THE most controversial university course in Malaysia may just turn out to be the most important.
Just ask Professor Datuk Shamsul Amri Baharuddin. The Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia academic spent eight straight hours at the Higher Education Ministry on Wednesday, poring over the 194-page syllabus for the course in question ó Ethnic Relations ó with four other social scientists.
"We went through the whole module. Line by line, word by word. It was exhausting," says Shamsul, the course consultant.
This is the second time the team is going through the yet-to-be-released module, with an even finer toothcomb.
Another committee of experts will vet the module before itís sent to the Cabinet, making it perhaps the only university course that requires screening at such a high level of government.
Reason? The recently mandated course drew much flak over what itís supposedly going to teach the 40,000 plus students who enter public universities annually.
At the centre of the controversy is a book used as a teaching and learning guide for the course at Universiti Putra Malaysia.
Some, including officials from the DAP, complained that the book contains some very offensive assertions and interpretations of history, blaming specific groups for past ethnic strife in the country.
The row landed in Parliament on Monday. A heated debate took place and spilled over to the next day. Many from both sides of the House expressed outrage.
The explosive reaction to Ethnic Relations prompted Shamsul to keep an extra careful watch for anything in the upcoming module that might be construed as an offensive misinterpretation of history.
He found nothing, and insists there was nothing to find in the first place: The course syllabus assigns no blame for past strife, be it the May 13 riots in 1969 or the Kampung Medan clash in Petaling Jaya in 2001.
"This course was and continues to be screened, very, very, rigorously," says Shamsul.
So what went wrong?
How could offensive and divisive material turn up in a guidebook thatís supposed to be used to teach Malaysians how to get closer to one another?
The story starts with a government initiative two years ago. Concern over the state of unity in the country prompted the Cabinet to set up a National Unity Advisory Panel in May that year, along with a slew of proposals that included a university course to help promote unity.
A compulsory university course trying to achieve that aim already existed then. It was called Islamic and Asian Civilisations (Tamadun Islam, Tamadun Asia or Titas).
"But it was felt unity needed a much more Ďbalancedí perspective than just knowledge about Islamic and Asian civilisations. It was a balance the Ethnic Relations course was designed to provide from the very beginning," says Shamsul.
Instructions went to the Higher Education Ministry to create the course. The plan was for Titas, a four-unit course ó meaning four hours of lessons per week ó to be halved to two units. Ethnic Relations would take up the remaining two units.
The ministry assigned Universiti Teknologi Mara to serve as the course design secretariat. A multi-racial team of about 20 academics from various fields was assembled. Meetings, conferences and evaluations were held over the next 18 months.
The team organised about seven main themes for the course. They broke into smaller groups to write the content for each chapter. A rough course outline was then sent out to universities for feedback and to find out what each would need to teach the course.
It was decided that universities ready to offer the course should go ahead. Others would wait for the formal rollout at the start of the 2006 academic year, which began last month, though an announcement is yet to be made.
Ethnic Relations will run for one semester ó half an academic year. No grades are applied ó one either passes or flunks ó but a degree will depend on a pass.
Some universities like UKM and Universiti Putra Malaysia decided to begin teaching the course immediately. The latter produced its own teaching guide, the source of the controversy.
Deputy Higher Education Minister Datuk Ong Tee Keat says the guidebook, edited by two UPM academics, Jayum Jawan and Zaid Ahmad, contains a collection of articles written by others.
It was those articles that contained the offensive assertions. A police report on them has been lodged.
Some MPs who have taken a look at the material couldnít believe what they saw.
S.K. Devamany, the Barisan Nasional MP for Cameron Highlands, pointed out some clumsy translations in the guidebook that added fuel to the fire.
"Some of the translations from the source materials used in the guidebook are highly suspect," says Devamany, a former linguist who graduated from Universiti Malaya with a degree in Bahasa Malaysia and Malay literature.
"For example, in page 79 of the guidebook, it says Suqiu (a Chinese organisation) wants to question the social contract. But instead of mempersoalkan (question), the word used in the guide was menghapuskan (destroy)."
Some, even in the ruling BN, also disagreed when the Ministry of Higher Education initially offered merely to amend the mistakes, though the Prime Minister later said the book would be withdrawn.
"The ministryís (initial) stand to back the contents of the book was a step backward," says MCA Youth chief Datuk Liow Tiong Lai.
"The book should not have antagonised. There is no need to open up old sores like the May 13 episode again," says Johor Umno Youth chief Razali Ibrahim.
Others, like Chong Chen Jien, the Kuching MP from the DAP, went a step further: "The book not only contains typos but distortions.
"This (the guidebook) could make non-Malays feel like they are of an inferior race," he says.
Chen adds that the guide may not fall under the ministryís definition of a textbook, but itís still "something students need to read to pass the course exam".
Despite the criticisms, many believe the course is still very much needed.
"Itís absolutely necessary to teach about the countryís ethnic relations," says Dr Lim Teck Ghee, director of the Centre for Public Policy Studies at the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute.
"The subject is important in its own right. Similar courses are being offered in many leading universities including Harvard, Cambridge and Oxford, at both the undergraduate and postgraduate levels."
He says such a course is relevant to what is happening in this country and will help in nurturing a generation of young Malaysians who are challenged to critically discuss and analyse some of the most important issues pertaining to our society.
"And the best way to deal with troubled episodes in our countryís history is not to shut our eyes and minds to them or ignore them but to discuss them in a factually correct, politically neutral and intellectual manner, which is not as difficult as it sounds," he says.
But others feel that unity is not an easily taught subject.
Ayer Hitam MP Dr Wee Ka Siong recalls how he managed to better his grades in a pro-unity course he took in university.
Wee, a civil engineer who graduated from Universiti Teknologi Mara, used to get B-minuses for a race relations course.
"So I decided to answer the following yearís exam based on positions I felt my lecturers wanted to adopt on race relations, instead of what I really believed.
"I got an A. So spouting theories on inter-ethnic relationships wonít work. Itís what you do that counts. You must walk the talk," says Wee.
Expectations are high for the course. And for some, what the controversy unearthed is unsettling.
"Iím a bit surprised that some academics appear to have taken a stand to apportion blame on incidents like Kampung Medan and May 13. Itís a reflection of how ethnicity is still dominant in all spheres of our lives," says Ibrahim Suffian from the Merdeka Centre, which conducts opinion polls.
For Shamsul, the damaging assertions in the book reinforce why the course is needed.
"Such views are held even by some university lecturers, as the guidebook episode seems to indicate. It still doesnít cross the minds of some people how they can cause anger. It shows a systemic insensitivity and insensibility, something the Ethnic Relations course aims to correct."
He says that in the heat of the debate, some of the words used to criticise the guidebooks almost became as "strong" as the offences pointed out. To him thatís a problem also worth pondering.