Time to save the legacy schools

DECEMBER 6 — Former inspector-general of police Hanif Omar spoke about a visit to his alma mater, Malay College Kuala Kangsar, when he retired from government service years ago. 

The dining hall had no cutlery. For the students used their hands, the livid old boy observed.

Reading about Malay College’s alumni dinner last weekend, Hanif’s experience comes to mind. He’d be comforted that the Istana Hotel banquet service has sufficient silverware.   

That reminds me of what a former schoolmate told me years ago. That if the Victoria Institution did not match his needs by the time his kids were ready for middle school, he pledged to send them to a private or international school.

He made good his promise.

It’s no secret legacy schools in Malaysia have struggled as square pegs in the round holes of the Malaysian public schooling system.

There is the temptation to continue the charade except it would continue the damage at both legacy schools and the overwhelming majority of national schools inside the larger state-funded education ecosystem.

It’s wholly appropriate in the Pakatan Harapan spirit of renewal and policy renewal to re-rationalise the place of legacy schools.

To honestly assess what the future of Malaysian education holds for the old schools. And equally, what these colonial remnants promise Malaysia.

It is undeniable many parents associate a superior outcome through the perceived experience, and desire it for their children.

However, the question remains, should parents have this option, at the expense of the Malaysian taxpayer?

The schools

Most national schools set up since the late 1970s have been co-ed, use Malay as the medium of instruction and are geocentric. This way, all young Malaysians have access to quality schooling. Without self-limiting parameters of having girl schools, boy schools, medium school A, medium school B and religious school.

By definition, they are best value for most Malaysians, while education grapples with globalisation, the Internet and eventually artificial intelligence.

Legacy schools, however, want education in their own style. They are gender exclusive — at times race exclusive —, demand better English proficiency, more time on the playing fields and they admit students from everywhere.

Rarely do Kuala Kangsar residents get accepted into Malay College. The residents of San Peng Flats do not form a social bloc inside the VI.

Coincidentally, the boarding schools set up post-independence have similar set-ups.

Even if strange bedfellows, legacy and boarding schools, they remain differentiated from regular national schools.

This is wrong.

This is not to mean these schools should be closed, but rather a formal separation must exist.

The matter is more immediate when the government is cash-strapped and can’t extend more resources.

Separation inside a class

While public education is free, legacy schools have contrasting features and are allowed to operate distinctly.

Naturally they cost more.

There are enough parents who want access, why not ask them to pay for the extra?

A good comparison would be low-cost airlines, regular seats and premium seats.

The hostels, experienced teachers, sporting activities, facilities and the right to have divergent operating terms are the additional features and should be recognised as such.

It is only fair to ask for more payment to cover for the extras these schools have which national schools do not possess.

Window of opportunity

The option is on the education minister’s table for now. But there is an expiration date.

Presently, Malaysian parents with means — of various degrees — are torn between national schools and the draw of private education.  There is the fear that a private education — international schools in particular — ends up alienating their graduates from greater Malaysia.

[Last year, I wrote about the rise of private education, including international schools and the manoeuvres by missionary schools to opt out of government care.]

The legacy and boarding schools have been the happy compromise, and they are free.

However, the mushrooming of national schools to match the burgeoning Malaysian population meant stretched finances. The whole system suffers as all schools within have to cope with residual budget increases which do not match the increased numbers of students and institutions.

These differentiated schools have been on skeletal funding for decades, which explains why special funding boosts from Khazanah was necessary through the cluster and high performance schools projects.

The second debilitation is the neglect of the legacy schools, in terms of independence and the maintaining of culture and tradition, which has turned the schools less like the product enjoyed by students of bygone eras.

This is evidenced by old boys turning up in droves at legacy school reunions but the majority relate about their own children in private schools. Their bond with their school friends remain, but perhaps their ties with the present school administration wavering. 

The school was good enough when they were young, but not now when there are better alternatives in the private realm not encumbered by the education ministry.

Efforts to rekindle the legacy schools in a pay-for structure with superior delivery, would rely on fees and alumni support.

The appeal to alumni to actively support the schools will continue to diminish to a point of no return not too long from now.

Which is why within the small window, that opinion has to be altered.

The Barisan Nasional government could not countenance it, and with the ball in Pakatan’s court, hopes are on them mustering the courage to act.

They need to convince parents they need to pay for legacy school education, and then renegotiate with alumni organisation on how to exchange their financial support with control of these reformed schools.

To revamp the place of legacy schools by reinvigorating them with new private funding complemented with more influence from parents and alumni.

Mahathir Mohamad is from Sultan Hamid College. Anwar Ibrahim is from Malay College. Wan Azizah Wan Ismail is from Tunku Kurshiah College. Maybe they can gather the lengthy list of people in Parliament from legacy schools and come up with a model. Now, that’s an idea.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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