Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Segregated Schools: Does Quality Justify the Costs?

Written by johnleemk on 9:07:19 pm Feb 1, 2007.
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It has been a while since I wrote on the subject of vernacular (also known as national-type) schools. My views have remained unaltered since. Although I believe that it is good to know your roots and that it is extremely helpful to know Chinese, I think that it is detrimental to the country to be running parallel school systems that segregate the different races.

Many people believe that a Chinese or an Indian should have a Chinese or Indian education. Others might think that a Malay should have a Malaysian education, provided that a Malaysian education is defined as a Malay one. I agree with the former stand, and agree with the latter provided we don't beat around the bush and agree to call a spade a spade. However, I believe that a Malaysian should have a true Malaysian education, and that it is simply unreasonable to be using public funds to support parallel race-based systems of education. This applies just as much to the until-recently Bumiputra-only boarding schools, and also to the Islamicised national schools, as it does to the Chinese- and Tamil-medium schools that are de facto segregated schools for the Chinese and Indian communities. Our whole public school system is parochial in nature, and essentially segregated according to race in practice.

Addressing this issue is very difficult by nature, because the issue is so multi-faceted, and very good arguments can be made both for and against the current established school system. For this reason, it would be difficult to provide an adequate treatment of these arguments in one, or even two essays. I believe it would take a whole book to deal with the issue of the segregated public school system in Malaysia, but since it doesn't appear that a publishing deal will be on the way for me any time soon - especially not one for such a touchy subject as our segregated schools - I will attempt to deal with the subject of our segregated schools in three or four articles.

I have found that arguments for segregated schools can basically be divided into three categories. In order of decreasing importance (this is just my personal opinion; feel free to disagree), they are:

  1. Quality of education
  2. Preserving a separate identity while yet remaining Malaysian
  3. Miscellaneous bigoted comments that either openly advocate chauvinism, consist of ad hominem attacks, or are just simply groundless


After addressing each of these issues in a separate article, I hope to conclude by summarising the argument against our racial public school system, and the argument for a unified public school system.

Let's start by examining the argument for separate and higher-quality boarding schools for the Bumiputra - perhaps exemplified by schools such as the Malay College Kuala Kangsar and by the various MARA Science Junior Colleges. These secondary schools were founded and exist primarily to provide education for the cream of the crop of the Malays and other Bumiputra. It is indisputable that they provide a better quality of education than that found in the vast majority of public schools.

Is it justified, though, to keep these schools closed to non-Bumiputra, who form 40% of this country's population? I would submit that it is not, as long as these schools accept public funds. It is certainly a worthwhile goal to provide a better education for the best and brightest of our country, especially those from the Bumiputra communities, which have been historically underserved in the field of education. However, this should not occur at the expense of the non-Bumiputras, who have contributed just as much to the country as the Bumiputra have. Many of the Malay elite can and do gain entrance to these elite schools with inferior grades, while deserving non-Bumiputra students languish in ordinary public schools.

A more equitable and efficient appropriation of public funds would be to open admission to the best and brightest, irrespective of race - true meritocracy. However, at the same time, the system would recognise that a poor background constitutes a barrier to achievement, and thus penalise well-off students who apply for scholarships to these schools, seeing as they can afford an education at any of our private schools, while giving bonus points for admission to those below a certain income level. Since the Bumiputra form the vast majority of our nation's poor, they would still constitute a majority of those gaining admission, and we would also be able to provide a better education for the truly deserving non-Bumiputras. Provided that the rules system is open and transparent, this would also quell discontent amongst all ethnic groups. The present system of "meritocracy" in our public universities has been rightly lambasted for being insufficiently open and transparent, and has been attacked from all corners. These are not undeserved criticisms, as the current system clearly discriminates against the less well-off Bumiputra and most non-Bumiputras. A meritocracy in our universities and our elite public schools based on academic achievement and economic background would serve us better by developing our country's talent and retarding discontent amongst all communities.

To its credit, the government seems to be aware that our segregated public school system cannot continue for much longer. A few years back, it opened the MARA Junior Science Colleges to non-Bumiputra students. However, the quota system used is clearly discriminatory, and is generally regarded as an inefficient mechanism of affirmative action. It does not address the underlying problems with our segregated schools - the rich Bumiputra elite can still gain admission at the expense of a more-deserving non-Bumiputra student. There is still an insufficient balance.

The Tamil schools, on the other hand, are generally accepted as providing a lower standard of education than that of most public schools. The only reason one would want to attend a Tamil school is either to preserve a separate Tamil or Indian identity, which I will address in a future article, or to learn to converse and write fluently in Tamil. Although this is an advantage that cannot compare with the advantage of learning to use Mandarin or even Malay fluently, it is still not an insubstantial one. Bilingual people, especially those who actively use their second language, generally improve and maintain their mental acuity. Furthermore, considering that India is on the rise, being able to speak at least one Indian language would still be something of an advantage, especially if you want to conduct business in the Tamil-speaking areas of India.

Nevertheless, I don't really think these are sufficient arguments to defend the appropriation of taxpayer money for Tamil-medium schools. Tamil is not an official language of Malaysia, and the only substantial argument for preserving public Tamil-medium schools is that this would adversely impact those whose mother tongue is Tamil, as they would have to adjust to the Malay-medium public schools. Still, this is a sacrifice one must be willing to make - how many of us who attended public national schools could fluently speak, read and write Malay when we entered primary one? Furthermore, we have accepted Malay as our national language, and as it is a necessity for daily life, it is impossible for the Indian community to segregate itself from the rest of Malaysia and keep to its own kind in a Tamil-speaking enclave. This is reflected when those Indians who primarily speak Tamil enter the public national secondary schools, and find they cannot keep up with lessons because they are now taught almost completely in Malay. Malay is vital, and should not be sacrificed for fluency in Tamil. A competent level of literacy in the language can be attained through additional language classes, which our public national schools should (but unfortunately don't) provide.

A very similar argument applies to the Chinese-medium schools. Mandarin is an even more vital language than Tamil, and will definitely be important in our future. All Malaysians should aspire to some level of competency in Mandarin, as it will be crucial in our globalised economy. I personally regret not having learnt Mandarin, and am picking it up in bits and pieces from my sister (who attended private Mandarin classes). Nevertheless, this is a very flimsy excuse for the maintenance of Chinese-medium schools, for the same reasons I outlined above.

It is true that Mandarin or Tamil classes in a Malay-medium or English-medium public school will never enable students to reach the same kind of comfort with the language that a Mandarin- or Tamil-medium school could, but the hierarchy of languages in our country is simply Malay > English > Mandarin > Tamil > everything else. That's how things work; Malay is our national language, English is our de facto second national language (it is permitted for certain, limited usage in the government) because of globalisation, and (at least as of today) Mandarin and Tamil remain relegated to being the mother tongues of certain Malaysian communities. As long as our students are able to reach a good level of competence in Mandarin and Tamil, there is no reason to argue that classes in Malay-medium public schools are insufficient. (Although as an aside, I would note that until recently not that many people spoke Mandarin as a first language; most Chinese had a dialect such as Hokkien as their first language.)

Another issue, of course, is that the quality of education in Chinese schools is simply superior to that provided by most national schools. This is really an indisputable fact. Chinese schools impart a certain discipline and direction to one's education, and this is reflected by the superior examination results of students from Chinese schools. However, I doubt that this is a result of using the Chinese medium in teaching. (It can theoretically be argued that being fluent in Chinese gives one an edge in mathematics, but this applies only to native speakers. If you did not speak Chinese natively before entering school, you probably won't derive much benefit from learning mathematics in Chinese.) It is simply the result of a culture, and as my teachers in primary school loved to remind us, a budaya of success should be adopted. There is no reason that a culture of discipline cannot or should not be adopted in Malay-medium public schools. Similarly, there is no reason we cannot recruit dedicated and trained teachers for national schools. This would obviate the need for Chinese-medium schools in the aspect of academic success.

At any rate, I would argue that the academic superiority of Chinese schools is somewhat overrated. It is not that they are inferior or equal to national schools - most emphatically, they are not. However, considering our disastrous examination system, I think it would be a mistake to read too much into the results. Any dunce who puts his nose to the grindstone and vigilantly completes all his workbooks can score an A without understanding the subject matter. Our examination system is insufficiently discriminating; it cannot really separate the wheat from the chaff. I would submit that the discipline of Chinese schools may actually go overboard in some regards, since discipline is often by nature antithetical to creativity and innovation. It is difficult to have a creative thought when you have had it drilled into you that there is one and only one way to think about something, and this applies to all our school systems, since they all operate under the same examination system, by and large.

In some cases, due to the slacking of teachers in national schools, it is possible that intellectual ability can flourish in national schools - even the most brilliant memorisers there usually have at least some creativity and originality of thought, simply because they have never been straitjacketed by demanding teachers. Nevertheless, these outliers are a class of their own, and we should not base a general public school system around them - how to deal with these kinds of people is a subject for another article on education.

It might also be a good idea to pay attention to other possible contributory factors to academic success that are present in Chinese schools but not national schools. One is the composition of the student body; it is theoretically possible (though I am skeptical) that the student body in Chinese schools is in the aggregate mentally superior to the student body of national schools. (In other words, this would be arguing that Chinese are mentally superior to Malays - an argument I am very reluctant to consider, let alone accept, seeing as most of the evidence for differences in mental ability of the races is either faulty or fraudulent.)

Another factor to consider is urbanisation and economic background. Chinese are generally more urbanised, and also generally more well off than the Malays. Unsurprisingly, both factors are significantly correlated with academic success. In other words, what makes the students of Chinese schools successful may not be what language they learn in, but how rich their parents are and whether they live in the town or the village.

Take tuition, for example. Most Chinese students, whether they attend a national school or Chinese school, can afford to attend tuition, while most Malay students can't. Is it surprising that Chinese students, most of whom attend Chinese schools, achieve superior academic results? (Indeed, the huge business in tuition probably indicates that all three public school systems are failing terribly - just that the Chinese schools are failing less than others.)

An astute reader will have noted that I have yet to present the case for the typical public national schools. This is because, at least in the realm of educational quality, there is no argument worth considering here. It is accepted by most, if not all, that the Malay-dominated national schools are by and large inferior to Chinese schools. Nevertheless, as I point out above, it is worth considering a number of other factors that contribute to this disparity, such as income level, urbanisation and (possibly though implausibly) differences in innate mental capability. Regardless, I feel that it is also accepted by most, if not all, that national schools need to be drastically reformed and revamped to improve the quality of the education imparted.

Thus far, we have seen that although the segregated school system provides a significant number of benefits in terms of academic quality, most of these benefits can also be obtained at a single, unified public school system. (Provided this school system is properly implemented, of course - and this is always a big "but".) Furthermore, I would submit that these benefits are far outweighed by the huge costs we have to bear that are imposed by our segregation of the different communities at such a tender age - but that is a subject for another time. Meanwhile, we will have to address the arguments in favour of segregated schools that focus on the preservation of a separate ethnic identity alongside our Malaysian one - something I will attempt in a future article.


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