Many believe humans are born essentially good. I, on the other hand, believe otherwise because if this were indeed true, the notion of religion would have been unsuccessful and laws, unnecessary.
Religions such as Islam and Christianity purportedly came about because God, sickened by the mess created by human beings, sent His messengers to propagate values to make us better.
Laws on the other hand, were created by societies inhabited by flawed human beings to regulate our behaviour towards one another.
At a focus group discussion attended by Malaysian law graduates, this question was asked, “Would you rape if there is no law against it?”
Unsurprisingly, a few hands were raised, some of which belonged to decent-looking men who will one day defend justice.
Whether we call it religion or law, we can agree that some sort of a moral compass is needed to help us make daily ethical decisions and actions.
As society evolves, we entrust different institutions and bodies to be our moral compass, knowing that in the absence of them, society will become chaotic or despotic.
We elect or select individuals who distinguished themselves for their outstanding character and moral standing to work for these institutions, hoping that they will do the right thing in the face of wrong.
Governments, judges, law-makers, teachers, parents, journalists, religious institutions, and civil society are some of the moral compasses in a civilised state.
The sole purpose for their existence is to preserve the dignity and integrity of human beings, to ensure the betterment of our society. Nothing else.
Perhaps the ones carrying the heaviest responsibility as a moral compass are parents and teachers because they tend to be a child’s main person of contact in the latter’s formative years.
My curiosity of what teachers are teaching in Malaysia led me to look at Moral Education taught in public schools.
The Education Ministry sums moral up in 36 values. Many of the values are extremely good but they become problematic and superficial due to its simplistic understanding and application in Malaysia’s complex reality today.
Here are some examples.
Believe in God is number one on the list of values. All well and good if you believe in a God but if you don’t, does that mean you are immoral?
What good would it be if I believe in God, but I steal from the poor to become rich?
Let’s look at family values; love and respect thy family. How do you think most families would react to having a homosexual or transgender child?
Are they still expected to love and respect the child for who they are? It seems not because Moral Education teaches young Malaysians that they should accept, respect and practise their family traditions and beliefs that have been inherited from one generation to another.
So if a family views homosexuality as going against tradition, homosexual Malaysians should live a lie and suffer in silence in order to uphold moral.
It seems that our Moral Education would have us believe that maintaining family image is a duty far more important than showing love and compassion to our family members.
Another value speaks of patriotism, explained as love, loyalty, pride and obedience towards our King and country. It goes as far to say that we should do everything, including giving up our lives to serve our country.
I do love my country and I will do everything I possibly can to make it a better place. But in reality, the moment I say anything remotely critical of how it is being ruled, I am perceived as unpatriotic because in our national context, patriotisms means blind love.
Kudos to the Ministry of Education for teaching human rights and democracy in Moral Education.
For the former, only children, women, worker, person with disability and consumer’s rights are highlighted while senior citizens, indigenous people, minorities and other marginalised groups of people are rarely touched upon.
Fundamental values such as non-discrimination and equality are only taught at the surface without genuine interest in promoting real understanding of what it means to be fair and equal.
The chapter on democracy speaks of respect for the rule of law and fundamental liberties such as freedom of expression, religion and association which all came with the caveat that they should be practised within the law and constitution.
What happens when laws are made and upheld by bad people?
When we look at the Moral Education syllabus holistically, we will notice that it scratches only the surface of what it truly means to have moral.
My problem with this is not its simplicity because simplicity often serves as a good baseline for further critical discussion.
The real problem is how Moral Education is being taught and how it does not really provide a sincere space for dissenting views, particularly for those who may not conform to the expected norms of our society.
Unsurprisingly, the curriculum has already attracted outrage from certain quarters of the community, accusing it to be useless as they are taught through rote-learning, rather than critical thinking.
Now we have a glimpse of what children are taught in schools, it is not surprising that we are in the mess that we are today.
It seems our nation’s morals are judged and measured by dogmatic and authoritarian views, one which focuses more on obedience, duty and loyalty rather than by the number of moral compasses we have; people who will stand up for what is right and fair even when it is difficult, frightening and unpopular.
For those who ask what is right and fair, and who decides, please look at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There lies some of your answers.
A fundamental question this nation needs to ask today is, “Who is our moral compass?”
And more importantly, who, amongst us, will dare to stand up and answer, “Me!”?