Malaysia’s Rally Against UN’s ICERD Shows Need For Radical Revamp Of Outdated History And Ethnic Studies Curriculum – OpEd


Malaysia’s December 8, 50,000-strong rally against the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (Icerd) – which took place without any real reason, since Putrajaya had backed off from its original aim to ratify the treaty – saw 99.9 percent Malays staying at home out of boredom of being stupefyingly represented by ‘amuk Malays’.

Rallygoers went on a ‘melatah’ (exclamation) trip, where they protested for the sake of protesting.

This moment in history is a challenge to our Education Ministry to radically revamp the curriculum. It should underscore the importance of the direction of writing and teaching history that we are to embark upon.

What kind of history, or rather whose history, are we going to pass down to make the young peaceful and peaceable, and to help build a better Malaysia?

I have these notes for the Education Ministry to use as a guide:

Neuroscience and teaching

The science of brain-based learning has shed light on optimal learning conditions.

In Malaysia today, we have produced a nation of people that are angry and use race and religion as negative tools of engagement.

The nation’s brain has become ‘reptilian’ in this age of race-rooted mental insecurities, perpetually defaulting to fight or flight mode. This explains why we display signs and symbols of anger in public forums both in physical as well as cyberspace – keris wielding, internet spamming, and all other forms of human aggression.

Our education has failed to force our educators to teach tolerance. Had our schools and universities been less segregated, the evolution of our civil society would have taken place at a much faster pace.

Our institutions – political, cultural, and economic – are based on racism. We have forgotten that in each and every religion and culture lies the idea of the universality of human need, and how these will never be met through greed, or through institutions built upon wants and not needs.

We can help tap our students’ brain potential by guiding them to move away from the level of the ‘reptilian’ brain, and towards the ‘higher’ brain. The latter is a suitable condition for the advancement of higher order thinking skills, much needed to develop the three-pound universe in our head.

The mind will need new ways to be stimulated in order to grow. A plethora of research on brain-hemispheric dominance attests to the idea of mind expansion through proper care and education of both sides of the brain.

Newer strategies of teaching history, culture, and consciousness are therefore needed. Race and ethnicity are merely constructs of social dominance, containing neither scientific nor philosophical bases.

A new interpretation of history needs to be made, one that will debunk the myth of superiority of any race.

New historical accounts need to be constructed so that we may teach our students to interrogate the makers and producers of history, question signs and symbols of dominance, deconstruct theories built upon selective memory, put on trial glorified villains who abuse power, rediscover newer heroes, understand the issue of author, authorship, and authoritarianism in historicising, speak for the poor, silenced, marginalised, and oppressed, and have students explore creative dimension of subaltern history.

Essentially, we must make history and the study of cultures meaningful to our students.

Concepts to teach

New Bumiputeraism. Radical multiculturalism. Humanism. Evolving self. Alternative futures. Social reconstructionism. Counter-factual and alternative historicising. People’s history. Power and ideology.

All these concepts can be taught to our students of this New Malaysia; those young and curious minds that need a new understanding of Malaysian nationalism, or Bangsa Malaysia.

How do we teach these concepts?

We can involve students in activities that allow them to explore the meanings and mechanisms of culture. We can have them examine the universal and the particular in human motivations, behaviours, attitudes, values and beliefs.

We must expand their understanding of the dynamic nature of culture and increase their awareness of their own place in global series of cultures and subcultures, and the challenges and opportunities such situations present in cross-cultural communications.

We can get our students to construct alternative futures that draw out the ethical humanistic values into an integrative concept of ‘new bumiputeraism’ based on the premise that we are all human beings sharing a living space in borrowed time, and that the litmus test is how we treat fellow human beings with knowledge, understanding, and wisdom sound enough to make each other see through the lens of race, colour and creed.

I believe that if we resolve this issue of bumiputera versus non-bumiputera through education for peace, justice, and tolerance, we will see the demise of race-based politics and the dissolution of political parties that champion this or that race.

Ethnic studies as a vehicle of change for culture and consciousness will do the job – of course successfully in the hands of skilled trainers and professors who are colour-blind.

The challenge is this: do we have colour-blind educators who will profess colour-blind ideology? I hope we have them in all our public universities. After all, their training should allow them to be true to the subjectivity of culture and the sensitivity to race and ethnicity.

In fact, if we are sincere in developing our students’ intelligence, we should even have them revise our History syllabus in schools and ethnic studies module in our universities from time to time – so that we may not be the ‘sage on stage’ but a ‘guide on the side’.

Kings, queens, datuks, datins, slaves, serfs, sultans, subjects, Malays, Chinese, Indians, Kadazans, Ibans – all these are artificial constructs.

Through time, space, and place, we create these constructs to enable or disable our understanding of what it means to be human.

Educators of multicultural studies must be trained to counter-hegemonise apartheid, bigotry, arrogance, racism, and disabling cultures through the art and science of teaching and through their own repertoire of strategies of mental liberation and cultural action for freedom.

It might be the longest battle – but this is going to be a great victory for Malaysian children of all races.

Dare we take up this educational challenge of crafting a people’s history of Malaysia?

Dr. Azly Rahman

Dr. Azly Rahman is an academician, educator, international columnist, and author of nine books He holds a Columbia University (New York City) doctorate in international education development and Master's degrees in six areas: education, international affairs, peace studies, communication, fiction, and non-fiction writing. He is a member of the Columbia University chapter of the Kappa Delta Pi International Honor Society in Education. Twitter @azlyrahman. More writings here. His latest book, a memoir, is published by Penguin Books is available here.

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