A move to make Islamic and Asian Civilisation Studies compulsory for students at Malaysian private universities has triggered a fierce debate, with the government being accused of stepping up the Islamisation of the nation.
This comes just as another controversy, over a Bill to allow a child to convert to Islam with the consent of only one parent, has died down. The government withdrew on July 8 the proposed legislation, which caused unease among religious and ethnic minorities.
Critics are now demanding that the government either reverse the decision to make Islamic and Asian Civilisation Studies (Titas) compulsory or make the module elective if it insists on pushing for the subject to be taught at private universities.
Deputy Prime Minister and Education Minister Muhyiddin Yassin came under fire when he said in a written reply in Parliament last Thursday that Titas would become mandatory for local students, regardless of their religion, starting in September.
Two other subjects that will also be made compulsory are Ethnic Studies and Malaysia Studies. He said the move was to streamline the requirements of public and private universities.
The Islamic and Asian Civilisation Studies module has been a compulsory subject for students at public universities since 1997.
Political analyst Lim Teck Ghee said the move was an attempt by the government to impose what he called "ketuanan Islam", or Islamic supremacy.
"Among the various moves made in the educational system, this must rank as one of the most stupid and pathetic," Dr Lim told The Malay Mail Online.
"If it takes place, of course it's another step forward in the Islamisation of the country," he said. "So it needs to be resisted."
The director of the Centre for Policy Initiatives in Kuala Lumpur said a compulsory religious course was not necessary at tertiary level and that technical and professional courses were needed instead.
The Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), a member of the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional, has come out against the move, saying it would foment religious tension as the subject focuses on the study of just one creed.
MCA publicity bureau chief Heng Seai Kie said: "If our students are only limited to studying Islamic civilisation, this will prevent students of other races from learning more about the other major religions and civilisations of the world."
She added that studying about Islam solely was not conducive to Malaysia's multi-cultural society, which includes religious minorities such as Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and others.
Opposition MP Anthony Loke told The Star daily that forcing students to study the module would create a negative impression and would not foster communal understanding.
He added that the move was politically motivated, accusing Tan Sri Muhyiddin of trying to shore up his political capital in the run-up to his Umno party's general assembly later this year.
Some educationists have also questioned the move, saying the new subject would mean extra stress for non-Malay students, as it would be taught in Bahasa Malaysia, which many might not be that proficient in.
But the move has received support from Malays and Muslims. Datuk Asri Zainul Abidin, former Perlis Mufti turned university academic, said there was nothing wrong with learning about Islam, the religion of the majority, pointing out that Islamic scholars similarly study other faiths such as Christianity and Judaism.
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