The problem with vernacular schools


Zairil Khir Johari
The Malaysian Insider
4 September 2015

A question that is often thrown at me, usually with the intention to provoke, is whether I support the abolishment of vernacular education, and correspondingly whether I believe that the answer to our national unity woes lies in having single-stream education.

My answer each time I am asked this is no, and not because I am rehearsing a political line. I say no because I am a firm believer in choice and competition in education, as well as the fact that neither language of instruction nor ethnic make-up of schools cause disunity or a predilection for racism.

To be sure, it is an easy premise to believe – if children go to schools that are made up of only one race and speak only one language, they would find it difficult as adults to mix with those who look and speak differently.

One recent high-profile advocate of this line of thought is the newly appointed Education Minister Datuk Seri Mahdzir Khalid, who announced that a new nation-building module called “Bina Bangsa” would be introduced next year for vernacular primary schools, in order to address what he deems the cause for disunity among Malaysians, viz the lack of interaction between schoolchildren of different races.

Explaining the rationale for this programme, Mahdzir lamented that national schools faced difficulties in attracting non-Bumiputeras because of the existence of vernacular schools, which provided education in the Chinese and Tamil mother tongues. Therefore, a compulsory programme was needed to force vernacular schoolchildren to mix and mingle with their counterparts from other schools.

While the idea of encouraging more cross-cultural engagement is laudable, and by itself not a problem, the rationale behind the education minister’s logic of applying the programme exclusively on vernacular schools is deeply flawed.

Firstly, by suggesting that only vernacular schools require “nation-building” programmes, the minister is mischievously implying that such schools are an inherent obstacle to national unity. This hypothesis has no rational basis.

By Mahdzir’s logic, everyone from Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK), by virtue of it being an all-Malay school, should turn out to be parochial racists who view non-Malays with suspicion and mistrust. However, having many friends and relatives who graduated from MCKK and many other Malay boarding schools, I can genuinely affirm that not to be true.

At the same time, I also have friends who studied in Chinese vernacular schools all their lives, and who are today as Malaysian in outlook as the best of MCKK. Similarly, I have also met countless Europeans who are not the least bit bigoted, despite some of them growing up in all-Caucasian environments without having interacted with any non-Caucasians until they entered university or began working.

On the other hand, if a child goes to a multi-ethnic national school but is repeatedly told not to eat, mix or mingle with their non-Muslim friends, or that those of a different race are immigrants who do not deserve the same rights as they do, what kind of a worldview would they form?

Secondly, the idea that vernacular schools breed disunity while only national schools are able to unite Malaysians is an empirical fallacy. Contrary to general perception, national schools are now actually more mono-ethnic in make-up compared to Chinese vernacular schools. While national schools in the 1960s and 70s could boast of high non-Bumiputera enrolment, this trend has long since seen a decline. In fact, according to the Malaysia Education Blueprint (MEB), Bumiputera students now constitute 94% of enrolment in national primary schools. This means that non-Bumiputera enrolment in national schools has dropped to an all-time low of only 6%.

Meanwhile, the MEB interestingly reports that non-Chinese enrolment in Chinese vernacular schools has increased to 12% – and is on the rise. This effectively means that Chinese schools are today more multiracial compared with national schools. In fact, there are Chinese schools with very significant numbers of non-Chinese enrolment. One such example is SJKC Tiong Hua Kok Bin in Klang, which has about 45% non-Chinese students.

The fact that fewer and fewer non-Bumiputera parents choose to send their children to national schools while more and more Bumiputera parents now prefer Chinese vernacular schools both debunks the myth that vernacular schools are a cause of racial disunity and proves that parents value quality of education and competitiveness as main considerations for school selection.

At the end of the day, it is not so much the ethnic make-up or language used in one’s environment that shapes one’s worldview, as it is the values imparted in school and at home. As long as our schools encourage respect and appreciation of each other’s heritage and celebrate cultural diversity as a source of strength, then there is no question that our children will grow up to be decent and inclusive Malaysians.

On the flipside, if indeed we are facing a problem of disunity today, then perhaps we should seriously question the values and narratives being propagated in our national school syllabus, rather than shift the blame on the multiple-stream education system that we have inherited since independence.

Therefore, the problem with vernacular schools is not vernacular schools per se, but the prevalent and misguided opinion that these schools create racial division and lack of harmony among Malaysians. After all, I doubt any Perkasa member attended Chinese schools. – September 4, 2015.

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  1. #1 by Bigjoe on Friday, 4 September 2015 - 10:32 pm

    These facts and arguments is not new and in fact well known – the rising bumiputera enrollment in Chinese vernacular school is seen and talked about in places like Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah as far back as during Mahathir’s time..

    But the fact is the politically ambitious like Mahadzir WANT to see the problem the way they are saying it because its dirty political capital they are too greedy to do without.

    The likes of Mahadzir is NOT EVEN INTERESTED to know the real truth or any real or better alternative. You will never convince them purely on facts and even better. You have to cater to their selfishness or fear to change them.

    The fact is the likes of Mahadzir don’t even get the fundamental problem with their line of pursuit – its based on the fact, they are against plurality – of religion, race, and eventually ideas especially political and social. They truth is this line of pursuit is a DEAD END. The Islamist and Racist who believe they can run and avoid plurality of people and ideas is fighting against the tide of great humanity change. Its a dead end – in religion, in race, in education and ultimately self-economy too. ONLY those who embrace plurality can embrace benefit of merit and truth and hence ultimate competitiveness. Not doing so can only delay ultimately ending in irrelevance and oblivion.

  2. #2 by undertaker888 on Friday, 4 September 2015 - 11:42 pm

    Please put in their knuckle heads we do not want to send our kids to kebangsaan school is because of the quality of the education and the teachers. Please keep on hammering this down into their tin kosong brains. It is not race issue like those monkeys tried to make it to be.

  3. #3 by waterfrontcoolie on Sunday, 6 September 2015 - 10:53 am

    Politicians with slanted agenda to preserve their gravy trains will create reasons based on thin air to justify their decision. The REAL reason behind the current education policy is to ensure that Malays remain isolated in their thinking be being able to read only Utusan! All progressive nations wanting a part of the 21st Century pie encourage their people to be multi-lingual; especially in English. Here somehow they are able to convince the majority of the population to stay ignorant and believe that their world will come apart if they wanted any changes in their life! If one takes the trouble to search in the internet, one will be surprised to find that the best universities in computer science may no longer be in any Western university. They are all in China and Russia! Why? because their universities have been monopolizing the Inter-Varsity Computer Competition since 2000! And they are a lot cheaper! Sending students to overseas in the very expensive West for for 3rd Us is a waste!

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