KUALA LUMPUR, July 4 ― Local “Chinese schools” or schools that heavily feature Mandarin have been criticised as stumbling blocks to a united and harmonious Malaysia, but is that really true?
Datuk Vincent Lau, chairman of the leading Chinese education group United Chinese School Committees' Association of Malaysia (Dong Zong), disagrees that vernacular schools or schools that teach in the students’ mother tongue are an obstacle to national unity.
“We don't think that Malaysia should insist or go for single-stream education,” he told Malay Mail Online recently, arguing that such a move would not necessarily achieve racial harmony and that the advantages of allowing vernacular schools to co-exist with Bahasa Malaysia-medium national schools far outweigh the disadvantages.
While there has always been a strong push for the adoption of Bahasa Malaysia as the medium of instruction in all schools for the sake of unity, detractors of vernacular schools have further claimed that their very existence perpetuates the segregation of Malaysians according to ethnic and language silos.
While acknowledging that some graduates of Chinese independent high schools and national-type primary schools (SJKC) may have a weaker command of English and Bahasa Malaysia, Lau said all three languages are taught to students in such schools and considered equally important.
He said language proficiency depended on the individual students and was confident that the foundation built during their studies is sufficient for them to interact with others later on.
Instead of language mastery, he said what matters most in the nation’s bid for harmony is tolerance and the willingness to accept each other.
“But I think what is very important is we have to embrace the differences, I think that's very important. Even if you speak the same, think the same... there are differences.
“In a multiracial society like Malaysia, we must be very tolerant, we must embrace the differences,” he said, adding that the government could instead come up with programmes to promote interaction among different ethnic groups.
What do the numbers say?
Critics of these so-called “Chinese schools” may have overlooked the fact that they are becoming increasingly multiracial, especially in the national-type Chinese primary schools or SJKCs which have been recording a higher proportion of non-Chinese students over the past few years.
According to a January 2015 report by the United Chinese School Teachers' Association of Malaysia (Jiao Zong), 11.84 per cent or 72,443 students at SJKC schools in 2010 were non-Chinese, a figure which grew to 15.31 per cent or 87,463 in 2014.
A reported 18 per cent out of the 2016 SJKC batch were non-Chinese, which would come up to around 97,252 out of the 540,290 students.
This is in contrast to the previously more homogenous nature of SJKC schools as shown in the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025, where it noted overwhelmingly Chinese enrolment of 92 per cent in 2000 and 96 per cent in 2011.
Similarly, SK schools had Bumiputera enrolment of 98 per cent and 97 per cent in those two years.
By comparison, only four per cent of students enrolled last year at BM-medium national primary schools or SK schools are non-Bumiputeras. Based on the Education Ministry's statistics of student enrollment in SKs in 2016 of 2,043,284, that would be around 81,731 non-Bumiputeras.
The number of non-Chinese students in Chinese independent schools has also been growing in recent years, albeit generally accounting for just below two per cent of its annual overall student population.
In Dong Zong's data furnished to Malay Mail Online, there were 1,252 non-Chinese students out of the 70,266 enrolled in Chinese independent schools in 2012, followed by 1,376 out of 75,923 (2013); 1,423 out of 79,264 (2014); 1,486 out of 82,608 (2015); 1,637 out of 84,604 last year.
When asked why there were considerably fewer non-Chinese students enrolled in Chinese independent high schools compared to the SJKCs, Lau said it could be due to the worry of being unable to cope with the Chinese independent high schools’ syllabus or the cost involved.
Dong Zong said monthly school fees in Chinese independent schools varies and could go up to RM700.
For the BM-medium national-type secondary schools or SMJK schools that in the past used Chinese as the medium of instruction, the proportion of non-Chinese students enrolled has been going upwards, hovering at around 11 per cent out of the 115,000-odd total student population in 2014 and 2015.
Their rising numbers have been recorded at 13.21 per cent and 13.45 per cent of the 108,000-odd total student population in SMJK schools for 2016 and this year.
Lau advocated a broader perspective of Chinese education instead of narrow political-based or racial considerations, highlighting the competitive edge contributed by vernacular schools that churn out graduates with a strong command of Mandarin when Malaysia’s biggest trading partner China is fast rising as an economic powerhouse.
“As far as Chinese education is concerned, apart from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macao; Malaysia‘s standard of Chinese is the highest this is not because the government made the effort, this is all because of the private [sector], every year the community dumps in millions to support these schools, hundreds of millions,” he said.
Doing away with vernacular schools would also severely harm Malaysians' level of command of Mandarin and global competitiveness, Lau said, citing the example of the government's previous abolition of English-medium schools and the difficulty now in boosting English mastery back to colonial-era standards.
On the oft-cited single-stream school idea which the prime minister had described in a National Transformation 2050 dialogue as a “political landmine”, 47.4 per cent of 1,025 Malaysians recently polled opposed it, while 41.4 per cent supported it.
Think quality first, unity will come
Wan Saiful Wan Jan, chief executive of think-tank Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS), also said having schools of various streams is not a hindrance to unity.
“If we want to force students to go into one stream, we need to abolish all Islamic religious schools, MRSM, boarding schools, pondok schools, international schools, Christian missionary schools, together with the vernacular schools.
“Then only you can create a true one stream system. Can you imagine how chaotic and divisive it will be if we pursue that path? It will make things much worse than now,” he told Malay Mail Online when asked to weigh in on calls for single-stream schools.
He said those pushing the agenda of single-stream schools are actually causing division, adding that they are happy to push for it as they will be unaffected if such a policy is adopted..
“Their children are either already in a school dominated by one ethnicity, or they can afford to send their children to private schools or even abroad,” he said.
Ordinary folks who are already struggling to make a living do not have the luxury of thinking about the majority ethnicity of a particular school, and merely want a “good quality school” that will give their children better opportunities than themselves, he said.
“We will go to wherever the quality is better. So instead of diverting attention from the quality weaknesses in our national schools, and instead of harping on this issue to gain votes in the upcoming general elections, let's focus on the issue of quality.
“Everyone regardless of race and religion will unite around a good quality school,” he said.
* Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article contained an error which has since been corrected.