Ethnic Studies in our universities- is it colour-blind?

Azly Rahman

"We hold these truths to be self-evident and Divine-ly sanctioned in that all Malaysians are created equal and that they are endowed by their Creator the inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, happiness, justice and social equality. And we shall resoundingly declare that from now on we will be constructed as equal and be called 'the new bumiputera…' – Yours Truly.

I proposed the above statement in a previous column; those thoughts inspired by the words of the American philosopher-ruler Thomas Jefferson.

Is race static—or dynamic? Constant—or ever changing? Real—or imagined? Social—or biological? How do we teach cross-cultural ways of knowing—so that we may also teach peace, justice, and tolerance?

The problem

What is the culture of learning in government-funded Malaysian universities? What is preventing our students and lecturers from discussing issues such as radical bumiputeraism, special rights of this or that race, corruption, rights of indigenous peoples, the link between politics and education, the relationship between the vice chancellors and their political masters, the nature of cut-throat economic systems, the plight of the hard-core poor of all races, corruption in high places, and a host of other debilitating issues plaguing us.

What is a university education worth if it merely breeds students who are afraid, self-censoring, inarticulate, intellectually shallow, incommunicable, and in need of creative and critical thinking skills? It is even worse if we fail to integrate these future leaders into a "Bangsa Malaysia"; one that insists on the continuation of a culture that is built upon the principles of ethics, creativity, altruism, and love of wisdom.

Let us work together to avoid our universities from further becoming extensions of high schools. That will be a waste of a noble concept.

We can spend RM23 billion on reform, but if the mind is still captivated and made docile so that these minds can kowtow to "demi-gods", how do we create a better society – powerful, intelligent, wise, tolerant, and committed to social justice?

This brings us to a difficult dialogue on culture, especially when we are teaching  a "modular version" of Ethnic Studies. This means that we are doing a "textbook" treatment of teaching something that is highly subjective. This means that there will be a body of "Official Knowledge/Grand Narrative" to be passed down to students so that they can regurgitate the facts and live with the information funneled into their brains. Where will the thinking process come in? How will we develop critical sensibility – so that we may teach tolerance, battle bigotry, and adopt a cosmopolitan instead of communitarian view of race and ethnicity? Without getting into trouble, can our students question "truths produced" and "realities invented" in the name of history?

Culture is indeed a most problematic area of studies. In it lies the question of "truth".

Especially in Malaysia where the debate on race and ethnicity continue to rage – a debate that brings in issue of political-economy, power, ideology, truth, genealogy, archaeology of knowledge, "order of things", (as Michel Foucault would say), and a range of multiplicity of perspectives that ought not to be ignored when speaking of race, racial constructs, and illusions of racial superiority.

We need a new approach – one based on this idea "new bumiputeraism".

Neuroscience approach needed

We live in a century of "brain, mind, and consciousness" – of DNA, biotechnology, futuristics, cybernetics, and smart machines. We live in imaginary worlds we construct, enclaves we build. Why do we still believe in racial gate-keeping and in race theories paradigmed after subtleties of colonialism and imperialism? The real predators in all this game of human alienation are those who steal from the poor of all races—using sophisticated race theories based on arrogant knowledge built upon myth and materialism.

The nation's brain becomes "reptilian" in this age of race-rooted mental insecurities. The brain goes in a "fight or flight" mode. This explains why we display signs and symbols of anger in public forums both in physical as well as cyber space – keris-wielding, Internet spamming, and all styles of display of human aggression. Our education has failed to enforce our educators to teach tolerance. Had our schools been less segregated, had our universities been as such too – the evolution of our civil and ethical society will be faster. Our institutions – political, cultural, and economic – are based on racism. We have forgotten that in each and every religion and transcultural philosophies lie the idea of universality of human needs and how these will never be met through greed or through institutions built upon wants and not needs.

We can help tap our students' brain potential by guiding them to move from the level of the "reptilian brain" to the "higher brain". The latter is a suitable condition for the advancement of higher order thinking skills much needed to develop the "two-pound universe" in our head The corpus callosum will be all the more enriched. The mind will need new ways to be stimulated in order to grow. Nobel-Prize winning research on brain-hemispheric dominance by Roger Sperry and Robert Ornstein attest to the idea of mind expansion through proper care and education of both sides of the brain.

Newer strategies of teaching history, culture, and consciousness are therefore needed. Race and ethnicity is merely a construct of social dominance. It does not have a biological/scientific basis. It does not even have a religious/philosophical basis.

New interpretation of history need to be made; one that will debunk the myth of superiority of any race. New historical accounts need to be constructed so that we may teach our students to "interrogate the makers and producers of history", "question signs and symbols of dominance", "deconstruct theories built upon selective memory", "put on trial glorified villains who abuse power", "rediscover newer heroes", "understand the issue of author, authorship, and authoritarianism in historicizing", "speak for the poor, silenced, marginalised, and oppressed" and have students explore creative dimension of subaltern history.

Essentially we must make history and the study of cultures meaningful to our students. Man makes history, said a historian E H Carr.

Concepts to teach

New bumiputeraism. Radical multiculturalism. Humanism. Evolving self. Alternative futures. Social reconstructionism. Counter-factual and alternative historicising. People's history. Power and ideology. All these concepts can be taught to our students of this new Malaysia; those young and curious minds that need a new understanding of Malaysian nationalism or "Bangsa Malaysia".

How do we teach these concepts?

We can involve students in activities that allow them to explore the meanings and mechanisms of culture. We can have them examine the universal and the particular in human motivations, behaviors, attitudes, values and beliefs. We must expand their understanding of the dynamic nature of culture and increase their awareness of their own place in global series of cultures and subcultures and the challenges and opportunities such situations present in cross-cultural communications.

We can get our students to construct alternative futures that draw out the ethical humanistic values into an integrative concept of New Bumiputeraism based on the premise that we are all human beings sharing a living space in a time borrowed, and that the litmus test of it all is how we treat fellow human beings with knowledge, understanding, and wisdom sound enough to make each other see through the lens of race, color, creed.

I believe that if we resolve this issue of Bumiputera versus non-Bumiputera through education for peace, justice, and tolerance, we will see the demise of race-based politics and the dissolution of political parties that champion this or that race. Ethnic Studies as a vehicle of change for culture and consciousness will do the job – of course successfully in the hands of skilled trainers and professors who are colour-blind.

The challenge is this: Do we have colour-blind professors/educators who will profess colour-blind ideology? I hope we have them in all our public universities. After all – their training should allow them to be true to the subjectivity of culture and the sensitivity to race and ethnicity.

In fact, if we are sincere in developing our students' intelligence, we should even have them revise our Ethnic Studies module form time to time – so that we may not be the "sage on stage" but a "guide on the side".

Kings, queens, tuns, datuks, datins, slaves, serfs, sultans, subjects, Malays, Chinese, Indians, Kadazans, Ibans – all these are artificial constructs. All these are physical manifestations called "human beings" essentially build upon DNAs – that building block of life. Through time, space, and place, we create these constructs to enable or disable our understanding of what it means to be human.

Let us fight apartheid, bigotry, arrogance, racism, and disabling cultures through education. It might be the longest battle – but this is going to be a great victory for our children.

While the opinion in the article is mine,
the comments are yours;
present them rationally and ethically.