Thursday, December 11, 2008

Where to, Malaysian education?

This is a comment I posted on the DemiNegara, a Malay-centric, pro-Mahathir-era-UMNO blog. He argues forcefully for a single education system, although his arguments stem from a racial point of view. My assertion is - leave politics and race out of education, please!


Before I start, let me clarify where my perspective is coming from.

I am a non-Malay, born in Malaysia. I studied in a multi-racial mission school, with good friends from various races throughout my life.

Currently, I am an educator, but not part of the national school system in any of its forms. I have school-age students from the 3 major races in Malaysia and also several "dan lain-lain" and even foreigners from East and West. I am part of a network of dedicated educators that span the world.

I am neither for or against vernacular schools, but I am for parents' freedom to choose whichever form of education they deem best for their children.

That said, let me begin.

I think the biggest mistake that anyone can make in this whole debate about national unity and education is the assumption that everyone must be allowed to speak only one language.

If being multi-language was the barrier to anything, the great explorers of the past would never have ventured beyond their own villages. Heck, even residents in different areas of London city can't understand each other sometimes because of the various dialects spoken.

Language is never a barrier to anything IF we have the will to overcome it.

For example, I have students who can only speak Tamil. Do I reject them the opportunity to learn because I can't speak Tamil? NO! I speak to him as much as he understands in whatever language he understands that I am capable of speaking. And thank God I have staff who can speak Tamil so I can communicate more effectively with him! It is the same for all my other students. I converse with them in Mandarin, Cantonese, Bahasa Melayu, English and even the few words of Hokkien, Tamil or Japanese that I know! Anything to get my message across.

As an educator, I have students from Chinese and Tamil vernacular schools, national schools and private national-syllabus schools, international schools and even home-schools. Each one of these schools have their own strengths and weaknesses. In most cases, language is the least of their problems. The major problems are the teachers and the syllabus that is being taught.

No matter what you say about the constitutionality of the vernacular school system, I'm afraid this issue goes beyond the Constitution. To effectively build national unity, yes the schools play a role. But more importantly, national unity is a mindset and it is nurtured in the FAMILY.

The real problem of why national unity is lacking lies with the people who hold on to narrow communal sentiments, and one way this is expressed is holding on to the vernacular school system for whatever reasons of security it provides them. These same people would kick up helluva fuss if forced to part with their source of comfort. Sure, you can make them, but will it address the deeper issue of their own personal worldview?

If these people are FORCED to give up what they hold dear in favour of what they see as "inferior" or “not belonging to them”, will they become more united or more polarised?

Well, they may become more united - against the people who forced their hand!

In my school days, Chinese and Tamil schools were widely regarded as second-grade institutions. Only the less-educated and economically-backward families (hawkers, labourers, etc) would send their kids to these schools. They were seen as having cultural hang-ups that prevented them from moving forward in life – and that was why they remained in the lower levels of society...

Most forward-looking Chinese and Indian parents then would not dream of sending their kids to these schools. They only saw hope in mission schools (where English was still the main medium) or national schools (Malay-medium) as these were seen as the only way their kids could survive in Malaysia and the world at large. Even Chinese-educated parents who managed to work their way up in life (like my father) wanted us to either go to a mission school or national school.

But in the 3 or so decades since then, why has vernacular schools seen such a resurgence? Now, 95% of Chinese-descended children study in Chinese-medium schools. And even Tamil schools are enjoying a Rennaissance, with increasing enrolments. Many have gone from second-grade institutions to top-class performers.


The simple answer is - most non-Malay parents feel that the national school system is not good enough. And it's easy to understand why. Take a drive to your nearest national schools. How many of them proudly display a huge sign at the front gate, saying:

"SYABAS! Anda hadir di sekolah hari ini!"

What? Congratulations simply for COMING to school? If they had said "SYABAS kerana menhadiri semua kelas hari ini" it wouldn't have been so bad!

If the level deemed deserving of praise is set so low, what can be said of the level of intelligence produced by these schools? Sure, we have students with multiple A's, but many of these same students are also those who can't articulate any original or independent thought!

Also, the present national school system is bogged down with so much political baggage. Just look at the debates over Bahasa Melayu vs English, Sejarah and its revisionist textbooks, directives over not inviting Pakatan VIPs to attend school functions, etc. These polarising debates are carried out in full public views by politicians of all stripes. All of them are jostling for position, educating children is the furthest thing from their minds.

And this racial polarising is encouraged by our politicians with their grand pronouncements on the comparative superiority or inferiority of races, religions and cultures living within Malaysia. It's no wonder that non-Malays feel rejected in their own country. The natural reaction would be to withdraw into the relative safety of familiar surroundings – in this case, mixing with people of the same culture and colour. It's the “you don't want me, so I don't want you too!” mentality - and it's all to human.

Where are the dedicated academics in all of this? Amid all the political hullabaloo, does anyone even remember that schools are for educating our children?

To say that vernacular schools are the source of racial polarisation is only addressing part of the problem. We cannot take such a simplistic approach in calling for the closing down vernacular schools “for the sake of national unity”. The underlying reasons for the trend of preferring vernacular schools must be honestly identified and intelligently addressed. To shut down these schools based on racial assumptions is myopic and will open up a whole other can of worms to be exploited by politicians.

Such racial thinking does not only exist in the minds of non-Malays, mind you. I have come across many Malays who come into my centre, like the program but will not enrol simply because I do not have as many Malay students as they prefer. Come on, what has that got to do with anything? Is race more important than quality education? I treat all my students the same, the ratio of high performers corresponds to the racial mix of my student demographic – isn't that proof enough that I practise no discrimination? Why discriminate against me then?

I especially disagree with Demi Negara that Chinese vernacular schools breed low-skill and crime-prone citizens. I would invite you to any Tamil, Chinese and National schools to visit the classes and the students before making such an unqualified blanket judgment. You would find more or less the same ratio of high, medium and low performers in any school. Intelligence, discipline and good manners are not racial traits – they are nurtured in the family and in schools.

I am not advocating shutting down of vernacular school systems to establish a single system for all. If anything, I would advocate MORE choices of education! That era is over! That system was designed to address the needs of the Industrial Revolution where industrialists needed large numbers of people able to perform standardised tasks. Today, with the proliferation of choice in every sphere of life – from religion to coffee, from sexual preference to furniture - where does the “one size fits all” mentality fit in?

Let there be MORE CHOICE - national schools, vernacular schools, home schools, private schools, sports schools, music schools, art schools, dance schools, schools for the gifted, schools for the handicapped, etc. So that there is a school to fit the need of every individual in the country.

If we can just take the political equation out of education, maybe we can begin to rebuild a world-class education system that can prepare our children for a globalised world. Leave education to apolitical experts! Let there be competition to produce the best students – not those who can regurgitate textbook answers, but those who can think outside the box and innovate.

When national schools can produce those kinds of students, believe me, vernacular schools will lose their attractiveness. People of all races will be competing to get into national schools!

But since a revamp of our education seems to be far off yet, the way to national unity is for people of all races to teach our children not to be suspicious of others simply because they are of a different race than ourselves.

1 comment:

  1. Demi Negara's blog does not tolerate those who do not support his and his die hard supporters parochial bigotic views. Whoever voice their disagreement is heaped with downright disgusting verbal abuses of all kinds.

    Though its bloggers exhibit literacy, it sure does not show much ethics when it comes to dissenters.

    Like many have pointed out in different blogs, Demi Negara's SSS (Satu Sekolah untuk Semua) has great flaws and is too simplistic. It side track the real issue of disuninty which is the govt's discriminative policies and also radical Islam rearing its head.

    More often then not it is the Muslims/Malay that do not want to mix with the non Malays because they view the non Malays as "jijik" .

    DM's SSS is a calculated attempt to undermine the culture of other Malaysians in an insidious manner under the caption of SSS.

    He and his "gang" cannot be so stupid as to be unable to fathom the real cause of disunity in the contry.