Deputy minister: Syllabus touches on religion, but thorny question not by ministry

By Ida Lim and Yiswaree Palansamy
Deputy Education Minister Datuk Chong Sin Woon (pictured) acknowledged that a controversial question in a workbook from a local primary school in Petaling Jaya did revolve around content from the ministry’s Moral Education text. — File pic by Saw Siong Feng

KUALA LUMPUR, April 1 — Primary school students are taught about different religions as part of the national school syllabus, but an allegedly “racist” question that triggered controversy was not from the Education Ministry, a deputy minister said today.

Deputy Education Minister Datuk Chong Sin Woon acknowledged, however, that the question from a local primary school in Petaling Jaya — which asked students to match names to places of worship — did revolve around the content from the ministry’s Moral Education text.

“Content of multi-religion in this country is the content of MOE textbook, but question was not set by MOE,” he told Malay Mail Online.

A page from a Moral Education textbook approved by the Education of Ministry where names of religions are matched to names of places of worship. — Picture courtesy of V Suresh Kumar

Responding to claims that the school’s question amounted to racism, Chong said there was “no intention to teach our children profiling and stereotype to race and religion.”

“But I do agree that it’s not proper to relate people’s name with religion as we all know that Ah Chong can be a Buddhist, Taoist, Christian or even a Muslim,” he said.

A page from a workbook which requires names of four persons to be matched to names of religion. — Picture courtesy of V Suresh Kumar

He added that schools have been told to be “more alert, sensitive and careful” when setting questions of such nature.

When shown a page depicting four unnamed children respectively thinking of four named places of worship along with the religions’ names, Chong confirmed that it came from a textbook approved by the ministry.

The textbook in the Malay language also carried the text “Kami ada agama. Kami hidup bahagia” (We have religion. We live harmoniously) under the topic heading of “Pegangan Hidup Saya” (My belief).

On whether his ministry’s Moral syllabus for primary one students was problematic and if the ministry will review this to better present the lessons, Chong said: “The content is to inform our young children about the multi religion in Malaysia which is correct”.

Malay Mail Online also showed Chong two pages from workbooks with similar themes as the official text, but Chong confirmed these were not from the ministry.

One of the workbooks asked students to match the names of Chandran, Azalea, Bernard and Mooi Hai to the words “Kristian, Hindu, Islam, Buddha”.

The other workbook --- which depicts four children named Li Jun, Darshini, Prawit, Sanggeeta Kaur and illustrations of their way of worship --- requires students to choose the appropriate names of places of worship, namely a Chinese temple, Hindu temple, gurdwara and church.

A page from a workbook asking students to match four named persons and the way they worship to the names of their places of worship. — Picture courtesy of V Suresh Kumar

All three pages were sent to Malay Mail Online by a reader.

When asked if the ministry will review the existing workbooks available on the market or issue an advisory to publication companies or schools on how to set questions, Chong only said caution should be exercised by those selecting materials for students.

“Teachers and parents are advised to be more careful on choosing the right workbook for their children,” he said.

Earlier this week, actress Sarah Lian posted on her Instagram account a picture of a Moral test paper with a question requiring students to match the names of Devi, Hock Lee, Kamal and Steve to pictures of a church, a Hindu temple, a Chinese temple and a mosque.

In the photograph, the student — a daughter of Lian’s friend — linked Devi to the church, Steve to the Hindu temple, Kamal to the Chinese temple, and Hock Lee to the mosque. The examiner marked all four answers as wrong.

Lian criticised the question as “racist” and “archaic”, stirring up a debate online.

In a post on Instagram, Lian shared a picture of a moral test paper apparently from a national school in Petaling Jaya that asked students to associate names to different houses of worship.

Some online users claimed the question’s theme matches textbooks approved by the MoE, while others defended the purported school in question as a multiracial school that truly promoted unity and racial harmony.

Lian’s friend, Arvinthan Rengaraju, was yesterday reported as saying that the school teacher who set the test paper was not malicious, but noted that the outrage from many online users may mean more could be done to address how race and religion are taught in schools.

“My daughter Zara is half Chinese, and she goes to church. That’s the Malaysia of today, so I think it’s time our education system reflects social changes,” he was quoted saying by local daily The Star’s portal, noting that the particular test question would teach a child that it was wrong to think for example that someone with the name “Devi” could be a Christian.