Vernacular Schools Exact High Price in National Unity
Perhaps the most immutable constant in Malaysian politics is vernacular education. Almost anything can be subject to negotiation - people grumble, and then they get over it - but touch vernacular schools, and you can expect an immense backlash from the non-Malay communities. The non-Malays will sit down and accept your questioning their right to be Malaysian citizens, but the moment you suggest that the present system of vernacular education is detrimental in any way to the country's future, they will rise up in anger. The problem is, vernacular schools do harm the country. There are significant downsides to the present way we run our education system; they may be outweighed by stronger benefits, but even so, we must accept that we have to pay a high price in terms of national unity for the present structure of our education system.
The clearest benefit of vernacular schools is that they help non-Malay students master their mother tongue. Many people who did not attend a vernacular school, including myself, regret our poor command of our mother tongue. This is unquestionably an important function of vernacular education, too easily and frequently glossed over by people who claim to champion national unity.
Unfortunately, the way the present system functions is that non-Malay parents who want their children to learn Chinese or Tamil will send their children to vernacular schools, and everyone else will send their children to national schools. The obvious problem that arises is that national schools become effectively Malay schools. Only a very small number of national schools have a non-negligible amount of non-Malay students, and they are overwhelmingly concentrated in a few urban areas. Common figures I see quoted in the media indicate that over 90% of Chinese students attend a Chinese vernacular primary school, while over 70% of Tamil students attend a Tamil vernacular primary school. We have effectively established a segregated school system.
A segregated school system is extremely detrimental to national unity. This is almost impossible to debate; the only question is how far segregated schools contribute to racial polarisation. Most non-Malays I know blame pro-Malay government policies for racial polarisation, and argue that most vernacular schools do not preach any sort of racist or chauvinist ideology. These points are well taken. However, consider this: our education system consigns the vast majority of young Malaysians to spending the six most formative years of their lives in schools overwhelmingly dominated by people of one race, one religion, and one language.
We all know that how we grow up has a huge impact on us; our habits, our behaviour, our thought patterns, our character - they all are heavily influenced by our upbringing. Right now, we are bringing up young Malaysians in a setting exposing them to a very limited subset of Malaysian society.
Perhaps Malaysia's richest asset is that it has three very diverse cultures, very different ways of thinking, to draw upon. But our heterogeneity can only be exploited if we know how to work and live together. If we do not develop the skills to socialise and interact with those outside our own ethnic community, how can we ever hope to work with them?
I don't claim to have the perfect answer to the problems of national unity and mother tongue education. Undoubtedly, there is a trade-off: for non-Malays, our greater facility in Chinese and Tamil comes at the cost of setting ourselves apart from Malays for six crucial and formative years. I do not think this is a viable education system; the costs of racial polarisation are too high.
At the same time, those who claim to champion national unity by integrating all schools under the banner of national schools often do this cause no favour by proposing unrealistic solutions. The simple fact is that national schools are often dominated by administrators with blatantly racist ideologies of their own; stories abound of principals who refuse to respect non-Muslim religious traditions and seek to impose Malay and Muslim cultural norms on non-Malays and non-Muslims. A simple plan to immediately place all schools under one "national" system that is actually effectively a Malay school system cannot work. A measured compromise is the only way forward.
A good first step would be to actually nationalise national schools. When 40 per cent of the nation seeks education in Chinese or Tamil for their young, a responsive school system should provide it; unfortunately, most "national" schools do not. Had Chinese classes been available in the national primary school I attended, I would have signed up for them. We can dispose of fluffy subjects virtually everyone acknowledges to be useless, such as "moral education", if necessary to make time for language classes. Making mother tongue education widely available in national schools would make them truly national, responding to the needs of almost half the nation.
Improving the administration of national schools would also make them more attractive to non-Malays frightened by the spectre of Muslim fundamentalism or racist extremism. The government must duly punish school administrators and teachers who do not respect cultural sensitivities or pursue policies catering to only one community, rather than closing one eye. The whole culture of the system has to change, to one of respect and tolerance from one of bigotry and ignorance; only then can we truly call it a national school system.
Last but not least, educational standards have to go up. The sad fact is that teachers in vernacular schools often seem more motivated than those in national schools; there is a quality of teaching that cannot easily be found in national schools. (Let's leave questions of curricula and exam-orientation out of the picture for now.) National schools must prove their worth in terms of preparing primary school students for secondary education and beyond.
In the long run, a system predicated on segregation, even if the segregation is voluntary, cannot work; it encourages sticking to one's own ethnic group. The differences are stark when you enter secondary school; national school students and vernacular school students mix in very different cliques. The national school students inevitably have a more diverse group of friends - one more reflective of Malaysian society as a whole - because they simply grew up that way. The more diverse their primary school was, the more diverse their secondary school friends are. The trends continue well into college, university and beyond; racial polarisation among those from Malay "national" schools, Chinese schools and Tamil schools is patently obvious, while those happy few who attended truly national schools maintain a much broader set of friends.
If we want to address the problem of racial polarisation, the solution lies in making our school system truly national, rather than a patchwork of schools, some of which reflect the nation's diversity, but most catering to only one community. Not too long ago, surveys indicated that almost half the nation have never eaten together with someone of a different race. In my national school, we sat down to eat every recess with friends from other races; I had Malay and Indian friends in my home for my birthday parties, and they reciprocated with invitations to their own homes. How many Malaysians can truly say the same? Certainly not more than half. How can we ever hope to call ourselves a nation when our very school system persists in dividing us from young, setting the pattern for the rest of our lives? It's time for a change.
First published in The Malaysian Insider.