic groups in turn accused the critics of being ‘Islamophobic’.

The Ministry of Education insists the claims that the course contains Islamic elements and is unsuitable for non-Muslim students are inaccurate. TITAS also tackles “Malay, Chinese, Indian civilisations as well as civilisations of the future", the ministry said in a statement.

The subject is already being taught on a compulsory basis in the Malaysian provinces of Sabah and Sarawak on the Island of Borneo, where non-Muslims attained excellent results according to the ministry’s higher education department Director General Morshidi Sirat, quoted by the official Bernama news agency.

“It is about comparative Asian civilisations as well as the good and common values,” he said.

Member of parliament Ko Chung Sen, of the multiracial opposition Democratic Action Party, urged the government to withdraw the compulsory TITAS requirement. He cited the country’s constitution, which states: “No person shall be required to receive instructions in or of a religion other than his own.”

“How would this improve one’s studies to be a doctor, lawyer or engineer? Why would this be necessary here in Malaysia?” he asked in a press statement last month.

Others have argued that since TITAS is taught in Malaysia’s primary and secondary schools, there is little need for it to be mandatory for university students.

Compulsory vs elective

Gan Ping Sieu, vice president of the Malaysian Chinese Association, which is part of the ruling Barisan coalition, said the course should be made elective instead of compulsory, “as is the practice of top-ranked universities in the world.

“To make study of a single religion-civilisation compulsory for non-followers of that religion-civilisation is a step backward from national harmony. The ministry should instead introduce the general studies of all major religions-civilisations in secondary schools to promote better understanding and goodwill amongst our younger generation.”

Mahaganapathy Dass, higher education bureau chair of the Malay Indian Congress youth organisation, said that if the intention was to provide students with some exposure regarding civilisations, the current focus on one civilisation should be reduced and more emphasis given to others. A new syllabus should be drawn up after discussion with academics, experts and teachers, he said.

Making TITAS compulsory “shows that there is a fear that it won’t be popular in the first place. Bureaucrats are scared that if a course is initiated and its undertaking is voluntary, classrooms would be empty save for a dedicated few,” said Aerie Rahman, a Malaysian student at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University, who took TITAS classes while an undergraduate law student at Malaysia’s Universiti Teknologi MARA.

When he studied the subject four years ago at the public university, “there was some Islamic bent”, Rahman told University World News.

Even if the syllabus has been changed since then for private universities, Rahman said, “I don’t think it is appropriate for foreign or non-Muslim students, or even Muslim students. Students at university are not looking for what TITAS is offering. It is not useful to students, who need skills to secure a job on graduation.”

TITAS has been compulsory in public universities since 2006, although marks are not included in the cumulative grade point average that leads to a degree award.

Education ministry officials have said private institutions can decide how to assess and grade students.

“There is a specified curriculum which indicates the broad areas to be covered. We are in discussion with the ministry about a range of flexible delivery options and we are particularly interested to explore integration with other elements of our curriculum,” Nottingham’s Ennew said.

She added that the subject was “potentially of value to a ‘global citizen’ because it will help them understand modern geo-politics and its implications for their future working career. The skills elements included in the new diet of compulsory subjects is also one that is relevant to student employability.”

Academics who spoke on condition that they were not named said it was unlikely the government would withdraw the course – but there was still some scope for adjusting the content.

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