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An Argument For Vernacular Schools?

A reader writes in to defend vernacular schools, but even after we weigh the costs and benefits, it is difficult to see how preserving the status quo can be justified.

Written by johnleemk on 4:19:00 am Mar 5, 2007.

Say Lee wrote again to criticise the conclusions of Segregated Schools: Why Vernacular Schools and Malay Boarding Schools Harm Malaysia:

Your synopsis appearing at the top resembles more of a conclusion rather than hypothesis, which you qualify at the last paragraph of the article. Then again your title says it all, which leaves no room for tentativeness as you would have us believe by resorting to "hypothesis" toward the end.

That with the use of the adjective, segregated, in the title runs counter to the spirit of open-mindedness that you try to inject into your article.

Then there is the use of rhetorical questions, which belie your conviction in your characterization of the Chinese vernacular schools (though I note that you did not single out Chinese) which I can only describe as scathing.

It's practically impossible to isolate the question of remedy from the problem as your proposed remedy for the problem (racial polarization), which from my personal experience is the least of our concerns right now, is well-publicized.

Similarly, we also have to weigh the "perceived" problem against the benefits of maintaining the Chinese vernacular school system (and I make no apology for appearing to be focusing on the Chinese vernacular as it is my roots that made possible what I am today). Life is full of compromises, you take some, you give some. By choosing not to examine the benefit streams, one will most likely end up with an unbalanced analysis.

Then there is the issue of proportion, the crux and the peripheral matters if you will. For the life of me I can't see how you can equate a 6-year sojourn in a Chinese primary school with "if you have spent your life surrounded only by those of your own community?"

We do not live in an insular environment, and Chinese and Indians are not the majority races. Surely one watches the local TV channels, one goes to shopping mall, one goes to games, one goes to the cinemas. And anyone who lives in Malaysia and yet thinks he lives in a homogeneous country, be it Malay, Chinese, Indian, ought to have his/her head examined.

And never underestimate the influence of parents, who may have been given the short end of the stick in life or by the government, so to speak. Any unkind sentiment expressed in a moment of ire or frustration by the parents can be picked up by these impressionable minds and leave them vulnerable to the harsh reality of life compared to the mingling and frolicking with their fellow students, albeit of multi-racial origin, which necessarily restrict the depth of their interaction to harmless banter and which leave them no wiser as to the underlying cultures that would dictate their adult lives.

Yes, knowing a person by name definitely helps build empathy, but not necessarily compassion. And the circle of interaction is limited, both geographically and temporally. If as a group one is societally disadvantaged, knowing a few members of the advantaged group is not going to help matter nor ease the frustration and pain that ensue.

That racial disunity is a problem in Malaysia today is beyond denial. But to keep harping on the peripheral causes, and I contend that the existence of Chinese primary schools is a prime example, is really a waste of your thinking faculty that can be channeled to much more fruitful endeavors.

The problem with our segregated school system, as I see it — and I have yet to see a justification for not referring to our public school system as segregated, since only a minority of each community end up in a school type other than the one traditionally favoured by their ethnic group — is that it is not merely a symptom of national disunity, but has turned into a cause.

It is of course true that the heightened segregation of our young was a direct effect of the racial policies our government implemented in the 1970s, but since then, the segregation has in turn encouraged the same mentality that led to this segregation. It's turned into a vicious cycle that feeds on itself.

I am far from unconvinced that segregated schools lack their merits, and indeed, I devoted a whole article to examining their benefits. Vernacular schools, I noted, have their purposes, and it is foolish to deny them. It is just that the costs of having three separate education streams — Malay, Chinese and Tamil — appear to far outweigh the benefits of having a united Malaysian education system.

It is true that bigots will appear in any education system we have, especially under the latent racial tension our society is experiencing as a result of discriminatory government policies. And it is equally true that no matter how racialist an education system may be, it will still produce a few true broad-minded thinkers. Nazi Germany produced a generation of chauvinists, but it also produced the same young thinkers who led the failed White Rose movement to overthrow Hitler.

But at the same time, on the balance, it is obvious that a Malaysian-inclined education system would reduce the number of racial bigots, while an ethnically-inclined education system would either maintain their numbers or increase them. There is no hard data on this, since measuring racial bigotry is not a science, but from anecdotal evidence, it seems most of those who are broad-minded and multicultural in outlook, with the fewest symptoms of racial polarisation (some polarisation is obviously still inevitable in our society), hail from national schools. There are a lot of Chinese-educated people with the same kind of outlook, but they are a tiny minority compared to the vast majority of Chinese school students.

At the same time, it would be very easy to mount a plausible defence of the segregated Malay boarding schools. Some of the best and brightest Malay minds have come from such schools as the elite Malay College Kuala Kangsar — names like Dr. Bakri Musa spring to mind. I have a Malay classmate from a Malay boarding school, but he has no hang-ups about mixing with non-Malays, and his best friend in college is an Indian. Can I therefore say that these boarding schools do not engender racial polarisation? Of course not, because the vast majority of students from these schools are very racial in their outlook, and would rather clump together than mix freely outside their own ethnic community.

Superficial demonstrations of multiculturalism do little to reduce the damage done by segregated schools. A Chinese may well be aware he lives in a multiracial state, or a Malay may well be aware of the existence of a flourishing Chinese community in his country, but what good is it if these Malays and Chinese never mix?

Simply seeing faces from other races on the television set or watching cultural performances in the national day parade do not national unity make. True national unity comes about when we can mix freely with one another without paying attention to the problem of skin colour or religion.

In my view, the biggest impediment to achieving this goal comes from all the segregated schools, precisely because the six years spent in them are so crucial and formative. Your ways and habits are set from a very young age, and already the impact primary school can have is somewhat limited — this is all the more a reason for attempting to create as plural an environment as possible in primary school, to encourage the development of friendships between people from different races.

By the time you reach secondary school, your natural gravitation is towards people who resemble your friends from primary school. All your life till that point, you have mixed with people who are Malay/Chinese/Indian, and why should there be any reason to change this? In this new environment, despite its multiracial nature, the tendency is to clump into ethnic cliques because this is how the social dynamics of primary school were.

I had many friends in secondary school from Chinese schools who actually were very open and non-racial. The trouble was that they had always spent their time with Chinese, so their natural impulse was to mix amongst the Chinese, and as a result their opportunities for making friends were vastly and artificially limited.

It is true that parents and politics play an important role in dividing society, but to assume that they are the only, or even the most important cause of our racial divisions is to take a linear view of the situation.

If you look at the circumstances of our society as a system, you can see that the divisions our politics have engendered are now feeding on the products of our segregated school system. The racial polarisation innately makes people prey to racial stereotyping, and our politicians exploit this "racial card" to the fullest.

It is true that the largest and most patent injustice our society and polity has perpetuated and continues to perpetuate is the inequality of second-class citizenship that has been granted to the non-Malays. But this is no excuse to ignore the problems that a segregated school system lead to — especially when the resulting segregation encourages an intolerant racial worldview that leads both the Malays and non-Malays to reject compromise solutions.

I believe that if we can end the segregation of our schools, a lot of racial problems our society faces would vanish in the long run. As the Malays realise that many non-Malays have it just as hard as they do, and as the non-Malays realise that not all Malays are like the keris-waving monsters of UMNO or the religious fundamentalists of PAS, they will naturally turn to compromise policies and politics that can accomodate all ethnic communities.

You might suggest this is an over-optimistic opinion. Perhaps it is. But I believe it is impossible to deny that segregation, voluntary or otherwise, has hugely detrimental consequences for a society (no matter how great the benefits may be), and that these consequences in turn have far-reaching effects which must be taken into account.

Weighing the costs and benefits, I believe a reasoned analysis would come to the conclusion that the segregated school system is not worth maintaining. Still, it is obvious that the segregated school system will not be going away any time soon, and I think it is ridiculous to assume that we can just do away with the status quo with a snap of the fingers.

You will never pry the boarding schools from the fingers of the Malays, nor will you ever shut down the Chinese and Tamil vernacular schools by force. The answer is not to coerce the ethnic communities into ending our segregation. The answer is to create an incentive system to encourage the development of a unified Malaysian education system that will attract students from all ethnic communities, and thereby supplanting the old and entrenched segregated system.