Sultan queries UNISSA's policies and guidelines
By Azlan Othman

His Majesty the Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam said that conventional law should not outweigh the Islamic law in the law programme offered by Brunei's second university, UNISSA, and that the university should not just offer programmes that are marketable in nature as the issue of jobs has nothing to do with UNISSA.

In a hard-hitting titah by the monarch during his visit to the temporary campus of Sultan Sharif Ali Islamic University (UNISSA) at the old Nursing College in Gadong, His Majesty also pointed out that there should not be discrimination in the enrolment between local and foreign students and that the university should strive to become a genuine Islamic university.

The ruler also called on scholars not to reject ideas from Egypt's renowned Al-Azhar university and told UNISSA that learning Quran should not be just confined to the first year course at the Islamic university.

The monarch reminded that religious education should not become number 2 or number 3 and pointed out that religious education, though it has been established for over 50 years, is yet to become compulsory until today.

His Majesty said he was glad to visit UNISSA for the first time as it is always in the monarch's mind. "It is the pride of the nation. It should be capable of fulfilling the country's aspiration. It should be consistent in its mission and vision and able to resist challenges now and in the future," the Sultan said.

"The mission entrusted to UNISSA is what I had highlighted during UBD's 17th Convocation back in 2005 as I wanted to see it as a genuine Islamic university.

"Genuine Islam should not be interpreted or seek to find its translation. There isn't any need to do so. What I mean by genuine Islam is Islam brought by Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). If it is less than or different from what has been brought by the Prophet, then it is not genuine.

"Genuine Islam should not drift away from the Quran and teachings of Prophet Muhammad. In our own language, genuine means it is not mixed and not an imitation but something that is pure," said His Majesty.

"UNISSA's vision is to fulfil the present and future needs and to be a glorious landmark for the nation. For Brunei, glory is meaningless without religion as religion is the flesh and blood for the Sultanate. Without religion, Brunei has no flesh, blood and clothing," the ruler added.

His Majesty also said that the religion in the Sultanate must be strong and continue to live inside all Bruneians as history shows that religious education began with the 'Balai' system way back in the 1920s and 1940s.

"In realising its importance, we made further steps by introducing formal religious schooling system. It began in September 1956, a year after the Brunei government received reports from two officers from Johore, Malaysia.

"The setting up of religious schools is to answer the call made by my late father, Al-Marhum Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Sa'adul Khairi Waddien who said, be it male or female children, they should be nurtured and strengthened with religious practices and prohibited from any wrong doings.

"We should build on that platform and fulfil the goals of religious education. The system that does not make religious education compulsory ends up creating two different sets of community, namely religiously literate and illiterate.

"The system that does not make religious education obligatory gives an avenue for the society to make an option, whether to attend religious education or otherwise. Obviously, those who do not want to attend such religious education would be of a higher percentage," His Majesty said.

Speaking of the academic staff of UNISSA, His Majesty said, having calibre alone is not enough, as they should also understand the future direction of UNISSA.

His Majesty likened UNISSA to a racing regatta with its captain (helmsman) as the leader and paddlers as the academic staff. The role of the captain is to determine the future direction while the paddlers are to reach the destiny. There should not be any overlap in the responsibility among them. Paddlers should not jump into the captain's seat.

"For instance, the issue of fostering cooperation with foreign institutions, we should have a policy not just for the interest of fostering ties but should also look into its suitability and benefits in terms of knowledge.

"When choosing Egypt and its Al-Azhar University, the former produces great and renowned scholars while the latter is yet to be tested in terms of its credibility in specialised Islamic education for the past 1,000 years and is able to produce scholars worldwide.

"Hence, if there is a call to reject Al-Azhar University, it should not be taken seriously. I also applaud that till today, Al-Azhar continues to give priority to the Arabic language and Quran," said the monarch.

The ruler also said that Arabic is the language of the Quran and language of the vast Islamic knowledge without which it would be hard to acquire genuine Islamic knowledge. The memorisation and reading of the Quran is equally important. "There should not exist stories of UNISSA community who are not able to read the Quran. They should not just be able to read but also memorise the holy book, if not in full, or the 30 'Juzs'.

"The ability to read and memorise the Quran will uplift the image of UNISSA as an Islamic centre of excellence. If the Quran-reading skills of UNISSA students are no better than the Arabic schools, then the image of UNISSA will be affected, even though it claims to excel in other fields.

"Like it or not, UNISSA should stand firm as a higher institution on the basis of the Quran. Likewise, the programme structure on the whole needs to be fine-tuned," said the Sultan.

His Majesty gave an example of the law programme at UNISSA, and asked whether it teaches conventional or Islamic law. If both are taught than what is the percentage of conventional and Islamic law? It was learnt that the course teaches 70 per cent of conventional law and 30 per cent of Islamic law.

"Why? Is UNISSA not a genuine Islamic university? Islamic law should outweigh Conventional law or it should be made equal at 50 per cent," said His Majesty.

"UNISSA is like a newborn baby and we are the one who shape it. The responsible parties resembling parents that define the policy should shape it," the ruler urged.

His Majesty also said that UNISSA should not guarantee employment to its graduates or to frame programmes that are marketable and provide employment quickly to the extent of neglecting core knowledge.

"Such attitude is not right as it could affect the quality of UNISSA. It should not just look good (in a name) for a university graduate who lacks in quality, or a graduate of Islamic university who fails to achieve the scholar status.

"Hence the vision and mission of UNISSA to give knowledge to the students must be accomplished fully and not merely to provide or think about jobs for them. UNISSA has nothing to do with the issue of jobs. The responsibility of UNISSA is to provide knowledge. This is the right concept," the ruler said.

His Majesty also said the Quran must be learned properly. In this context, it is related to the pre-requisites for enrolment (besides other criteria) where the applicant must know the basics of the Quran, or at least Primary 6 in the religious education.

"I see that there are faculties that do not emphasise the Quran subject and it is only offered in the first year and not extended to the following years. It means that if there are eight semesters in a degree programme, only two semesters involve learning the Quran. Why is it so?" asked His Majesty.

"There might be views that other subjects are more important for the students. Is such standpoint right for UNISSA as an Islamic university? The rationale is hard to accept," said the ruler.

His Majesty fears the possibility of UNISSA graduates becoming incapable or getting stuck when reading the Quran. "Has this not crossed our minds of the possibility of people questioning the graduates of UNISSA, which we are proud of?

"Some parties might says that the faculties that don't give priority to the Quran subject are Islamic finance or Islamic law. This is not acceptable so long as it is in UNISSA or from which faculty. It brings bad name to UNISSA.

"We can't accept that UNISSA graduates are not perfect in Quran or Arabic school students are better than UNISSA graduates. Even the medical faculty at Al-Azhar University emphasises Quran as a subject. We should be careful in implementing policies.

"It is not wrong to look at outside examples but it not necessary to accept them fully, without taking into account our tastes and aspirations. I feel that it is wrong for UNISSA to accept applicants without any basic religious knowledge, meaning no religious education or only halfway through."

His Majesty also said UNISSA has also neglected the criteria in recruitment of lecturers by bringing in those who have nothing to do with Islam and Islamic knowledge when Muslim workforce are still available or can be obtained.

"Where is the vision of producing scholars? If this is true, UNISSA practically has loosened its policy. I raise this matter as a reminder. If it has not happened, then it is good," said His Majesty.

In concluding his titah, His Majesty touched on the pre-requisites for enrolment where the monarch highlighted the semester programme intake.

"It was learnt that local applicants were required to undergo Arabic language test regardless of which university the applicant has graduated from, including Al-Azhar University.

"If they fail, then their application is rejected even though their BA's are honours or they have achieved excellent grades in Islamic universities. But foreign applicants are not required to undergo such a test and are accepted. This is confusing. Is it not discrimination and, if so, why such discrimination exists? Or is it a policy? If so, what's the wisdom behind such policy?

"It may be a policy aimed at attracting foreign students to UNISSA to make it popular to the outside world. If this is the objective, it is hard to accept and is not the way for UNISSA to become famous. It can be achieved if UNISSA succeeds in acquiring the quality and be able to maintain it forever. His Majesty was earlier greeted by the Minister of Education Pehin Orang Kaya Seri Lela Dato Seri Setia Awg Hj Abdul Rahman; Deputy Minister of Education Pg Dato Seri Setia Dr Hj Mohammad, Rector of UNISSA Dr Hj Mohd Yusop and other senior officers of the Ministry of Education and UNISSA.

During the visit, His Majesty also exchanged greetings with the students and asked them which faculty they are from, toured classrooms, ICT labs and so on. The visit ended with a group photo session with senate council members and senior UNISSA staff members. - Borneo Bulletin (10th November 2009)