Are vernacular schools standing in the way of national unity? (© Sigurd Decroos / sxc.hu)
AGAIN, the issue of abolishing vernacular schools in favour of a single stream system has been raised. As before, the argument is that this will inculcate national unity. Single stream advocates say the only way the different races can learn to accept one another is if they study and play together from a young age. Defenders of vernacular schools say mother-tongue education is a separate issue from racial polarisation which is institutionalised and propagated in other forms.
As someone who does not have children, I appreciate both arguments. But as I listen to my thirty-something peers who do have children, I realise their choice between national, vernacular, or even private schools, is not as clear cut as politicians and vernacular education activists make it out to be.
The choice is not just between forging racial harmony and entrenching polarisation. Nor is it solely about preserving the Chinese language and culture, as groups like Dong Zong (Chinese Schools Committees Association) are wont to argue. Sometimes, it is also not about better quality education alone. Deciding where to school a child is wrought with more complexities than that.
For a friend whose eldest child will begin Standard One in a Chinese-language primary school next year, the common complaint about poor quality education in national schools was a secondary factor. Her greater concern was the fact that pupils in most sekolah kebangsaan are almost 90% Malay Malaysian.
Chinese calligraphy (© Exploding Boy / Wiki Commons)“Primary level education is not rocket science, so I’m not as worried about his education as much as who he will socialise with during his formative years. In a Chinese [vernacular] school, at least I can gauge the mentality of the kids he’ll be mixing with. I know that they are from average families,” she tells me.
Some readers might regard my friend’s remarks as racist. But I think what she’s trying to get at are her feelings about the fact that as more families who can afford to place their kids in Chinese-language or private schools do so, those left in national schools are inevitably from lower income and less educated families. It becomes a question of whether her son will have an environment of healthy competition and peers who can help him maintain an interest in learning.
The homogenous majority of national schools is also what’s driving cosmopolitan Malay Malaysian families to put their children in private schools. I was impressed with the parenting philosophy of Air Asia X chief executive officer Azran Osman-Rani who believes in deliberately creating a multi-racial environment for his children as part of their upbringing.
But I was also crestfallen to hear that broadminded folks like him and his wife felt they had little choice but to remove their son from a national school in favour of a private school that had a more pluralistic environment. Where does this leave our national schools?
1Malaysia in vernacular schools
The answer is further and further behind. Unless drastic measures are taken to reform national schools, it’s getting harder to sell the argument that they are the key to fostering national unity.
Chinese-language schools are said to be getting more
multi-racial (© Guillermo Ossa / sxc.hu)Far from it, national schools have become one-race schools. Anecdotes about pupils coming home confused after their Muslim teachers ridiculed other religions have also put parents off.
Chinese-language schools, on the contrary, are said to be getting more multi-racial as more non-Chinese Malaysian parents opt to send their children there. A Chinese-language school in Puchong is said to be unofficially implementing a quota for Malay Malaysian pupils because of high demand, says another friend whose daughter attends that school. Some Chinese-language schools also have canteens with a halal food section for Muslim students.
Would national schools display similar courtesies to non-Muslim pupils? No one expects national schools to start selling non-halal food for the minority of its students, but neither are their teachers expected to run down other religions.
Parents, in looking to what the future holds for their children, feel that Chinese-language and private schools do a better job of preparing students for global competition. Many say that a working knowledge of spoken Mandarin will be beneficial when their kids enter the job market.
Indeed, English is actually not the most spoken language in the world. It is Mandarin, and according to the Internet Usage World Stats, 1.36 billion people speak Mandarin in the world compared to 1.25 billion who speak English. Additionally, Mandarin education is on the rise globally.
Somewhat contrary to what Chinese educationists often say, young parents today opt for Chinese-language schools out of practicality rather than for the preservation of Chinese culture. Culture is better inculcated by the family, friends have noted, while the ability to converse in Mandarin is satisfactory enough without having to master the language.
Parents feel Chinese-language and private
schools prepare students for global competition
(© Sergio Roberto Bichara / sxc.hu)Another friend whose son will go to private school but is taking Mandarin tuition separately says, “The ability to speak Mandarin is important, but as I see it, the class divide is still based on how good your [command of] English is. You can be educated and rich, but if you don’t speak English [well], it’s still difficult to rise up.”
Interestingly, China itself has been described as “home to more speakers of English than any other country in the world”. Learning English is now considered the bare minimum for an education in China.
What these trends show is that the standard arguments for national schools as the solution to racial harmony, and mother-tongue education as a means to preserve culture, may be growing out of touch with reality. Vernacular schools will continue to exist, not as reservoirs of culture, but as the only alternative for basic education.
At the same time, social dynamics are changing. The class divide threatens to grow wider between Malaysians who can afford private school and those who can’t. This potentially leads to greater brain drain if Malaysia is no longer a competitive environment.
At the same time, it also appears that the vast single-race majority that are left in national schools are the ones in danger of becoming more polarised in their mindsets than the mixed race students of Chinese vernacular schools.
There is now far too much reconstruction required for our national education system, what more trying to make it a tool for fostering racial unity. Nothing effective can happen unless a massive overhaul takes place. Politicians would do better to focus on revamping national schools to make them multi-racial than to drum up rhetoric about abolishing vernacular schools at this juncture.
Deborah Loh went to national school. She can’t speak Mandarin and is quite embarrassed about it.
Read previous Sideways column
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