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Revolutionizing Malaysian Enlightenment through Critical Thinking

When Adam (AS) plucked the fruit from the forbidden tree in Heaven according to the revealed books of Abrahamic beliefs, he marked the first ever instance of man making a conscious choice by utilizing his thinking faculty and free will. That he was then descended upon earth in Sarandib Island (modern day Sri Lanka) while Eve in Jeddah, or that he was to grace the earth as caliph, was pre-destined. The plucking of the fruit could not have been avoided but the point is to take heed from the process that lead to that decision. Descartes, famously claimed that humans exist because we think; “I think, therefore I am.” The human being and thinking are inseparable.

What is the truth? Is there God? Throughout history, God has been asking us to think. God has been teaching us to think. God grants wisdom and intuition, while free will cultivates thought. The depiction of Moses (AS) attaining revelation in a thinking exile at ThurSina’ circa 1200BC is an example of the journey for truth. So was that of Abraham (AS) circa 2000BC. Having received no satisfactory answer on questions of life and deity, the latter took to the night to discover in vain that the stars and the moon could not possibly have been God, as both disappeared when the day took over the night.

Thousands of years later, humanity’s connection to God is no longer as direct. Questions of the purpose of life, divine will, foreordainment and predestination have been put on the backburner, or left to “daydreaming” philosophers. The pursuit of truth is no longer our main preoccupation.

More recently, the film Oblivion illustrated the attainment of truth stimulatingly, via thinking and curiosity in the modern world. Protagonist Jack Harper found “truth” from asking questions upon questions, prompted by an intriguing piece of reading. Philosophers and historical figures, the likes of Confucius, Siddhartha, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Avicenna, Farabi, Ghazali, Ibn Taymiyyah, Kant, Hegel, Locke, Bentham, Marx, Nietzche, Sartre, Ali Shariati and many more examined man and life by continuously asking questions and seeking truth. Albert Einstein once even mentioned that he has no special talent other than that he was passionately curious. The baton thus gets continuously passed down to other philosophers until the modern age. It was critical thinking that allowed humanity to engender and bear witness the greatness of ancient civilizations, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment period, the Islamic golden age, and the modern world.

Thinking as Tool to Achieve First World Mentality

The Annual International Conference on Critical Thinking and Education Reform in America summarized critical thinking as an intellectually disciplined process. It involves active and skillful conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information of information gathered from observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication. This is a lot of big, conceptual words, but to understand this is to look at the core product of critical thinking, that is a guide to belief and action. It is the opposite of simply acquiring and retaining information, or a set of skills without being able to feel or empathize with the results of that skill set. It is only critical thinking that will enable us to extract the fruits of educating our citizens, from the belief that they consequently form and act upon.

Often we see that it is in developed economies where empathy towards the environment, animal rights, or cultural heritage is demonstrated. So too is the case for philosophy and thought. People of developing economies are too busy building economic wealth to occupy themselves with things like saving the environment, arts and literature and philosophy; in other words, intellectual wealth.

If we believe Malaysia is heading towards developed nation status, we must quickly recognize that going into the next step of development can no longer be just the “brick and mortar” Twin Towers, Sepang F1 and Putrajaya, economic, and empirical scientific kinds of “growth”. We can’t step into First World Status with a Third World mentality, severely underequipped in intellect and thought.

The Ironic “Trichotomy” of Thinking, Knowledge and Education

Engaging a Malaysia that thinks, we cannot run away from attacking the problem at its core, and that is education. In the past, education has focused too much on producing doctors and engineers, that the quality and development of the linguistic and literary sciences has been pushed back too. Even with commerce, natural and physical sciences, the critical thinking element is overshadowed by the pressing need to digest knowledge and facts.

Piecemeal, modern world-type solutions have been offered by the education ministry using jargon such as Creative and Critical Thinking Skill (KBKK). Unfortunately, it is limited to adding some relatively out-of-the-box math or science questions appended at selected pages within the text books, usually for better-performing students to attempt. The built and construction of the system remains the same. 15-year old Malaysians have consistently dropped in performance in the TIMSS (participated 1999) and ranked amongst third bottom percentile in the PISA. Both assessments tested the higher order thinking skills of our pupils.

What we need Malaysian students to empathize with is something very much deeper; like observing their local communities, questioning purpose, reason, logic, being creative, appreciating literature, language and music as sciences in their own rights, being critical, innovative, improvising and technological. In the ancient world, knowledge is achieved by scholarship from great teachers who guide students into discovering the fundamental truths of existence and purpose. Now, knowledge is unemotionally reduced to condensed and concise textbooks to be memorized. Malaysians who come out of such a system are limited to a narrow idea of success, rights, boundaries and purpose. We become so confined to pursuits of economic wealth and pleasure, thus rarely think beyond the default doctrines or syllabus.

This “trichotomy of thinking, knowledge and education” is plaguing not only us, but also much of the developed western world. For America, the battle is saving the new generation from societal doldrums, having tasted economic success. But for Malaysia, going too far down the wrong road may mean perishing even before reaching the peak. The victims, surely, are not us nor the policy makers in their glass paneled Putrajaya offices. It is our children, and Malaysia.

Rethinking Critical Thinking via Philosophy Education

My first humble proposition is to establish a faculty of philosophy in every tertiary institution. This is not new; leading Universities e.g. Oxford, Harvard, Cambridge and MIT all have a faculty of philosophy. The word philosophy originated from the Greek word philea and sophia which means love and wisdom, hence philosophy is the love of wisdom. In academia, often it is the study of basic fundamental nature of knowledge, reality and existence.

A faculty of philosophy will begin to help solve the dire need for thinkers and inculcate knowledgeable persons within our society. Philosophy opens our minds, pushes us to reason, question things, which thus prepares the perfect grounds for critical thinking. While some human capital is best placed in the industry to produce tangible economic outcomes, there must be space for those who are best to appreciate great works of past thinkers that built human civilizations, to research, explore and retrieve solutions to some of the most pertinent problems that plague society currently.

Secondly, I propose making compulsory the subject of philosophy to all tertiary level students. Even at its most basic level, philosophy is one of the best ways to get students of knowledge to reason, because it is the foundation for every subject which will lead to the understanding of philosophy of religion, philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of sciences, philosophy of social sciences, philosophy of economics, thoughts and the list goes on. Whatever his or her field of discipline is, credit hours on philosophy will provide basic tools to keep them grounded to the purpose of studying, and the purpose of the particular field they are studying.

Relentless economic pursuits have backfired. The lack of critical thinking is arguably why we lack innovation, and thus limited economic abilities. Even with disciplines which supposedly produce “returns on investment” such as medicine, sciences, engineering or business, students do not fully appreciate the philosophy behind them, and thus not many are incentivized to probe further. When knowledge is supplemented with thinking and translated into development and innovative capabilities, the economic bounty of an enlightened Malaysia is actually far larger.

Countering the Oppressed Mentality via Thinking

Ordinary Malaysians need to understand the meaning of words to modern nation states like Malaysia, such as freedom, justice and democracy. They need to question first, in order to understand the purpose of certain jurisdictions, rulings or systems. In fact, there must be encouraging mechanisms for Malaysians to be allowed to think out of the box defined by schools, societal norms, and the government.

On the surface, this may seem like encouragement to partake in unnecessary rebellious activities threatening public safety. But consider the reverse psychology and unintended moral hazard that prevails; it is often when oppressed that people side with the opposite, even when the opposing side may not be the truth or most ideal. The younger generations especially, will easily be influenced by any idea, regardless of its validity, purely because it is against the mainstream. This is not healthy. We need to liberalize intellectual discussions and arguments. The marginalized and the oppressed should be given room for dialogue and debate. Ideas should be contested in the public sphere.

Evidence has shown that liberalizing ideas and thoughts sparked Britain’s Industrial Revolution. Malaysia too should embrace “Enlightenment” beyond superficial prosperity, through Critical Thinking. Because many authorities were never willing to embrace the idea of a freedom of thought, speech and expression that challenges the status quo, the internet and social media helped fuel waves of reform beyond imagination, such as the Arab Spring and the public show of solidarity against the results of the recent 13th General Elections.


Critical thinking is not the same as negative thinking. This is where many of us have not yet been able to come to terms with. There is such deep and engraved fear in questioning boundaries and rights as citizens of a nation that have been endowed with human rights, and on-paper sovereignty. Malaysians must begin to think. Thoughts have not only fuelled revolutions and counter-establishment movements, but have also shaped academia, society and influenced leadership, policy-making, and ultimately mankind’s general livelihood.

If we allow thinking to flourish, it will turn into dividends for our small sovereign nation, still grappling to understand the true meaning of growth, modernity and human development. If we keep suppressing and fail to encourage thought, Malaysians will be left divided and haphazardly finding meaning amidst global external influences.

I have always been a proponent of a reading culture as a crucial way to propel Malaysia into First World Nation-hood. This will only happen if Critical Thinking becomes the next step.

“The unexamined life is not worth living” – Socrates

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