Can National Schools Be The Choice of All Malaysians?
(This post appears as a column in the latest edition of The Edge)
I have always been concerned about the parallel lives that some Malaysians lead. By definition, lines that are parallel never meet. And that is more or less what is happening to some of our youth, living trajectories that do not allow them opportunities to have meaningful interaction with Malaysians from other ethnic communities.
These ethnic silos begin with where they live. There are many parts of the country where neighbourhoods are predominantly one race. Even in urban centres where one assumes there would be more diversity in residential areas are demarcated by ethnicity.
Much of this has to do with economic success. Given the relative prosperity of a particular ethnic group, it is natural for them to cluster around the more upmarket development and townships, giving those areas a certainr flavour and character. The same is true for those with more modest means.
But ethnic dominance in neighbourhoods is not as big a factor in creating Malaysia’s parallel lives as schools and our education system. We always like to remind ourselves and the rest of the world that we are one of the only countries in the world that has preserved a diverse education system that guarantees mother tongue education and the existence of vernacular schools.
We point out that this is what makes Malaysia special, where diversity is not merely tolerated but institutionalised. Where most other countries decided on one principal medium of instruction, we decided to allow parents the right to choose whether they wanted to send their children to national, vernacular or religious schools.
Yet, most of us know that this diverse and democratised education system remains a double-edged sword. It is the existence of different types of schools that perpetuates and accentuates the parallel lives which after 54 years of independence show no sign of bending their trajectories in the hope that the twain shall meet at some point in the future.
While proponents of vernacular school will point to increasing enrolment of children from other races in Chinese schools as an example of the present system being able to break silos instead of perpetuating them, the majority of cases yield a clear ethnic divide between young Malaysians of primary school going age based on where they go to school.
One solution to this has been to move to a unitary school system, where vernacular schools are phased out and there is only one school option – the national school. Of course conceptually this would have been the ideal scenario from when our country was born. Had one of the political and social ‘bargains’ of the time included the existence of just one national school option, I am sure much of the intolerance, bias and polarisation that we continue to see today would have been addressed effectively through shared experiences during a young pupil’s formative years.
Unfortunately, despite our founding fathers’ vast tact, diplomacy and wisdom they erred on the side of diversity and tolerance when it came to the education system. Despite commissioning reports that would suggest otherwise, our early leaders felt that vernacular schools should exist alongside national schools and English schools (which were, of course, later phased out).
Although there are still many proponents for the existence of just a single, national school and to do away with vernacular schools, there are no takers among political parties across the divide for obvious reasons. Some even say vernacular education is protected by a virtual constitutional guarantee that has its basis in a ‘social contract’ agreed to by leaders of the main ethnic communities in their submission to the Constitutional Commission before Merdeka.
Whether it is the lack of political will or some constitutional safeguard reflective of a pre-independence political bargain, it is unlikely that vernacular schools will be phased out. So what’s left for us to do to bend the parallel lines?
Government programmes have been introduced to increase the number of contact hours across ethnic lines among our youth. An expensive example of this would be the national service training program for SPM leavers. Its effectiveness in breaking down ethnic barriers is debatable. There is a more effective but severely underfunded programme where kids from different schools do co-curricular activities together, throughout their school-going age. But these programmes cannot fully undo the divisiveness that is inherent in the present education system.
The only solution then left for policy-makers would be how national schools can be the school of choice for all Malaysians as they once were. So instead of committing political suicide by closing vernacular schools, strengthen national schools so over time parents who would have otherwise sent their children to vernacular schools would choose to national schools instead.
And for the past few years the education ministry, academics and concerned parents have been asking themselves how national schools can be the school of choice for all Malaysians. Early suggestions have looked into better discipline and teaching at Chinese schools and how national schools need to improve in these areas.
Many have also spoken about the overtly Malay and Islamic character of national schools which turn other ethnic communities away. There are also a shortage of trained Mandarin and Tamil teachers in national schools making it difficult for adequate instruction in pupils’ own language.
At the very least there has been this realisation and reforms have been put in place to make national schools better in terms of the quality of education and making it more representative of all Malaysians.
Some of these concerns were backed up by a survey that was commissioned by the Government in 2006 on ethnic Chinese respondents. Although the survey is slightly dated, I have no reason to believe that the results would have changed drastically. Firstl, the survey showed that attitudes towards Chinese schools matched attendance. Some 90% of respondents with children aged 12 and below said they would rather send their kids to Chinese schools than national schools.
Second, the results showed that although qualitative issues concerning the standard of education were important, the primary reason why Chinese families sent their children to vernacular schools was because of language and the ability to access knowledge and culture through the Chinese language. Part of this importance attached to language is related to cultural reasons – a sense of identity and heritage. Part of it is more practical with parents acknowledging Mandarin as a language of commerce especially with the economic ascendency of China.
The poll divided respondents into five broad categories: 30% who were concerned with Mandarin language proficiency either for business or for bonds to the community; 15% who feel that vernacular schools “are a bastion for Chinese culture and heritage”; 25% who felt the quality of teaching in Chinese schools was better, 25% who sent their kids for practical reasons - location - and 5% who sent their children to both national and vernacular schools to give their kids a better mix – thus bending the parallel lines.
Given the importance of Mandarin as a language for many of the respondents, they were also asked if they would support the introduction of Mandarin as a language taught in national schools (this was before the policy was introduced). 75% agreed but only 22% said that they would be open to sending their children to national schools even after Mandarin was taught with a further 30% said “maybe”.
Interestingly, when asked if sending children to different types of schools would worsen ethnic relations in the long run, 60% of the respondents said no. Less than 30% said that it was important that their kids went to a school where the mix races was balanced.
What does all this tell us? Probably a few things which appear depressing. First, there is a perception among the Chinese community that national schools are simply not an option for their children today regardless of any ongoing reforms and improvements. This may be because of qualitative or cultural reasons.
The introduction of Mandarin in national schools alone will not suddenly see Chinese student enrolment increase. For many Chinese parents, it is more than just having Mandarin classes. It is about complete immersion into a Chinese environment. This could mean that even if national school quality improves and its character becomes more Malaysian and less Malay and Islamic, it will still not be enough simply because (ironically) many Chinese parents want their kids in schools with a strong Chinese identity - Chinese vernacular schools.
It also tells us that many parents choose to be oblivious to the fact that the parallel school system actually does worsen ethic relations. This is probably because they give no importance to their children being in a diverse ethnic environment.
This leaves policy-makers in a bind where even improving the quality and diversifying the character of national schools may not be enough to make it the school of choice for Malaysians. It appears as though the parallel lives of our children will continue creating many different Malaysias that keep us further apart. My next column will address some solutions on how we can finally bend and curve these parallel lines to create a more united Malaysia.