Malaysia university probes exam question that calls controversial Indian preacher an 'icon'

Indian Islamic preacher Zakir Naik seen during the Kuala Lumpur Summit on Dec 19, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS

PETALING JAYA (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - A northern Malaysian university has started an investigation into an exam question that called controversial preacher Zakir Naik "one of the icons of the Islamic world".

Malaysia's Education Ministry has distanced itself from the new controversy over Mr Zakir, a Malaysian permanent resident who is wanted in his home country India for charges of money laundering and hate speech.

The university that caused the uproar, Universiti Malaysia Perlis (UniMAP) said in a statement on its Facebook page on Monday (Dec 30) that an official statement will be released as soon after all the information is gathered.

"We urge everyone to stop any form of provocation that could lead to disharmony and allow UniMAP to conduct a thorough investigation, " it said.

Mr P. Ramasamy, Penang state's deputy chief minister II, said the issue reflected "the pathetic state of public universities".

Said C. Sivarraajh, vice-chief of opposition Malaysian Indian Congress: "I don't understand why questions that do not respect racial sensitivity is produced as an examination question for a subject intended to improve students' understanding of the different races and religions".

The exam question is believed to be part of UniMAP's Ethnic Relations Course, and the test was held on Sunday (Dec 29).

The question reads: "Zakir Naik is one of the icons of the Islamic world, he is very active in spreading true Islam and following the Quran and Sunnah (sayings) of Rasullah (Prophet Muhammad)... He is able to reason and to answer every question that is asked to him.

"However, in Malaysia, he is no longer allowed to deliver speeches. In your opinion, as a Malaysian, why does this happen?"

Pictures of the exam paper with the controversial question have gone viral on social media, eliciting anger.

In August, Mr Zakir, 54, was banned by police and other authorities from delivering public speeches in Malaysia after he insulted Malaysians of Chinese and Indian descent.

He is also known for criticising other religions in delivering talks on Islam.

In the exam paper, the multiple-choice answers provided below the question were just as controversial.

They read - (1) Malaysians do not bother getting actual information; (2) Malaysians are sensitive and feel threatened for no reason; 3) Malaysians just follow the crowd without verifying any information; or 4) Malaysians are ignorant about their own religion.

The question allows students to choose more than one answer.

UniMAP, located in Malaysia's northernmost state of Perlis, said it would be reviewing its vetting system for exam questions for the subject to ensure lecturers are more aware of the sensitivities of the different races and religions.

It said that as a multiracial university, UniMAP views the matter seriously and will focus on unity and tolerance.

Mr Zakir himself has not commented on the issue.

He was last seen at a public forum when he attended the recent Kuala Lumpur Islamic summit, saying he was there at the invitation of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

The Education Ministry's Higher Education Department said it will not intervene in the UniMAP case, citing the principle of "autonomy with accountability".

"We will not interfere in the conduct of academic programmes as we hold to the concept of autonomy with accountability.

"Through this, the university is responsible to all stakeholders, including students and the public, " said the department in a statement on Monday.

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