Hapuskan SJKC? Introduce English-medium schools first

SEPTEMBER 25 ― If some Malays want Chinese-medium schools to be abolished, as seen by the “Hapuskan SJKC” banners at the #Merah169 rally, then national schools should first adopt English as the medium of instruction.

Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said last month that racial harmony can be achieved if Malaysia has a single-stream education system, as opposed to the current fragmented system comprising national schools that use the Malay language as the medium of instruction, and Chinese and Tamil vernacular schools.

Zahid had told Berita Harian, “How can a country have three different systems based on race and religion with no meeting point? We must have national education that crosses the barriers of race, religion and ethnicity.”

He’s absolutely right ― except that a national education system that crosses racial and religious barriers cannot be based on a particular ethnic group’s mother tongue, in this case ― the Malay language.

If Malaysia really wants to improve racial harmony, then we should abolish vernacular schools and use English instead of Malay as the medium of instruction at national schools. Malay, Mandarin and Tamil can be taught as second languages and made compulsory exam subjects to protect our various cultures.

English is the world’s lingua franca. Adopting it as the language of our national education will help grow our capabilities in science and technology, as well as develop commerce and knowledge-based industries, which hopefully will push us that bit further in our quest to achieve developed nation status.

Critics of English-medium schools will point to Malay as Malaysia’s national language, as stated in Article 152 of the Federal Constitution.

But why do we need a national language in the first place?

If the purpose of a national language is to unite people of various ethnicities and dialects, then it has failed miserably in Malaysia.

There’s no need for a multi-racial country like Malaysia, with significant ethnic minorities, to have a national language. The US doesn’t have a national language, though most Americans speak English.

The problem with Malaysia’s national language is that rather than giving Malaysians across race and culture a shared sense of identity, it has divided us. It entrenches the Malay identity instead of making us feel more “Malaysian.”

Amid the constant refrain for Malay rights, Malay as the national language makes the country seem more “Tanah Melayu” than Malaysia.

That’s why many Chinese cling so tightly to vernacular education. Chinese-medium schools are used to mark their cultural and ethnic identity as Malaysia becomes more “Malay” or “Muslim” over the years.

Calls to abolish vernacular schools are seen as an attack on Chinese culture. If vernacular education were to be eradicated while retaining Malay-language national schools, the Chinese would be adrift.

As we have seen, growing up and learning only in your mother tongue, be it Malay or Mandarin, discourages interaction across race, even though it may strengthen our respective ethnic identities.

It even discourages interaction within the same ethnic group. Chinese who can’t speak Mandarin or other dialects (like me) find it difficult to talk to other Chinese who are only conversant in their mother tongue.

Malays who speak English are sometimes shamed by fellow Malays who accuse them of trying to be better than others.

Chinese who can’t speak Malay, the national language, are perceived as not being truly Malaysian, or “pendatang”, that common pejorative against non-Malays.

Usage of Malay as the national language, unfortunately, ends up perpetuating racial divisions and heightens fears and anxieties of “the other”.

The problem isn’t the Malay language itself, per se. It’s the context in which the language of the majority is used as the national language amid existing racial policies in politics, economics and education that favour the Malays.

Singapore’s national language is Malay, even though the majority of their citizens are Chinese. Their working language is English, which is used as the medium of instruction in their schools. Singapore abolished vernacular schools.

Of course, in Malaysia, one would never even think of calling for the national language to be switched to Mandarin, lest they be accused of trying to attack the Malays.

This is precisely why Malaysia should not have any national language. It’s come to be associated with race, rather than nationality.

We should get rid of vernacular schools. Start teaching all Malaysians in English. Make them learn their mother tongue.

Then perhaps we’ll have a generation that mixes more with each other across race, and who’ll be the ones brave enough to start tearing down race-based systems in Malaysia. 

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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