The ongoing debate on what is perceived as the overbearing influence of Islam in the national education system is one that touches a raw nerve in Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
The former leader, after all, served as education minister in the 1970s when he famously enforced laws banning students from joining party politics.
His second attempt at heading the ministry was short-lived as the Pakatan Harapan government fell in February this year, just a month after he took over the education portfolio from Maszlee Malik.
Mahathir had hoped to address one of his pet peeves: the overemphasis on religious rituals in the school curriculum, which he said had clouded the government’s focus on science and technology.
“While we should be taught with fardu ain (personal piety), there is less emphasis on fardu kifayah (collective duties) so that we also excel in worldly matters.
“This is especially so as we always preach Islam not only as a religion but as a way of life,” the former prime minister told MalaysiaNow in an hour-long interview at his office in Putrajaya recently.
But even Mahathir, whose first 22 years as prime minister saw him both credited for Malaysia’s economic transformation and criticised for using tough laws against critics, finds it difficult to confront those he says are bent on pushing their own version of Islam in the classroom.
“Because the school administration fears them. When it comes to religion, they are silent, unable to act,” he said.
This is something he has personally experienced.
He said the headmaster of a school attended by a family member would not speak out against religious teachers who tell students to engage in rituals at the cost of completing their schoolwork and revision.
“The headmaster doesn’t dare say anything because this is about religion. When it comes to religion, no one speaks.”
Given his readiness to take on Muslim religious leaders whom he says monopolise the Islamic narrative, the subject of Islamisation in national schools arose naturally during his conversation with MalaysiaNow.
In late 2018, he called for an overhaul of the national school curriculum, saying emphasis was being given to Islamic subjects rather than those that would be more critical later.
“As a result, those who pass in schools are not very conversant with subjects that are useful for them to get jobs, but they are very good ulama,” he said then.
It is a view he still holds today.
He told MalaysiaNow that students do not need to be taught in depth about religious knowledge, and that basic teachings are enough to allow them to distinguish between good and bad.
“We must learn about our religion, but as ordinary Muslims, not with the view of becoming ulama,” he said.
“For the ordinary Muslim, it is enough that we are taught about the do’s and don’ts.”
Mahathir, whose government during his first term in power in the 80s promoted a policy called the “Infusion of Islamic Values”, said he believed Muslims should adapt Islamic values as a way of life.
He said Muslims need to embrace the spirit of the Quran, and not in the literal sense.
“For example, when the Quran urges us to judge with justice. There are about 40 verses on justice. Yet, we do not emphasise that. We must be just not only to Muslims, but also to non-Muslims. But we find that we place emphasis on heavy punishments such as beheading, amputation and so on.”