Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Segregated Schools: Why Vernacular Schools and Malay Boarding Schools Harm Malaysia

Written by johnleemk on 10:49:09 pm Feb 25, 2007.

One of, if not the, most controversial thing you can say about Malaysian education is that our segregated school system harms the country and divides it. However unpleasant this simple truth may be, people don't seem interested in facing it.

For this article, ignore the question of what we should do about the segregated school system. Don't concern yourself with that. Before we can begin to define solutions, we must first establish whether there is a problem, and determine what that problem is.

The figures are quite stark. 94% of Chinese attend a Chinese vernacular school for their primary education. About 75% of Indians attend a Tamil vernacular school. 99% of Malays attend a national school.

I don't know what the precise proportions are for secondary school, but I do know that most Chinese and Indians end up in national secondary schools. However, the best and brightest Malays are shipped off to boarding schools meant exclusively for Malays. (An exception are the MARA Junior Science Colleges, which have a 10% non-Bumiputra quota.)

Now, just ask yourself. Is it good, or bad if the vast majority of primary school students interact with students from only their ethnic community? It can't be good. It's highly doubtful that it's neutral. It has to be bad, is it not?

If you're unconvinced, then think about it. Would you be more susceptible to propaganda against other ethnic groups if you have spent your life surrounded only by those of your own community? Would you be more likely to negatively stereotype those of other races if you have never mixed with them, never gotten to know them as individuals?

The answer has to be a resounding yes. The reason the government can put out so much propaganda about the Chinese being excessively rich is because the Malays rarely get to know a large enough sampling of Chinese to understand that most Chinese are lower- or middle-class.

Similarly, the reason so many Chinese youth (yes, including some educated in national schools) stereotype Indians as gangsters and Malays as lazy or stupid is because they never get to know the bright and intelligent Malays and Indians. How can we have national unity with a segregated school system?

One might think that the problem would be addressed by integrated neighbourhoods. The problem is that in urban areas, people hardly ever get to know their neighbours well, regardless of ethnic group. There is rarely a sense of community in the city or town.

The villages, on the other hand, tend to be overwhelmingly dominated by one race. My hometown, for example, is a little town near the border of Selangor and Negeri Sembilan. It is predominantly Chinese. My grandfather, who runs a grocery shop, mainly interacts with Malays as his customers.

With such a limited context for interaction, it is easy to see how misunderstandings can arise. The Malays might end up thinking, for example, that most Chinese are rich shopkeepers!

That is why schools are so important. They represent a neutral middle ground for different communities to congregate. The young are not racially-minded. They don't think in terms of race. If from young, they think of a multi-ethnic community as normal, they will continue to view it as the natural thing to do.

If, on the other hand, they are only exposed to one race in primary school, even at the secondary level, when they meet those from other ethnic communities, they will think it odd. They will likely clique with those from their own race, and that's where the problem of racial polarisation arises.

Am I wrong? I could be — I don't dare rule that out. But I think my unpopular hypothesis has a ring of truth to it. The government's discriminatory policies contribute to racial polarisation, no doubt. But can you really say that dividing our young according to ethnic group doesn't contribute significantly to the problem either?

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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.

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