COVID-19 Op-ed

Prioritising Social Science and Humanities Education: Lessons for a Post-Covid-19 Malaysia

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Sharifah Munirah Alatas
Strategic Studies and International Relations Programme
Centre for Research in History, Politics and International Affairs (SPHEA)
Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities
National University of Malaysia
Malaysia

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced humanity to rethink The Fourth Industrial Revolution (IR 4.0) and Society 5.0. What do we teach university students about the development process, from this point forward? To begin with, a majority of societies globally have experienced lockdown in varying degrees. Physically, millions have had to temporarily confine themselves to their homes. For months, the daily routine of work, production and outdoor leisure have been put on hold. Businesses have had to slow down, many have had to dissolve. The economic losses will be felt for years to come. The effects of physical distancing, fear of illness, the futility of wealth and the reality of death are no longer exclusive to specific demographics. This reality is felt across different strata of society, transcending gender, nationality, race, ethnicity and religion. The time has come to re-evaluate the concepts of globalisation, individualism, acceptance, tolerance, compassion, success and progress. Factors that shape our response to crises and isolation must be addressed by the social science and humanities. In a nutshell, we need to reflect on what makes us human. (Broadbent, 2018).

Until Covid-19, formal education across the globe has neglected the primacy of this form of learning. Covid-19, a pandemic that has already killed millions, has generated existential problems in societies across the globe. (Anthony, 2020). The value of human economic activity, the nature of social interaction, the purpose of life, the compatibility of science and religion, and the inevitability of death are philosophical debates that need to re-emerge as part of a global coping mechanism. (Escobar, 2020). Societies like Malaysia are struggling, however, despite the number of Covid-19 deaths being low. What constitutes this philosophical crisis? Developments over the last few months have revealed fundamental tensions in Malaysia concerning prejudice, compassion, ethics and the value of balance in life. The situation in Malaysia has revealed a failure in conceptualising universal versus particular values. (Alatas, 2020).

In an already fractious society where the different races co-exist in “productive but tenuous” relations, the movement control order (MCO) has resulted in inconsistent enforcement activities by the police and armed forces. (Singapore News Today, 2020). Mr. Ebit Lew (@ Lew Yun Pau) is a young Malaysian Muslim preacher, well-known for distributing aid to the homeless, transgenders and other neglected communities in Malaysian society, long before Covid-19. However, during the on-going MCO period, after visiting a predominantly-Chinese community, bringing them food, money and words of comfort, a backlash from certain segments of society has emerged. Many (both Malays/Muslims and non-Malays) have interpreted his activities as an egotistical show of personal aggrandisement. Scores of netizens seem jealous and resentful of such acts of compassion. They seem disgruntled with the publicity he has received. (Free Malaysia Today, 2020). The unfortunate development is that enforcement authorities had hauled him up for questioning, in an apparent appeasement of negative public reaction. Their initial reason is that he violated the MCO, which has strict physical distancing orders.

The rural homes Mr. Lew visited were people who mostly lived alone in rundown premises, many without running water. During his visits, these people had pleaded with him to track down their children. Yet, police felt compelled to question Ebit Lew’s activities, instead of critically evaluating, the public backlash. (New Straits Times, 2020). Mr. Lew uses his own funding and transportation, with no fanfare, and in no official capacity that utilises government resources. Unfortunately, after the interception of enforcement authorities, Mr. Lew issued an unnecessary apology. (Hakim, 2020). As a result, he has also ceased his outdoor activities,  and has transferred his activities online. Eye contact and the human touch have been a crucial part of Mr. Lew’s activities, but it will now be denied to the thousands of disadvantaged communities, of which he has comforted.

Covid-19 has exposed the crucial fundamentals of the problem. On the one hand, society is driven by  political and economic ambition, grounded in the individualistic pursuit of materialistic wealth. On the other hand, the rhetoric of altruistic compassion, grounded in religious teachings is the bedrock of Malaysian society’s daily activities. There is a failure to apply a balance of these values. In Mr. Lew’s case, there is also the failure to comprehend human compassion and the inability of exercise productive compromise. (Free Malaysia Today, 2020).

The education system has not taught Malaysians how to find a balance between the rules of governance and the application of discretion should exceptions arise. If these exceptions are within the confines of MCO regulations, as in the case of Mr. Lew, they would not threaten human life. Ultimately, our society has adopted a robotic approach to governance, unable to apply the finer conceptual skills needed for a long-term strategy towards compassionate human development. We have forgotten that humanity’s progress is contingent on spiritual development, and not only material progress and the blind pursuit of legalities.

If we can comprehend that the intricacies of globalisation has resulted in the spread of Covid-19, we would be able to navigate the strategies compassionately. Instead, we subject ourselves to believing conspiracy theories, and provide xenophobic and bigoted excuses for the escalation of infections and deaths. (Zheng & Lew, 2020). Another example of this in Malaysia is the sudden backlash against Rohingya refugees, who were spoken of compassionately by both the government and the people in pre-Covid-19 Malaysian. Such backlash is not only nationalistic, but is laced with notions of racism, prejudice and bigotry. (New Straits Times, 2020).

Of what use are sustainable development goals for our society, if we are unable to conceptualise the fundamental value of balance and compassion? Covid-19 has revealed that our society lacks an epistemological understanding of equilibrium that is vital for progress. The pandemic has devastated human economic activity, but its ramifications for the future  will be on our moral philosophical outlook. Will we be able to comprehend that runaway globalisation, and not just Covid-19, is the cause of our societal crisis? The only way we can understand this is to critically analyse humanity’s philosophical direction. Since religion is fundamental to large segments of the global population, it will play a considerable role in how educators must combine secular and religious conceptualisation, to find a balanced approached to human development.

Challenging repercussions lie ahead for post-Covid-19 Malaysia. Once the threat of infection subsides, our educators will have to prioritise critical sociology, philosophy, literature and other humanities subjects as part of our curriculum. (Metzler, 2020). More fundamental is the need to nurture the desire for self-reflection. Analytical philosophy provides this. For example, the majority of problems surrounding global climate change are caused by humans. We must learn how to reflect on the relationship between humanity and nature. In the process, we will uncover an internal discourse of who we are and the purpose of our existence. (Pelloux, 2020). Both religious and secular reflection should complement, rather than antagonise, each other. It provides the tools to unravel our cosmic purpose, which in turn will spur us to strategise productive survivability. The MCO period, for example, has resulted in the natural purification of our rivers, something Malaysians have not seen for several decades. (The Straits Times, 2020). Self-reflection will compel us to preserve this situation.

Part of our goal should be to produce a better human being. By “better” we mean finding a relational equilibrium among humans, and between humans and Nature. Some societies may conceive of a further step of balancing Nature with a divine creator. (Nasr, 1994).  All three steps are not incompatible. In its final analysis, it is vital to envision a philosophical approach, in order to prepare our youth for a society premised on more than just a superficial understanding of IR 4.0 and Society 5.0. Post-Covid-19 existence must be based on a harmonious interaction of adequate (not excessive) material development.

Such reflections dictate an educational direction that is vital for Malaysians. It involves a more serious study of the social science and humanities subjects. (Alatas, 1970). In order to prepare our society for future crises, either pandemic, economic, social or political, our grasp of how sociologists, historians, philosophers, artists and literary writers will guide us away from becoming the subjects of manipulation. It will aid us to understand our lives as a microcosm within a macro-cosmic existence. Covid-19 has shown us that the dynamics of life is an inside-out, rather than an outside-in process.

References:

Alatas, Sharifah Munirah. “Stop asking the wrong questions”. Free Malaysia Today, April 24th, 2020.

Alatas, Syed Hussein. “Religion and Modernization in Southeast Asia”. European Journal of Sociology, Vol. 11, No. 2, 1970, pp. 265-296.

Anthony, Andrew. “What if Covid-19 isn’t our biggest threat?”. The Guardian, April 26th, 2020.

Broadbent, Alex. “How the humanities can deliver for the fourth industrial revolution”. The Conversation, 2018.

“Coronavirus: Malaysian Bar questions unequal treatment for those who flout movement control rules”. Singapore News Today, April 29th, 2020.

Escobar, Pepe. “How to think post-Planet Lockdown”. Asia Times, April 28th, 2020.

Hakim, Akmal. “Ustaz Ebit Helps Unprivileged Family & Apologises for Mistakes During MCO”. The Rakyat Post, April 23rd, 2020).

Metzler, Katie. “What social science can offer us in a time of Covid-19”. Times Higher Education, April 18, 2020.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. Religion and the Order of Nature: The 1994 Cadbury Lectures at the University of Birmingham, Oxford University Press, 1996.

“Of xenophobes and miscreants”. New Straits Times, April 27th, 2020.

“Once pitch-black, Penang river now jade green thanks to coronavirus movement curbs”. The Straits Times, April 27th, 2020.

Pelloux, Cecilia. “Is Coronavirus Forcing Humans To Face Themselves?” Forbes, March 19th, 2020.

“Preacher aiding poor during MCO to stay at home after being quizzed by cops”. Free Malaysia Today, April 24th, 2020.

Zheng, Sarah and Linda Lew. “Coronavirus: the Wuhan lab conspiracy theory that will not go away”. South China Morning Post, April 21st, 2020.

 


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