Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Clarifying Misconceptions on Segregated Malaysian Schools

Written by johnleemk on 12:10:51 pm Mar 25, 2007.
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The subject of segregation in the Malaysian public education system is a thorny one. I don't enjoy dwelling on it, but it recently occurred to me that there are a couple of points worth clearing up about my views on this aspect of education.

It seems there are a couple of misconceptions about the state of racial polarisation when it comes to education. One is that the discriminatory policies of the government are the main driving force behind racism and racial polarisation. The other is that the main objection to the present status quo is to the parallel systems of education alone, and not to the segregation per se.

I don't believe in the thesis that the racist education policies of the government are the main contributor to racial polarisation. They cause a lot of grumbling, yes, but do they cause the racism and tendency to clique according to ethnicity that are so prevalent in our young?

Speaking as a student myself, I don't think so. Most of the people I would describe as racist in their thinking were that way long before they knew what the NEP was, or before they had to apply for public scholarships. The blatant unfairness of the present system is open and public, but all it does is reinforce existing tendencies — it does not create them.

I believe these tendencies are born in one's formative years. If you spend your time mostly around those of one race, one culture, one thinking, you will be inclined to stick with one race, one culture, and one thinking, even if at a later point in your life, you have other alternatives available.

The only time you will abandon your habits is when you are forced into unfamiliar surroundings, where you are unable to clique into your own ethnic enclave. That's the time when you will either have to keep to yourself altogether, or go out and interact with others, and it's not surprising that many products of our segregated education system who go overseas do the latter (the exception being when there are enough Malaysian students in one university to create their own little Malaysiatown).

Looking at the scholarship situation in my college, the unfairness is blatant. Malays are given a free ride all the way through their higher education, while equally qualified and equally talented non-Malays are denied any such opportunities. But how many of these non-Malays, despite their anger, decide to ostracise the Malays?

It's a real non sequitur, in my opinion, to suggest that because your scholarship application was rejected on grounds of race, you would ostracise the beneficiaries of the system. You would be upset, you would be angry, you would complain as hell — as many of my friends did — but would you go as far as to abandon your Malay friends, and to avoid making any new Malay friends?

It's just not logical, and my experience supports this. An Indian whose scholarship applications were rejected is best friends with a Malay who will probably get a free ride throughout his entire higher education experience thanks to the double whammy of both being incredibly smart and of the right skin colour.

You might argue that they are unrepresentative of the reality on the ground, but just look at all the non-Malays who do end up ostracising the Malays. What do they have in common? Their educational background in primary school — they come from schools where the Chinese were the vast majority. (These schools need not be Chinese vernacular schools; a few "national" schools somehow end up as ethnic Chinese enclaves.)

I read an interesting argument not too long ago by a Malay, wondering why the parallel Malay education stream for elite secondary school students is construed as racist and contributing to racial polarisation. After all, he argued, they use the same system as the national schools.

But in the first place, how "national" are the national schools? Tales abound of teachers and staff showing utter disregard for the cultural and religious practices of non-Malays. National schools have become so bound up with the Malay race that they are often referred to as Malay schools. How wise is it to argue that schools applying such a system do not contribute to racial polarisation?

Even more important, however, is the point that the precise system of education does not matter. What matters is adequate interaction. Can the schools provide an educational experience that will expose all students to classmates of different racial, cultural and religious backgrounds?

If the answer is yes, it does not matter how the students are taught. It is utterly irrelevant whether they are taught in Malay, Mandarin, French or Swahili. It is a total non-factor as to whether their curricula are set by a central government or by independent educational associations. What's most important is exposure and interaction.

If our schools were truly integrated, if we were not segregated, we would not have the epidemic of racial polarisation we are presently confronting. Even if all the students were taught in Chinese schools, or Tamil schools, or what have you, the system of education would not matter, as long as we avoid a circumstance where over 90% of each race attend their own particular parallel education system.


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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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