The owner of a self-service laundrette in the historic town of Muar in the Malaysian state of Johor likely had little inkling of the hornet’s nest he would stir up by putting up a sign barring non-Muslim from using his services. Yet, the sign that went viral on social media reignited debate about the nature of Islam and Malaysian culture in a country struggling with creeping Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism.
By implication, the owner, who declined to be identified, adopted in justifying his decision concepts of puritan interpretations of Islam inspired by Wahhabism and Salafism, understandings of the faith propagated by Saudi Arabia.
“For Muslim customers only. Leave your shoes outside,” read the sign in front of the launderette.
“If we look at the issue from an Islamic perspective, cleanliness is very important to us and something we must strive for at all times. There are other laundrettes available nearby. So, it wouldn’t be a problem for non-Muslims if they needed to find another place to wash their clothes,” the operator, who denied being a racist, said.
Mixed responses to the launderette owner’s decision, particularly in Johor, a state whose sovereigns have been in the forefront of voicing opposition to Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism, laid bare deep divisions in Malaysian society that inform policy at both the federal and local level.
Eager to burnish its Muslim credentials, Malaysia has been together with Bangladesh and Turkey in the vanguard of those coming to the defense of Rohingya Muslims forced to flee Myanmar. An estimated 430,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh in recent weeks.
In a rare show of disagreement among members of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Malaysia this week disassociated itself from a measured statement on the Rohingya crisis because it did not identify the Rohingya by name and constituted a “misrepresentation of the reality of the situation.” Malaysia had wanted the statement to be more condemnatory of Myanmar operations against the Rohingya in Rakhine State.
Islamic militants, ultra-conservatives and political leaders eager to capitalize on an issue that evokes deep-seated emotions in the Muslim world have led the charge against Myanmar. While political leaders like Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan have condemned Myanmar, Islamic militants have called for the dispatch of fighters to Rakhine State to defend the Rohingya.
Malaysia, in a further gesture to conservatives, this week briefly detained Mustafa Akyol, a prominent Turkish journalist, intellectual, and author at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on suspicion of giving a lecture on Islam despite not having proper credentials.
Mr. Akyol, who was released after a night in detention, had been invited to give a lecture at Nottingham University’s Kuala Lumpur campus on his recently published book, The Islamic Jesus: How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims.
Malaysia, long viewed as a model of multiculturalism in a Muslim-majority state has increasingly adopted a harsher view of Islam highlighted by the banning of the use of the word Allah by Christians and repression of the country’s miniscule Shiite community.
Bilahari Kausikan, a former Singaporean diplomat and prominent intellectual, noted already two years ago a “significant and continuing narrowing of the political and social space for non-Muslims” in Malaysia. Mr. Kausikan blamed the emergence of a harsher interpretation of Islam on “Arab influences from the Middle East (that) have for several decades steadily eroded the Malay variant of Islam…replacing it with a more austere and exclusive interpretation.”
Saudi Arabia has spent an estimated $100 billion in the last four decades to propagate its austere vision of Islam in a bid to establish itself as the leader of the Muslim world and to counter the revolutionary appeal of Iran following the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled a monarch and an icon of US influence in the Middle East.
In the latest manifestation of the influence of Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism, religious authorities in Johor came to the defense of the laundrette owner.
“If someone wants to do it, then it is a good thing because some Muslims hold doubts over laundromat services. It is better for Muslims to be free of such doubts when it comes to cleanliness as it will help Muslims fulfil religious obligations,” said Johor Mufti Datuk Mohd Tahrir Samsudin.
Johor Islamic Religious Affairs Committee chairman Abd Mutalip Abd Rahim added that “as Muslims who live in a multi-racial society, we cannot be too rigid in upholding such matters, but at the same time, should not belittle this effort taken by the operator of the laundromat either.”
In contrast to the religious figures, Johor prince Tunku Idris Sultan Ibrahim, following in the footsteps of his father, Sultan Ibrahim Ibni Sultan Iskander, who last year confronted Saudi-inspired purists head-on, said he was “appalled” by the laundrette’s move
In a series of postings on Instagram, Prince Tunku Idris, described the owner’s decision as ‘extreme” and noted that “the Quran says, ‘speak good to people’ – it doesn’t say ‘speak good only to Muslims’.” Prince Tunku Idris said further that “Islam has taught me about tolerance and respecting people of other faith. Not about supremacy over others.”
Similarly, the prince’s straight-talking father didn’t mince words when he last year denounced Wahhabi and Salafi practices by calling on Malaysians to uphold their country’s culture and not imitate Arabs. The sultan decried what he described as creeping Arabization of the Malay language by insisting on using Malay language references to religious practices and Muslim holidays rather than Arabic ones.
“If there are some of you who wish to be an Arab and practise Arab culture, and do not wish to follow our Malay customs and traditions, that is up to you. I also welcome you to live in Saudi Arabia. That is your right but I believe there are Malays who are proud of the Malay culture. At least I am real and not a hypocrite and the people of Johor know who their ruler is,” the sultan said.
The sultan spoke out after his state’s public works department had put up a notice warning women that they would be hung by their hair in hell if they failed to cover up. The notice, which also circulated on social media, was quickly taken down on the ruler’s orders.
“Since when is JKR (the public works), whether at state or district level, being put in charge of religious matters? Their main job is to make sure the roads are properly maintained and not worry about women’s hair. It is not the business of government departments to worry about people’s dressing. Just do what you are paid to do and mind your own business,” Sultan Ibrahim said.
Thai universities must look beyond ranking
Bangkok – The recent 2018 Asia University Rankings published by the Times Higher Education (THE) magazine is calling attention for the state of Thai higher education.
Unlike its Asian neighbors, Thai universities are falling behind.
The National University of Singapore maintained its number one status for the third consecutive year due to its continuous improvement in teaching and research environments, greater citation impact and higher amounts of industrial income, said Ellie Bothwell of the Times Higher Education.
This year, the numbers of universities being ranked increased from 300 to 350 universities. Japanese universities are amongst the most qualified universities in Asia with 89 universities made it to the list. 63 universities from China are included in the top 350.
The picture looks worrisome for Thailand. Only ten universities made it. However, none of them was ranked in the top 50. The best performing university from Thailand was Mahidol– with ranking of 97th place, same as that in 2017, while the oldest higher education establishment, Chulalongkorn University, is only 167th place amongst 350 institutions.
Should we be concerned about this?
Yes, and no.
Given that ranking has been taken as a face value that it equates the overall quality of higher education, the poor performance sends a negative signal. It is a setback for Thailand’s aspiration to become the regional hub of education in Southeast Asia. How can we be a regional center when the best of our universities are far behind that of Singapore and Malaysia?
This is also bad for internationalization process. The low performance is discouraging for potential research partners and foreign students to come to Thailand. It lowers Thailand’s attractiveness and competitiveness.
While the results are not promising, what is worse is how they are used and interpreted by policymakers and the media to create, what professor Gita Steiner-Khamsi of Teachers College, Columbia University called “a scandalization effect”. That means, results from international league tables haven been used as external forces to generate reforms pressure at the local level.
Thailand is no exception. Since Asia Week published the first Asian universities ranking in 1997, Thai politicians, policymakers and the media have used the international results to create reform pressure. A decade long of higher education policy analysis confirmed that boosting the ranking seems to be the only policy goal for most Thai policymakers.
But ranking is not everything.
Mrs. Ruangrat Wongpramote, Assistant Secretary General of the Education Council poignantly said: “ranking helps us to mirror the reality. It is a good tool for us to know where we are standing in comparison with others. But it does not tell us everything. There are more pressing issues in Thai higher education.”
These issues include quality of the students, quality curriculum and quality teaching.
Firstly, Thailand has to shift its focus from quantity students to quality students.
For the past 100 years, the system has done well in terms of access. There were only five universities in the first 50 years of Thai higher education and all of them were established in Bangkok Metropolitan area. Now the official record reported that there are 151 universities across the country – with 81 public universities and 75 universities in most of provinces. The expansion has made it available for more than 2 million enrollments.
While the massification provides more equitable educational opportunities for students, the mismatch between skills and jobs requirement, low quality of English proficiency and lack of critical thinking are amongst key issues that need to be seriously addressed.
Secondly, Thai curriculum needs to be upgraded. The Office of Higher Education Commission has implemented Thailand Qualification Framework or TQF with the hope of improving and standardizing Thai curriculum. However, what the government has had in mind is counter-productive to improvement of the curriculum.
TQF is academics worst nightmare. It requires academics to fill in lengthy lesson plans, detailed description of their syllabus and anticipated unimaginable outcomes. The rubrics are demanding and micro-managing. Instead of improving curriculum, academics report they cut and pasted, worst, lied just to complete the form.
This policy takes away precious class preparation time for nonsensical administrative things.
A more efficient and collegial way of improving the curriculum is needed.
Thirdly, quality teaching must be improved. Large classrooms are not in and of themselves problematic. But ones that are passive, top-down and lecture-based are outdated. Lecturers must work harder than regurgitating the texts to students. Classrooms need to be conducive space for learning where conceptual debates, analytical discussion and constructive dialogues are promoted. In the era where students can google to get basic facts, university students must be pushed harder to think critically. Students must learn to ask difficult questions and come up with creative answers.
A bad ranking is a good wake up call. But what we will do about it is what matters most.
Malaysia’s Efforts in Improving Education: Lessons for Developing Countries
Malaysia’s efforts to tackle education challenges, particularly through the establishment of a ‘delivery unit’ that tracks results, can help other countries seeking to improve implementation in the sector, says a new World Bank report.
The report, Improving Education Sector Performance: Lessons from the Delivery Unit Approach, highlights the role of the Education Performance and Delivery Unit, or PADU, under the Ministry of Education, in improving education outcomes, a key government priority.
The report examines how PADU facilitated program implementation and delivery of results through the Literacy and Numeracy Screening program, or LINUS. Unlike other interventions, the LINUS task force – comprised of several divisions – worked closely with agencies across government to provide an effective framework for coordination, tracking, monitoring and reporting.
“Following the World Bank’s analysis of the LINUS approach, we are glad to share the approach with other countries seeking to improve education outcomes,” said Dato’ Seri Mahdzir bin Khalid, Minister of Education. “As we progress, we will constantly refine ways of delivery and continue to engage relevant institutions such as the World Bank to gather feedback and improve implementation.”
The Government Transformation Program, announced in 2009, set improving education outcomes as a key priority, and a detailed plan in the Malaysian Education Blueprint followed. Making improving education outcomes a national priority can elevate the profile, stakes, and resourcing for the initiative. Building in evaluations of impact into the program design would further bolster efforts to improve education outcomes.
“The delivery of the essentials of a thriving nation – better schools, healthcare, public transportation – is a mutual goal of all nations, but implementation is a common challenge. The delivery unit approach taken by Malaysia is a creative and effective way to address this challenge,” said Faris Hadad-Zervos, World Bank Group Representative to Malaysia. “This report distills useful lessons learnt in improving the performance of its education sector, and makes recommendations to bring Malaysia one step closer towards its aspirations of becoming a high-income country.”
The study is the latest installment in the World Bank Group’s Outbound Knowledge Report Series that curates, distils and disseminates Malaysia’s development experience. This report is part of the Malaysia Development Experience Series, which strives to capture key learnings from Malaysia that are relevant for developing countries around the globe as they transition out of poverty and into shared prosperity.
Asia’s dark underbelly: Conflicts threaten long-term stability and development
A host of conflicts, stretching across the Asian landmass from the Middle East to Southeast Asia and northwest China, are likely to spark violence, complicate economic development, and dash hopes for sustainable stability.
The conflicts and tensions range from ethnic strife in Kurdish areas of Syria and Iran, mortally wounded Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, embattled Baloch nationalism in Pakistan, disposed Rohingya in Southeast Asia, and widespread discontent in Iran, to iron-grip repression in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Xinjiang. Individually and collectively, they promise to create black swans and festering wounds that threaten economic growth and social development.
Stripped to their bare essence, the conflicts and tensions have one thing in common: a quest for either cultural, ethnic or national, or political rights or a combination of those, that governments not only refuse to recognize but are willing to suppress with brutal force.
Repression and military action are designed to suppress political, ethnic and/or national, and economic and social grievances in the false belief that a combination of long-term suppression and economic development will weaken ethnic and/or national and political aspirations as well as undermine dissent.
That is true in case of the Rohingya and Uyghurs as well as for brutal repression in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and northwest China, and military actions such as the Turkish intervention in Syria’s Afrin.
Problems in the Middle East and South Asia are aggravated by a debilitating struggle for regional hegemony between Saudi Arabia and Iran that threaten to destabilize the Islamic republic and Pakistan, have already produced a devastating war and a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, and are dragging the Horn of Africa into its orbit.
If history teaches anything, it is that only a minority of autocrats have achieved economic and social development. General Augusto Pinochet ensured that Chile is the only South American member of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), albeit at a high human cost, while Asia gave birth to tigers like South Korea and Taiwan.
Moreover, Asia’s multiple conflicts and tensions do not distract from the fact that by and large, the continent is flourishing economically.
History, however, also teaches that ethnic and/or national aspirations explode with vehemence the moment opportunity arises. Seventy years of communist rule in the Soviet Union failed to smother nationalist sentiment in parts of the empire like Chechnya and the Caucasus or erase nationalist differences between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Forty-seven years of communism did not prevent nationalist sentiment from breaking Yugoslavia apart in a series of bloody wars in the 1990s in the wake of the demise of the Iron Curtain.
Carved out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire, modern Turkey has failed to erase demands for Kurdish cultural, if not ethnic or national aspirations, through economic development and political integration based on the principle of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the visionary who founded the republic, that “happy is he who is a Turk.”
Similarly, Palestinian nationalism is alive and kicking 51 years into Israeli occupation of lands conquered during the 1967 Middle East war.
The aftermath of the 2011 Arab popular revolts, involving a concerted counterrevolution co-engineered by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, has laid bare the essence of current conflicts and disputes: a determination of regimes to impose policies on minorities or states at whatever cost.
The UAE-Saudi-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar is a case in point as are Asia’s multiple ethnic conflicts. They erupt in a world in which post-colonial borders are being called into question in countries like Syria, Iraq, Libya, Myanmar and Pakistan.
The Rohingya, amid the dizzying array of ethnic and national conflicts stretching from the Middle East or West Asia to China in the East, exemplify the problem in, perhaps, its purest form. Potentially, the Rohingya could become Southeast Asia’s Palestine.
What makes the Rohingya unique is the fact that their aspiration, unlike Palestinians, Kurds, Baloch or Uyghurs, does not involve attachment to a specific piece of land despite a centuries-old history in the Myanmar state of Rakhine. That is also what potentially enables creative thinking about a solution that could open the door to innovative thinking about a multitude of other conflicts.
To many Rohingya, lingering in abysmal conditions in Bangladesh’s Cox Bazaar, after some 650,000 fled repression and terror in Myanmar, securing a sense of belonging on whatever territory that guarantees them protection from persecution as well as economic and social development, is more important than returning to an uncertain existence in Rakhine state. “All I want, is a place to which I can belong,” one refugee said.
Few Rohingya, analysts and officials believe that an agreement that in theory allows Rohingya in Bangladesh to return to Rakhine state will solve the problem. Even if the Rohingya were allowed to return in significant numbers, something that many doubt, nothing in Myanmar government policies and statements suggests that they would be anything more than a barely tolerated, despised ethnic group in a country that does not welcome them.
The makings of a Palestine-like conflict that would embroil not only Myanmar but also Bangladesh and that could spread its tentacles further abroad are evident. In a rare interview with Al Jazeera, Mohammed, a spokesman for the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) using a false name, predicted that suicide bombings constitute the next phase of their effort to secure a safe and stable existence.
The Falah-i-Insaniat Foundation, a charity associated with Lashkar-e-Taiba, one of South Asia’s deadliest groups, claimed in December that it had established operations in Rakhine state where it had distributed blankets and cash.
“We attacked them (the Myanmar military) because they refuse to give us our basic rights as citizens. Again and again, [the] Myanmar government lies to the world. They say they treat us well and give us rights, but they don’t. We are unable to travel from one place to another. We are not allowed to run a business. We are not allowed to go to university. The police and military use various way to suppress us. They beat, torture and humiliate us. That is why we decided to stand up,” Mohammed said.
Preventing the Rohingya issue from spiralling out of control and becoming a problem that can no longer be contained to a specific territory, much like the multitude of similar conflicts, disputes, and repression-based regime survival strategies across Asia, requires out-of-the box thinking. Short-term repression and efforts to impose one party’s will at best buys time and sets the scene for avoidable explosions.
With out-of-the-box thinking a rare commodity, nationalism and protectionism on the rise, and regimes, emboldened by an international community unwilling to stand up for basic rights, able to go to extremes like the use of chemical weapons against rebels in the Syrian province of Idlib, long-term prospects for stable and secure development in Asia are dimmed and potentially threatened by predictable black swans.
Global energy demand grew by 2.1% in 2017- carbon emissions rose for the first time since 2014
Global energy demand rose by 2.1% in 2017, more than twice the previous year’s rate, boosted by strong global economic...
World looks to nature-based solutions for urgent water challenges
As more than 2 billion people lack access to safe drinking water and more than double that number lack access...
Forum held in Kigali on increasing access to sustainable energy in East Africa
The Sustainable Energy Forum for East Africa took place between 19 and 21 March 2018 in Kigali, Rwanda. Over 400...
Assessing Washington’s “strategic and military” options in Syria
For Washington, Eastern regions around Mediterranean holds “vital strategic interests” centrally to which lies Syria, policy makers within the White...
Political Parties, Church and Grand Mufti in Bulgaria: No Rights for Women
On 12 March, the European Parliament called upon EU countries including Bulgaria to ratify the Istanbul Convention. However, only one...
Energy has a role to play in achieving universal access to clean water and sanitation
The world has a water problem. More than 2.1 billion people drink contaminated water. More than half the global population –...
Ahed Tamimi, the Detained Heroine
Ahed Tamimi has accepted a plea deal under which she will serve eight months in prison, during a closed-door hearing...
East Asia3 days ago
If Marco Polo were alive today, what tales would he tell about China and Tibet?
East Asia3 days ago
Belt and Road Initiative and China-Iran cooperation
East Asia3 days ago
Xi and Putin vow to cooperate deeply in the time ahead
South Asia2 days ago
NAM, NaMo- NATO? Indian Foreign Policy in Transition
Green Planet3 days ago
China: Navigation Improvement Project Keeps Environmental Protection in Mind
Africa3 days ago
Displacement: The Challenges Of IDPs & Refugees
East Asia2 days ago
The ambition of China and its democratization issue
South Asia14 hours ago
Hurdles in Pakistan’s Quest for Reaching Space