What happens when religious teachers become jobless due to closures?
STRAITS TIMES Singapore
Friday, November 29, 2002
KL worried ulamas could foment trouble
The Mahathir government fears jobless religious teachers
could become an unstable fringe group
By Brendan Pereira
KUALA LUMPUR - When the government advertised openings for 100 religious teachers recently, it got a sense of the powder keg it was sitting on. Some 4,000 religious scholars applied.
Those turned away have remained unemployed or obtained work as freelance preachers.
The Mahathir administration fears this group, schooled exclusively in religious studies, will become an unstable fringe of Malaysian society.
So serious is the country's leadership viewing this situation that in the past month, the government has suspended the funding of 500 religious schools and the Prime Minister and his deputy have repeatedly asked Muslim parents to send their children to national schools for a secular education.
Dr Mahathir Mohamad, commenting on the hordes of unemployed religious scholars, said: 'They will find it difficult to get other jobs as they are not trained in other fields.
'This is the problem that will create tension in our society, especially among Muslims. Frustrated, they might turn to undesirable activities.'
He added that if every Muslim wanted to become an ulama, dissenting views on the religion could mushroom and the community could get divided into different sects.
The government has complained for years that the schools indoctrinate pupils against the moderate form of Islam that Malaysia has traditionally practised and instill extremism.
Many of the 500 schools affected by the freeze in government funds are run by supporters or sympathisers of the Parti Islam SeMalaysia (Pas), the country's biggest opposition group.
In recent months, the government has been shocked to find that as many as 700,000 Malaysians are studying Islam full-time, mainly in government-aided schools.
Anecdotal evidence from ruling party politicians also shows that this phenomenon is not limited to members or supporters of Pas.
A sizeable number of Umno members in the east coast states of Kelantan and Terengganu are jobless holders of degrees and diplomas in Islamic studies.
Mostly women, they lean heavily on their families for pocket money. It remains unclear how many students are enrolled in madrasahs abroad.
But Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi was perturbed when he discovered during a trip to South Africa a previously hidden fact: Several religious schools there were home to Malaysians.
In the past week, he has been telling Muslim parents that it was important for them to prepare their children for this life and the afterlife. That was why they should send their children to national schools, where their charges will be taught mathematics, science and religion.
This is a message that the DPM will hammer home repeatedly during the next few months.
The Mahathir administration believes that if it can attract more children to the national schools, the threat posed by a disenchanted fringe will be reduced significantly.
One way it can do so is by cutting off funds to privately-run religious schools. The other is by attracting more Muslims to national schools.
For a start, Arabic will be taught as an optional subject in 900 national primary schools from next year.
Still, the administration will not have it easy convincing Muslims to stop sending their children to religious schools.
More than 15 years of state-sponsored Islamic renaissance has created a sizeable segment of Muslims which believes that a secular education and worldly pursuits have little value.