There is an urgent need for the government to show greater respect and sensitivity to Malaysiaís plural characteristics by withdrawing its decision to make Islamic civilisation a compulsory subject at all public and private institutions of learning.
The Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Sikhism, for instance, had expressed its "deep concern and dismay" that Islamic civilisation would be made a compulsory subject in all public and private institutions of higher learning and stated the Councilís stand that "all students need to have adequate knowledge and appreciation for one another's religions to attain national unity and integration."
The council, which represented 47 per cent of the 20 million multi-racial population, also expressed its regret that "it was not consulted before a decision was made on such a fundamental issue that affects the religious sensitivity of non-Muslims".
The Christian Federation of Malaysia, in a statement on 7th July, 1997, called for "a full-scale evaluation" and urged the government to open up facilities in the schools and universities "whereby all students could learn and have a better appreciation of the major religions adhered to by Malaysians".
The Government should tread carefully on issues which touch on the sensitivities of the different races, religions and civilisations in the country.
Malaysiaís unique position as the confluence of several great Asian civilisations, religions, races, languages and cultures has been used as a top selling point by the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad when promoting the Multimedia Super Corridor internationally as Malaysiaís "gift" to the world "as a huge test-bed for trying out not just the technology but also the way of life in the age of instant and unlimited information".
The Government should therefore harness Malaysiaís rich cultural resources to promote greater understanding among the diverse races in Malaysia to understand each otherís civilisation, rather to trample on the sensitivities of any Malaysian by forcing the study of any one civilisation on any group.
It is a good idea not only to expose non-Muslim students to Islamic civilisation but also to expose Muslim students to non-Muslim civilisations. The question however is whether this should be done at the university level, or whether this process should have started earlier in the national education system, whether in the primary or secondary levels.
The government should convene a National Education Conference to discuss how best to impart the values of the various great civilisations which meet in Malaysia to our students in schools and universities, which should involve representatives from the various great religions and civilisations in the country.
This would be an important step towards achieving the objective of a "Bangsa Malaysia" as outlined in Vision 2020.