Coercion will not aid student learning

When it was announced that the Islamic and Asian Civilisation Studies, or TITAS, course would be made compulsory to students in private universities in Malaysia, it provoked a huge controversy.

Public universities in Malaysia are already mandated to teach TITAS to all of their students. The move to extend this to private universities was contentious as private universities are considered to have more autonomy.

TITAS is a course that teaches about the Islamic, Malay, Indian, Chinese and Western civilisations – reflecting the ethnic configuration in Malaysia (except the Western part). The content is historical, talking about ‘how we got here’ – which is supposed to be covered in high school.

Surprisingly, certain opposition members such as the mercurial Rafizi Ramli, not only acquiesced but blatantly supported the move, citing the need for greater intercultural understanding in multi-ethnic Malaysia.

Ironically, most politicians who support the mandatory implementation of TITAS are those who studied in the West – where forced courses, other than the ones integral to a degree, are unheard of.

The TITAS debate is crucial because it represents to what extent the government is able to intervene in the workings of private tertiary institutions.

If the government is empowered to force private universities such as University of Nottingham’s Malaysia campus to compel all students – including foreign students – to do this course, it will erode the autonomy of private institutions and, perhaps even more importantly, of students.

Such a threat to student freedom would be unthinkable in any Western nation and would probably be met by street protests, just as when tuition fees were hiked in the UK. In quiescent Malaysia, it was met by lacklustre debates.

Without any public consultation, it appears that the obdurate Malaysian government has set the deal in stone.

A cosmetic solution

The glaring point about TITAS is that it is a smokescreen for the underlying, fundamental issues that beleaguer this nation. It is essential that we take a brief look at Malaysia’s structural problems.

Affirmative action policies benefiting the Bumiputera – sons of the soil, a term used to denote the Malay race and other indigenous peoples of South East Asia – still endure, despite being imposed since the 1970s, almost 40 years ago.

Racial inequality in terms of wealth is still pervasive. Vernacular schools – a bastion of segregation – are alive and well. The civil service is bloated with one ethnic group. Deserving secondary students are unscrupulously denied places in local universities by virtue of their ethnicity.

Against this backdrop, the implementation of TITAS is a mockery of all the ethnic problems that Malaysia is facing. What is taught in the classroom does not accord with lived reality.

Instead of trying to initiate a discourse on the problems that we have, we force students to feel they should embrace one another, while knives are still sticking in our backs. Real understanding only comes through trying to solve our structural issues.

A course that relies on compulsion for existence

When I was at law school at a public university in Malaysia, I had to undergo TITAS. The course lasted two hours every week and there was a written exam. Like any compulsory course, failure to pass meant you could not graduate. I hear that there will be no exam for the newly revamped TITAS. I hated the course, and still do – which is why I’m writing this article.

The problem with the course is not only the content, which plunges into essentialisms about the cultures of the ‘other’. I also loathed it because it destroyed any modicum of autonomy that I was supposed to have as a student.

I don’t mind if TITAS is introduced as an optional course, which a person who wishes to learn more about Islamic and Asian civilisations can take of his or her own volition. But forcing it upon students who are adults is akin to insulting our intelligence.

Let’s not start with the minimal utility that TITAS has to offer students. The primary reason why students attend universities is because they want to get a job. At university they accumulate the necessary skills to make them marketable. I have no idea how knowledge on Islamic and Asian civilisations would help one operate a Large Hadron Collider at CERN.

The argument that TITAS fosters greater intercultural understanding is, of course, made in good faith. Who doesn’t want a more harmonious Malaysia, where every ethnic group can live in peaceful coexistence?

However, as the timeless saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. We must not only look at its aims, but also the means to that goal. In this case the means – compulsion – is undesirable.

I believe that when you start shoving things down people’s throats, you won’t achieve the goal that you desire. In fact, the inverse is true. University students aren’t stupid and won’t trot along unquestioningly like sheep being guided by a shepherd.

In Weapons of the Weak: Everyday forms of resistance, James Scott postulated that the subordinates (peasants) won’t fully accept what the dominants (bourgeoisie) feeds them. Students won’t take kindly to being forced to attend a course that they didn’t choose. They’ll resist in subtle ways.

People will drag their feet to the dreaded TITAS class. Students will trivialise and ridicule the subject. In order to pass the time in class, while bored, students won’t pay attention and take proper account of what is being taught to them. This will only mean that the subject itself is devalued and seen as inferior by students.

I know I did that.

Formally, for sure, the government will be able to record that 100% of students are learning TITAS. But the number of people internalising what they learn will be minimal. Even those who have taken it in, will only have done so to pass the exam and when that’s over, they will forget about it. There’s no incentive to follow up on what you learn so what you learn is eroded over time.

Forcing people to study something is like treating university students as if they’re children. Please. The fact is, we need to accord students a certain degree of respect and let them choose what they want to learn.

Quo vadis, Malaysia?

I firmly believe that the state should only play a supervisory role and not an authoritarian one in society. Sincere understanding comes from a bottom-up and not a top-down approach. Campaigns, optional courses and inter-ethnic dialogues are catalysts to greater understanding. Not compulsion.

Universities in the West are doing well in the world rankings precisely because they are given the freedom to teach what they believe is best for their students. It is little wonder that there are no universities in Malaysia that have ever reached the top 50 in world rankings.

University can be the best time of any individual’s life. Don’t mar that by disrespecting the choices that they want to make.

* Aerie Rahman is pursuing an MA in social anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies, or SOAS, and was formerly a law student at Universiti Teknologi MARA in Malaysia.