Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad speaking on the Dr Zakir Naik issue surprised everyone by drawing a parallel with the issue of Chinese schools. He seemed to suggest that both Naik and Chinese schools are not helpful to national unity but the government needs to be mindful of communal sensitivities in responding to such issues.
“Vernacular schools,” he was quoted as saying, “are not what we need in this country” because they are “obstacles to national unity… they do not bring people together … but we also respect the sensitives of the Chinese.”
It is one of his favourite bugbears. Not too long ago, he accused Dong Zong (the Chinese educationist group) of being “afraid to let their children mix with Malays.” Clearly, Mahathir seems to believe that Chinese schools are a huge hindrance to national unity and that somehow Chinese educationists do not support efforts at national integration.
Vernacular schools are a product of our history, part of the independence compact that was forged in 1957 when all three communities came together to hammer out the parameters of the independent state of Malaya. No doubt the vernacular school system is an anachronism; it would have gradually faded into insignificance with time if not for the way our politicians messed around with our education system.
The education ministry soon became the playground of Umno politicians and “Ketuanan Melayu” ideologues intent on politicising the education system to further their own agendas. In the process, our schools became less inclusive, less focused on scholastic achievement, more religiously orientated. As a consequence, our national schools became less welcoming, even hostile to non-Malays. At the same time, standards began to fall setting off an exodus from national schools to private schools that continues to this day. It is not for no reason that Malaysia currently has the highest number of private schools in the region on a per capita basis.
For many working-class ethnic Chinese, vernacular schools became a place of refuge from the “Ketuanan Melayu” education agenda. Even Malay and other non-Chinese parents who could not afford private schools began enrolling their children in Chinese schools. Between 2010 and 2017, non-Chinese pupils in vernacular schools increased from 11.8% to 18.2%. At SJK [C] Yuk Chuen in Changkat Jering, Perak, all the students are Malay. This trend is expected to continue.
What draws them to Chinese (and other private) schools? The professionalism and calibre of school teachers, the discipline, the work ethic, the good learning environment and equal treatment of all students irrespective of race or religion. In other words, everything that is missing from our national schools, everything that our national schools were once exemplars of.
Today, far from hindering national unity, Chinese (and private schools) are the only places in the education system where all ethnic groups can mingle freely. Indeed, many Chinese schools are more multi-ethnic than national schools. And, far from not wanting to mix with Malays, Chinese schools opened their doors to Malays and others despite the fact that they receive little assistance from the government.
Of course, the Ketuanan Melayu types cannot accept that the very schools they condemn as disruptive to national unity are now the ones that are really keeping the spirit of national unity alive. No surprise then that they are determined to stymie Chinese schools at every turn, including withholding UEC recognition.
As well, many of these Ketuanan Melayu proponents talk a lot about national schools but most of them send their children to private schools. It’s just political posturing for them, never mind that it condemns thousands of young Malays to an inferior education replete with worthless degrees. One in five graduates remains unemployed six months after graduation and engineers end up working for Foodpanda. These are the kind of issues our politicians should be obsessed about instead of wasting their time talking about black shoes, flying cars and all the other nonsense that seems to preoccupy them these days.
And instead of blaming Chinese schools and Chinese educationists, they should look at how their own policies have failed the thousands of young Malaysians of all ethnicities who are now graduating to an uncertain future.
Of course, it would be better to have a single-stream national education system for all Malaysians. In fact, that should be the end goal of any reform of our education system. In a multicultural country like ours, however, you don’t achieve that by dismissing, diminishing or demolishing vernacular schools. Threats and insults serve only to make ethnic minorities cling harder to what they have. After all, they cannot be expected to give up vernacular schools in exchange for vague promises of a better and fairer system, especially given the atrocious track record of successive governments both in terms of keeping their promises and effecting meaningful change.
A better way would be for the government to set about building a truly world-class education system – one that is inclusive and welcoming of all Malaysians, where academic excellence takes priority over all else, where Mandarin and Tamil are made freely available without diminishing the primacy of the national language, where religion is kept to a minimum (or better still taken out of schools completely).
At the end of the day, what matters to most parents – irrespective of race or religion – is giving their children the best education they can afford. Make our national schools great again and they’ll gladly send their children back. Most Malaysians are sensible enough to know that disunity is in no one’s interest; if there’s a place where they can find a great education for their children and help them be better Malaysian citizens, they will not refuse it.
Whatever it is, mindlessly repeating the Ketuanan Melayu narrative about Chinese schools or berating them does nothing to engender greater national cohesiveness. Mahathir and his colleagues in Cabinet have a unique opportunity to fundamentally transform our education system, to fix the system once and for all; they shouldn’t squander it. Until then, they should lay off berating Chinese schools; it’s one of the few places left where both Malay and non-Malay kids can get a decent education and strengthen inter-ethnic friendships.