KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 19 — Deputy Defence Minister Liew Chin Tong said national unity can still be fostered with vernacular schools.

It’s just a matter of intelligence and the ability to master multiple languages while realising that these schools are part of our national heritage and identity as Malaysians, he added.

“In terms of education, ultimately, we have to come back to one important philosophical question.

“Do we believe we can master only one language or do we believe we can master multiple languages?” asked Liew.

Liew was responding to a question from the audience on having only one school system to better foster national unity rather than vernacular schools during the “Beyond 2020: Fresh Views, New Visions” forum at Sunway College today.

The forum was also attended by former minister Khairy Jamaluddin and Permatang Pauh MP Nurul Izzah Anwar.

“The national schools are schools of choice which are multilingual and multinational. I don’t see that as a problem. 

“But at some point, if the Chinese schools have 50 per cent Malay students, it’s a national school. 

“Of course, this is far-fetched but the point is, once we no longer fear each other’s languages, we will no longer fear each other but see that (vernacular schools) as a characteristic of the nation.

“Then the question of single schools will not arise,” added the 42-year-old.

Khairy, on the other hand, felt Malaysia had missed the boat when it comes to ensuring we only have one school system/

The Rembau MP felt a one-school system is one of the best ways to foster unity, but at this point in time, it’s impossible to eradicate vernacular schools.

He recalled a meeting with former Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew who extolled the virtues of national unity with three steps.

“Singapore is by no means a paragon of unity, but Lee said when it comes to education in Singapore, there are only national schools and a small quota for Singaporeans in international schools.

“Second is national service where men have to go for two years’ national service and three was the HDB (Housing and Development Board) flats or public housing. He doesn’t allow for single racial ghettos. It has to be well mixed.

“So we missed the education one. If we wanted a single system, we should have done it in 1957 or 1963,” Khairy said.

He added that if vernacular schools were eradicated now, then people will question the existence of madrasah (educational institution based on Islam) and sekolah pondok and ask for them to be closed down too.

This, in turn, may result in parents sending their kids to international and private schools. 

“It’s a policy nightmare, not to mention a nightmare in terms of politics. I believe it’s a non-starter,” said Khairy.

“The goal is to get national schools to become the automatic school of choice in 20 or 30 years whereby they are so good you want to send your kids there.

“Beating the drum of a single school system, while philosophically I agree with it, is stuck, as politically, we’ve missed the moment.”

Nurul Izzah felt Malaysia should focus on what’s best for its students and think of what’s important for the nation, and this should start with national schools.

“I’m not going to go deep into it but we should focus on what’s best for the students and start with the national schools,” said Nurul.