AUGUST 31 — In a recent article in the Malay Mail, Nur Farrah Nadia Najib identified vernacular schools as stumbling blocks to the forging of a national integration. She goes on to advocate the abolishing of vernacular schools as a step in fostering unity.

Yet, having lived and worked in national schools (and other Malaysian educational institutions) for 53 years, I am afraid I cannot share her sentiments. Much of what I have to say here comes from my personal experience and observations as a parent, a teacher and as a school principal of a national secondary school.

I do not deny that racial disharmony is a serious problem. However, will abolishing vernacular schools solve this problem? If vernacular schools are abolished, shouldn’t religious schools and international schools be abolished as well? Then again, can strangling “free choice” ever be an effective way to build national unity?

In addition to the above, Farah should also have asked these pertinent questions. Why aren’t national schools attracting non-Malay students? What can we do to fortify national schools so that they become the obvious schools of choice?

National schools were the schools of choice in the 80s and 90s. They were perceived as being superior to vernacular schools. However, this is not the case today. Something has changed in the last two decades. What changed?

Perhaps national policy has had a part to play. In the last three decades, less and less non-Malay teachers were appointed into national schools. For the same reason, the number of non-Malay school heads too, declined, resulting in a gradual shift in the socio-cultural ethos of National schools.

With almost all Malay/Muslim teachers, national schools are perceived as having a Malay/Islamic environment in which a non-Muslim student can easily feel excluded.

For example, canteens in national schools are often closed during the fasting month of Ramadan, even when a large percentage of students are non-Muslims. And there was also a case were non-Muslim students were sent off to the toilet to eat during during the fasting month. We have also had national schools that have separate utensils and cutlery for Muslim and non-Muslim students.

These may have made headlines as isolated incidents but they do happen in many small ways in countless schools where the needs and interests of non muslim students are ignored. It would appear that increasing religious awareness and intolerance seem to have compromised on empathy, compassion and acceptance.

Another factor that may have contributed to this shift, is the perception of a decline in the quality of national schools. Real or not, perception is key. Our declining PISA scores will not contradict that perception. This perception is supported by countless horror stories of the failure of the system and of the incompetence of teachers in national schools.

Teachers’ knowledge gaps are wanting even in their respective subject disciplines. I have, on numerous occasions, had to correct English Language teachers’ very low level basic grammar errors.

I have even had to teach a geography teacher, how to calculate distance using the scale of a map. These are not even challenging content matters. They are very basic. In addition to these knowledge gaps, it is common to see exercise books and workbooks, left uncorrected for weeks and even months. Parents are quick to pick up on these.

There are other issues too. Teachers are frequently called away from school to attend meetings, leaving classrooms manned by relief teachers whose sole responsibility is to be childminders, (not substitute teachers).

In some cases, (especially in double session schools), classrooms are also left unattended, when their teachers go off to pray. What this means is that less and less meaningful learning is taking place.

Cases of indiscipline, absenteeism and truancy are common indicators of ineffective teaching and learning. Boredom frequently overcomes students when teachers give long sermons in class. I remember asking my daughter what she had learnt in school that day and she had promptly replied “I learnt how to sleep with my eyes wide open.” I was aghast!

Clearly, the best people are not becoming teachers. Such lapses would not be tolerated in any privately funded school but national schools have been able to get away with this.

When teachers fail, then, school heads should step in to put things right. Unfortunately, most School Heads are not promoted on their professional capacity or merit but are selected based on race and seniority. This is no secret.

Moreover, school heads are also often promoted in the last leg of their service (probably, as part of their retirement gift) making them technically unable to engage in any effective long term instructional leadership activities that are targeted to positively change the culture and climate of the school.

As a result of these perceptions, parents have become mindful of their children’s academic progress and also fearful for their racial and religious dignity and identity. And so we wonder if abolishing vernacular schools would bring the students back to the national schools. My bet is that they will flock instead to international schools ( and other private schools).

Preferred or not, vernacular schools should not be the schools of choice. Yet, when national schools are perceived as having poor expectations and standards and are also perceived to be catering to the needs of one race over the others, then, they are no better than vernacular schools as mono ethnic cells.

Our schools should be ideally run like private schools with the best people as educators and school leaders, regardless of race or religion. Although we cannot hope to match the facilities provided by the private schools, there is nothing to stop us from making our national schools, competitive centres of quality learning. It’s about choosing the right people.

Good schools should be multicultural in essence and in tone. They should be fair and secular and should not be complicated by religious and moralistic overtones that are aligned to any one group or race.

Our schools should be a reflection of the real Malaysia that provides enriching opportunities for cross cultural sharing and learning from each other’s socio cultural contexts without fear or suspicion.

When institutionalised polarisation favours one race over others over issues of staff appointments, true unity cannot be fostered. If we cannot correct this, (at least in schools), then any attempt to create racial integration is an exercise in futility.

Everything we try will fall like a house of cards. None of our schools will be able to successfully forge true racial integration as long as the system forcefully subjugates and ignores the otherness of our rich multicultural legacies.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer(s) or organisation(s) and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.