How is Malaysia’s education system dividing the country along religious and ethnic lines?

Malaysia's Ministry of Education. Photo: CEphoto, Uwe Aranas

Malaysia’s national education system has become a source of Islamic indoctrination and racial bias. Regressive teaching methods and segregation are producing an angry and radical generation of young Malays, threatening the country’s national unity and stability.

By Umair Jamal

In Malaysia, education is becoming a battleground for the moderate and the extreme right.

Branded “indoctrinating factories for Malay children” by human rights lawyer Siti Kasim, Malaysia’s national school system is dividing the country along ethnic lines. Ethnic segregation has become a major problem in Malaysia’s education system even though the institutional role of education should serve as a unifying force for the country’s multi‐ethnic society.

Furthermore, the country’s education system, which is heavily influenced by Islamic teaching from first grade right up to university, has become a source of tensions and youth radicalization.

Malaysia’s schools widen ethnic divides

The debate rages about whether Malaysia’s vernacular schools should continue. The country’s education system has not been decolonized. For instance, parents from each of the three major ethnic groups—Chinese, Indian, and Malay—prefer to send their children to vernacular schools, where their individual languages and cultures are taught.

Research suggests that Malaysians are unlikely to make friends outside their own ethnic groups at schools due to the ongoing segregation of different ethnic communities at educational institutes. This lack of diversity denies young Malaysians the opportunity to develop interethnic friendships. It creates metaphorical barriers between ethnic groups.

In this way, existing political, economic and social inequalities among the diverse ethnic groups in the country have found their way into the country’s education system. In Malaysia, politicians rely on ethnic voters for support and have never pushed to stop these cultural boundaries penetrating the education system.

A recent study entitled Ethnic Boundary among Students in Malaysian Primary Schools and Social Interaction: A Conceptual Framework found that the existence of ethnic boundaries via vernacular schools has enhanced stereotypes in Malaysia and fueled racial biases in the country. “The education system that divides the students according to their mother tongue and ethnic difference is a less effective means of cultivating integration and mutual understanding among students,” noted the study.

The country’s political elite doesn’t appear to be worried about the issue as politicking continues to dominate the debate. The segregated education system in Malaysia has become one of the causes of ethnic polarization in the country. To foster greater ethnic integration, it is vital that the Malaysian education system is desegregated as soon as possible.

Photo: Pikist

How is Malaysia’s education system radicalizing the country’s youth?

Complicating the issue is the Islamization of the Malaysian education system, leaving the country with a prejudiced, intolerant and radicalized youth. Faith is now an essential part of schooling in Malaysia education. For instance, many Malay parents are unaware that their children are receiving four hours of Islamic-related teaching per week.

The teaching of Islamic education is not only mandatory for Muslim students but at times also enforced on non-Muslim students. Non-Muslim parents have complained that their children are made to sit in Islamic teaching classes and at times are not even given the opportunity to take alternative subjects.

Such indoctrination at schools is impacting on students’ behavior. It promotes rigidity and does not encourage lateral thinking. Former minister Zaid Ibrahim had this in mind when he lamented how the country’s schools and universities concentrate too much on politics and religion to the detriment of promoting reading, writing and thinking. He complained that “the culture of having an intellectual and pluralistic approach to understanding the world, including religious tenets, had not taken root in Malaysia. In fact, such an approach is frowned upon and considered blasphemous.”

Such an approach in schools could lead Malaysia’s students towards extremism. Malaysia’s security agencies fear that extremist ideologies are gaining ground among university and school students and militant groups like the so-called Islamic State (IS) may use the opportunity for recruitment purposes.

Their concerns are not without justification. Since 2014, police in Malaysia have arrested over 420 people for being affiliated with IS. At least 40 of them were college or university students. In January 2017, two students from Al-Madinah International University were detained by police for channeling funds for IS. To date, eight secondary school students have been arrested for assisting the group’s militant activities in Malaysia.

The proliferation of Islamic teaching in schools has fostered other conservative attitudes. Malaysia’s authorities plan to indoctrinate school children against transgender rights. With the introduction of a so-called Social and Reproductive Health Education program, the Ministry of Education aims to “warn” all school children about what it perceives as the threats and dangers of being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT). Such a move would, in theory, curb the growth of the LGBT community in the country.

It is a backwards step. Malaysia needs to allow its young people to ask tough questions about sexuality, religion and the role of different ethnic groups in the country’s development. Schools should not be a place to drive wedges between the country’s different racial communities and enforce religious teachings.

The creeping Islamization of Malaysia’s education system is fast becoming a national security challenge. As the approach is being pushed at policy level, Malaysia is sitting on a ticking time bomb. The growing sense of alienation and despair among Malaysia’s students is fast becoming a threat to both the country’s stability and its students.

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at and on Twitter @UmairJamal15