The dangerous ways we acquire knowledge


Sharifah Munirah Alatas –
January 21, 2019

The Quran says, “Allah will never change a grace which He has bestowed on a people until they change what is in their own selves” (8:53).

Followers of all religions believe that what we know of our existence, our universe, our life begins with the supreme creator.

What we need in post-election Malaysia is to focus on how Malaysians acquire knowledge

We do not need to be told that there is a “world of knowledge out there”. We need to be guided on how to choose what to know and how to think.

We need to know why we think in such a way. Much of our socio-political crises is because “we do not know” how to know.

We must ask the following: do Malaysians truly understand what kind of fundamental knowledge is required of us, whatever race, religion or ethnicity we may be?

Do Malaysians realise that the kind of knowledge we seek determines the kind of national unity we establish?
Can Malaysians know how to ask the right questions while reflecting on the relevant problems?

These questions should be on the tip of the tongues of policy makers, civil society groups and the public. They are critical for good governance.

Before readers dismiss these questions as either futile or simplistic, I refer to Education Minister Maszlee Malik’s latest address at Universiti Putra Malaysia (Jan 14, 2019).

He emphasised character-building as a basis for improving the country’s education system. He also said that the learning process must be “fun” so that students will “love knowledge”. One way to inject “fun” into the system, he said, is to do away with the exam-oriented curriculum.

Many of us agree with Maszlee’s direction, in this case. However, do many of us ask what he meant by “love knowledge”?

Do we love “how” we acquire that knowledge (free access to information, free press)? Do we love the knowledge of “today I learnt why Muslims should not be threatened by the arrangement of lights in a building that resemble a crucifix”?

Do we love to “know” that language construction through political speeches, forums, newspapers, online blogs, Facebook and Twitter posts, books and academic articles all have specific objectives in mind? Do we love knowledge just for the sake of knowing something?

To my mind, “loving knowledge” is a huge responsibility. The responsibility should be borne by the fisherman, the car mechanic, the office clerk, the salesperson, the food stall owner, the pasar malam trader, the minister and the MP.
This responsibility is knowing what is relevant and how it can be applied constructively. This is the part of Maszlee’s speech that was missing.

Malaysia is a constitutional democracy, with Islam as the official religion. Therefore, much of the debate about knowledge cannot ignore the role of Islam.

Our constitution has elements of Islamic values, many of which are reflected in the Judaeo-Christian tradition as well. The concept of ‘ilm (or ilmu, in Bahasa Malaysia) is one such value.

I was drawn to a recent article about racial discrimination in Malaysia, where a reference was made to the Barisan Nasional era. A segment of the article claimed many non-Malays were denied access to opportunities and career advancement based on their skin colour.

We need to deconstruct this statement, because it has contributed to the false consciousness of racial discourse in our society. It also demonstrates a lack of responsibility in generating knowledge.

Malaysia’s racial problems have nothing to do with skin colour.

Neither do they have anything to do with hair texture (curly, kinky or “spiralled” versus straight), height (tall versus short) or nose structure (sharp versus flat or hooked).

Our racial tensions have everything to do with attitude and objectifying irrelevant aspects of knowledge.

The “crossphobia” incident objectified another false consciousness. That Islam and Muslims are being threatened by a “Christianisation agenda”, bent on annihilating Islam in Malaysia.

One of the creators of such notions is none other than PAS information chief, Nasrudin Hassan. He belaboured the idea that the Nehemiah Project International Ministries (NPIM), based in Lake Oswego, Oregon (US), is up to no good.
Where are the facts to prove this? Unless there is documentation that NPIM is proselytising Christianity through subversive business deals (such as deliberate displays of crucifixes on buildings, channeled through developers), we must conclude that these are rantings of an insecure, malicious and gravely irrelevant man.

Generating knowledge is a responsibility. Relevant facts and analyses must be employed. Sensationalism have no place.
Our current racial and religious tensions persist because Malaysians have not mastered the concept of originality. Unfortunately, we have demonstrated analytical mediocrity.

Mental captivity
A little must be said about mental captivity.

The entire racial and religious narrative today is “trapped” in an uncritical and imitative mode. False problem-setting, shallow analyses, generalisations and misguided interpretation of issues are trendy.

Civil society groups, opposition parties and critiques within government seem to have a set vocabulary when it comes to “addressing and correcting” misconceptions of race and religion.

For example, an academic recently conducted a comparative study of Islamic education in Malaysia and Indonesia. He claimed that the national school curriculum and Jakim-approved Kafa programme do not incorporate the teaching of such democratic values as openness and respect for diversity.

Instead, he said, the focus was more on teaching rituals and the “avoidance of sins”.

I agree. This is why Islamic education in our schools has been superficial, and has failed to generate holistic Malaysian Muslims.

However, concerned academics like him should know that he is stating the obvious. The entire Malaysian society is knowledgeable of the ritualistic Malaysian Muslim.

We observe that the mechanistic, robotic approach to religion has done nothing to curb corruption, rape, drug-addiction and poor academic performance. In fact, the approach has increased these sins.

It is time for academics and other game-changers to develop a culture of constructive criticisms and relevant analysis. We have to choose the right kind of knowledge to apply in our analysis.

Instead of harping on the notion of ritualistic Islamic education, we have to keep needling on the deeper, more difficult questions.

It is time to tell the Malays (and Muslims) that performing the hajj is not the white-wash ticket to salvation. Friday sermons and classes in schools and universities should emphasise the dangers of possessing a superiority complex.
If we are told that we should be proud to be Muslim, or that Islam is a compassionate and all-giving holistic way of life, we should also be advised that Islam does not condone the manipulation of knowledge.

A hadith quotes Prophet Muhammad as saying, “The search for knowledge is the duty of every Muslim. Allah likes the seekers of knowledge” (Usul al-Kafi, Vol. 1).

In the Malaysian context, this knowledge should embody the “historical process”. It is the divine duty of the imams, school teachers and university lecturers to instruct worshippers and students that our policies on race and religion are couched in history.

Our colonial and early post-colonial history conditioned how the Malays and Muslims are perceived. In fact, it has also conditioned how Malays and Muslims perceive themselves.

The root cause of our current “identity clash” is that Muslims and non-Muslims in Malaysia have stopped focusing on the processes that preceded the tabling of our constitution. They have also stopped focusing on the subsequent historical process over that last 61 years.

We need to focus on how the humble and inclusive Malaysian evolved into the ethnocentric and bigoted citizen, with a dangerous superiority complex. This is the type of knowledge that imams, teachers and lecturers need to impart to society.

It is counter-productive to harp on why Muslim males should sit on the toilet (because dogs “do it” while standing), or how lazy the Malays are. On the contrary, we should be educated on cleanliness and perseverance.

How do we assimilate and generate knowledge about the problems of our current era? About post-GE 14 developments in Malaysia? How we categorise and form opinions of the situation, and how we problem-solve, are directly related to the “irrelevance” of knowledge that we have acquired.


The answers lie in how we conceptualise education. Most importantly, teacher education is the key. Our Ministry of Education must re-focus their policy reforms, to include a new conceptualisation of “relevant” knowledge.

* The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.



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