Malaysian minister wants religion out of state schools

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - Religious references, symbols and teachings should be kept out of state schools so that they appear welcoming to students of all races instead of catering largely to Malay Muslims, a government minister has said.

Communications Minister Lim Keng Yaik said the Cabinet discussed several ways to improve enrollment in national schools of all races in this multiethnic country, the New Straits Times newspaper reported.

"If you want to deal with religious issues, do it at home, in religious classes or in places of worship," he was quoted as saying on Sunday night.

Although Lim's suggestion is the personal view of only a few ministers, it reflects growing government concern that state schools are increasingly being seen as the preserve of Muslim Malays, who comprise about 60 percent of the country's 25 million people.

Classes in state schools are taught in Bahasa Malayu, the language of the Malays, and 90 percent of teachers are Malays. It is common for the Malay teachers to pepper their lessons with religious similes and Koranic stories.

Ethnic Chinese comprise a quarter of Malaysia's population, and ethnic Indians, who speak a variety of languages including Tamil, Malayalam and Punjabi, constitute less than 10 percent.

Last week, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi announced that national schools will soon offer Mandarin and Tamil classes to woo minorities.

In addition to government-funded national schools, there are over 1,200 schools for ethnic Chinese that teach mainly in Mandarin and are funded mostly by community donations. Indians also have more than 500 of their own schools that teach mainly in Tamil, but they have little funding and are poorly run. Most Indian and Chinese parents send their children to these schools.

The Times quoted a former school principal, Shahul Hamid Mydin Shah, as saying that even Malays were losing confidence in national schools because of the religion factor.

"So how do you expect Indians and Chinese to go there? Some are becoming Malay religious schools, especially in rural areas," he was quoted as saying.