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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