Reflections on the Ethnic Relations course

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We need to listen to be aware of our prejudice and stretch the borders of the self, says Wong Soak Koon in response to the controversy surrounding the university guide-books.

As a retired teacher of language and literature who has taught students at the tertiary level for well over three decades, I have been following the outcry surrounding the guidebook put together by lecturers from Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) for the compulsory Ethnic Relations Course.  I hope to have access to the guidebook itself when and if it is available to the public so as to analyse its language and tonal quality.

Subjective skewing

Firstly, let me say that I do not want to be mired in the perennial debate between historians and literary critics about “facts”.  Sure, certain things happened; certain others are a mix of what happened with what is infused with the imagination (this is what creative writers, who are much maligned by some conservative historians, produce).

My point is simply that even a “fact” (what happened and is then recored in Hansards, colonial or post-colonial records, documents and what-have-you) can only be conveyed via language.  Hence, the choice of words, the tonal quality and structure of sentences, etc. inevitably colour the “facts” no matter how objective one aspires to be.  More importantly, the selection of “facts” itself can constitute a major source of subjective skewing. Thus, care must be exercised from the start.  Issues must be examined from various viewpoints.  Isn’t university education supposed to be exposure to different perspectives, and not submission to one definitive, authoritarian viewpoint?

READ MORE:  Reach out across ethnic divide

In a multi-ethnic country like ours, a course as important as the Ethnic Relations Course, one that will be mandatory, should not be launched in haste.  Simply referring to researchers like Dr. Denison Jayasooria or others isn’t good enough.  There should be time given to discussions of different vantage points from different sources.  In fact, at the higher lever of learning, the very word “ethnicity” itself should be bravely re-examined.  What are the connotations of the word and how are these challenged by contemporary life?

Dull and unengaging

I cannot quite  comprehend the defensive response of the Higher Education Minister, Dato Mustapha Mohamad, when he says, “This is getting emotional.  It is merely a guidebook for lecturers.” Surely a “guidebook” for lecturers is material that must be critically scrutinised.  But why, in the first place, must lecturers have guidebooks?  Shouldn’t they be doing their own work, putting their noses to grindstones, going to various sources so as to present different perspectives and arriving at a more balanced picture?  I pray that they will go way beyond guidebooks, modules, quick answers.  Otherwise, a new generation of undiscerning students will be fed fresh fodders for ethnic estrangement.

On a deeper level, it seems to me that the fundamental issue is how sincere, courageous and committed we are to a critical re-examination of the past in order to understand the present and to navigate the uncharted waters of the future. In an atmosphere of surveillance with regard to critical public discourses such as we have now, will an Ethnic Relations Course simply be a didactic pedagogical tool leaving no room for discussion but plenty of time for the usual memorising and regurgitation of facts?

READ MORE:  Gerak appalled at Unimap vice-chancellor’s response to ethnic relations exam paper 

I recall the terribly boring and burdensome Moral Education Course which insulted the intelligence of discerning and thinking students in one secondary school.  Will the Ethnic Relations Course be similarly unreflective, unengaging and dull?  As it will be mandatory, the majority of  our students will simply tolerate a didactic course.  The more reflective and critical ones will find it absolute torture.

Stimulate critical thinking

With regard to the need to control discourses, we often hear this reason: “Our society is not ready or mature enough for such critical discussions.” When will we be ready?  Will there ever be an Ethnic Relations Course that will truly allow for constructive re-evaluation?  (I am not advocating a free-for-all, no-holds-barred scenario but for more open-ness).  Surely, academia is the space for unemotional, balanced and open discussions, or, is this simply a romantic dream?

I don’t know what kind of assessment or testing mode the proposed Ethnic Relations Course will have.  It seems to me that an Ethnic Relations Course that is meaningful, that is worth the revenue spent to launch and sustain it, should allow for interesting discussions during tutorials.  Students’ performance shouldn’t be assessed in the ticking off of “right” answers from a list of possible answers (this kind of objective exam format is a brain-deadening method of assessment).  Given the compulsory nature of the course, the number of students will be huge and sadly, the objective-type examination format will most likely be used.  There will be no elaboration, no presentation of various perspectives, in short, nothing to stimulate critical thinking.

READ MORE:  When UniMAP's response to exam question begs more questions

It seems to me that the inflections surrounding the word “ethnicity” are continually evolving in the face of contemporary modes of life e.g. diaspora and the constant trend both for pleasure and professional purposes.  Many people today have many sites of belonging and affiliations even if  they may claim one “homeland” and ethnic identity as a buoy in the choppy seas of  modern living.  An Ethnic Relations Course at tertiary-level education which is worth its salt should address these fascinating new facets of “ethnicity”even while it examines the legacies of history.  Finally, I refer to the advice of the scholar, Susan Bordo, which encapsulates the basic tonal quality I am hoping for in the teaching-learning process.  A good Ethnic Relations Course should encourage constant re-thinking as both teachers and students learn “to listen, to be aware of our own prejudices and ignorance and to stretch the borders of the self.”

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