Malaysian. Chinese. Totally Foreign.

By Lisa Ng

13 May, 2011

Is it racialism that causes Malaysian Chinese to be cliquish? Or is it just bad faith? Let’s explore the reasons why some Malaysian Chinese youth can’t integrate into society and why abolishing vernacular schools may be just a blind shot at solving a growing problem.

Eu Jienn’s story

Chong Eu Jienn is 15. He lives in Kepong, KL. He speaks fluently in Mandarin. If you ever get lost in Kepong and bump into him, please do not ask for directions in English. He will not know how to respond to you. If you switch next to Bahasa Malaysia, he might be able to bring up a broken explanation consisting of recognisable words like “sana” or “depan” but the rest might be in Mandarin so you’d better know a bit of the language yourself if you want to understand what he is telling you.

Eu Jienn is a product of the vernacular schooling system. His parents decided long ago that their children would be educated in a Chinese Independent School. Firstly, China was quickly becoming an important economic power. Secondly, friends with children in National schools were lamenting about the quality of teachers in such schools. Thirdly, Eu Jienn’s parents came from very strict family backgrounds – discipline was top priority for them and Chinese schools were renowned for discipline. Fourthly, Eu Jienn’s parents were DAP supporters. His grandparents were aligned to BN due to the presence of MCA which was felt to represent the Chinese voice in government. But the loyalty ceased as the political landscape shifted with Mahathir, in favour of the Malays. Besides, what was so important about English or Bahasa Malaysia anyway? If Eu Jienn performed well academically, he could get a good job in Singapore or China. Singapore, for one thing, was close enough to stay in touch with their eldest son. Singapore was also kind to the Chinese. And, yes, in Singapore, people spoke Mandarin.

You could hardly blame Eu Jienn’s parents for such a narrow view. For them, vernacular schools were the best bet to ensure a future of better opportunities for their children. They must have known how important English was as it is still the lingua franca of the business and working world. And yet they somehow chose to ignore this point in shaping their son’s future.


Why are Eu Jienn’s parents also unconcerned with their son’s inability to speak the National Language? The National Language is something every citizen of every country should be proud of and be able to converse in comfortably – a badge of their national identity. But before we clamour for the abolishment of these vernacular schools or talk about racism (not to be confused with Chinese patriotism), we should look at the big picture and consider all the factors that led Eu Jienn to where he is today.

Then and now

My parents went to Chinese schools but they both speak English. My dad is more fluent because my grandfather spoke English at home with all his children. My mum is less so because her parents spoke Hokkien and Mandarin at home. I used to catch her learning grammar from a self-help book months before a team presentation at OCBC where she worked as a bank teller. During the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, English was a more important language to master due to our colonial heritage, so Bahasa Malaysia (henceforth referred to as BM) for Chinese families was left on the wayside to rot into Pasar Malay, also known as the hybrid of Chinese dialect-inflected BM our grandparents and parents spoke when shopping at the wet market (e.g “Lu banyak pasal. Wah beli ikan kembong lu, lu bagi harga baik lah.”)

The point is – language needs to be put into practice or it’ll leave our working memory.

My time was the 80’s and I was enrolled in a Kebangsaan school. Malay and English were the medium of instruction for me and my lot. Even though our syllabus was in Bahasa Malaysia, if the teacher of the subject was Chinese, she would give instructions in English but refer to the terms and formulas of our syllabus in BM. Furthermore, BM was compulsory on Wednesdays – i.e everybody had to speak in BM on that day, throughout the day. Failure to do so might score a deviant a black mark in the prefects’ “little report book”. Among friends of different racial backgrounds, we conversed in a mixture of BM and English. So you could say that a lot of us were pretty well-versed in both languages, although for the Chinese and Indians, BM rolled less easily off our tongues. (It must also be said that I spoke English and Cantonese with my family.)

Again, the point is – if language is not put into practice, it’ll leave our working memory. We’ll eventually slip back into the language we’re most comfortable with – i.e use more often.

Now, if the issue of the day is “the inability of Chinese students to function in society due to the complete lack of proficiency in English and the National language”, then the Education System is a little flawed against both the Nationalism platform and the Prime Minister’s objective of turning our country into a high-income one. This is because that would mean all our students need to be able to compete on the world stage and not just among the best within Malaysia.

Let’s get better

Yet this issue can be arrested if the Ministry of Education steps in to ensure that English and Bahasa Malaysia are taken seriously at such schools. Make them compulsory subjects which have to be passed, NOT History which apparently has become very subjective. And lift the pass mark while we’re at it. Ensure there are qualified Language teachers teaching the subjects. Turn a day of the week (or two) into a BM-only day or English-only day. Incentivise the kids to do well in these subjects – cash prizes, discounts off computers, a free AirAsia ticket to the historical cities of China, etc. These are examples of possibly a long list of what can be done.

If racial integration is the key issue, then we must acknowledge that this is a much larger problem to tackle. It requires that we consider politically driven policies, climate, and environment beside the Education System itself. I personally feel that this issue has exacerbated the conundrum of language proficiency. How?

Most parents who insist their kids go to Chinese schools, for instance, insist because they no longer believe that National schools have the quality teachers to teach well. Chinese schools are known to be strict (read: disciplined) with high emphasis on good performance. Parents subscribe to this perception. Secondly, with China burgeoning into a Superpower in her own right, parents are convinced that the Mother Tongue is taught and taught well in schools, something that does not exist in National schools anymore. Thirdly, because of the political climate we are in, with all the race-tinged statements floating about in National newspapers as well as race-skewed policies affecting our education system (quotas and scholarships for example), these parents withdraw to self-sufficient mode. It’s a “Ok, I’ll work around the system then” kind of attitude. They believe they can survive and thrive against these odds because they can rely on their work ethic. As long as they can pursue their goals in life without too much interference or restrictions from the government of the day, they’ll just “do their thing”.

Malaysian Favelas?

You could categorise this behaviour as being self-imposed isolation smacking of racialism. But I see it as communality driven by self-preservation. There’s a bit of this in the favelas of Sao Paulo and Rio De Jeneiro. Essentially composed of the marginalised poor, favelas are shanty-like towns that make perfect hideouts for drug lords because they know a shootout with the police will cost innocent lives, a risk the police would prefer not to take. At the same time, drug lords offer protection to the residents (faveladors) from thugs and thieves in return for loyalty and silence about their identities and exact whereabouts in the maze of makeshift homes. Code words are used and every home has an open-door policy should a drug pusher find himself being hotly pursued by the cops.

Meanwhile these faveladors get jobs from the richer families that live and operate on the outer ring of the towns for their cheap labour – or at the bottom of the hills should the favela be built on the hillside. Kosher or not, there is a system that governs such favelas and systems make people feel safe and secure. Kosher or not, they get leadership and the time of day from the drug lords. Malaysian Chinese and South Americans are, of course, worlds apart in many ways, not least in the area of the economic power each community holds. But there are similarities.

If you visit typically Chinese-skewed townships in KL, you’ll notice that there is a little economy giving pulse to the communities there, making them self-sufficient neighbourhoods consisting of banks, markets, small law practices, supermarkets, tailors, pharmacies, cobblers and schools. Facilities you will also find in favelas – although to a lesser degree and in humbler forms. The factors influencing the strong communal behaviour of both cultures are also somewhat similar: there are signs of marginalisation of some form, pragmatism linked to some form of threat to their livelihood or well-being, and the basic belief of strength in numbers.

For Malaysian Chinese, there is the added threat to their culture, the very essence of their identity. With the seeming Islamisation of the country, there is also a cogent fear among Chinese working class families that their culture will soon be swallowed up, dismissed or forbidden. This may sound flippant to some but if you could send your kid to a school that celebrates your culture, subscribes to high standards of discipline and performance versus a national school where you believe the teachers are lazy (and just pile up homework on your kid rather than teach), discriminatory (what with those reported insults of headmasters and mistresses in the news recently) and themselves not fluent in English or BM, then what would your choice be? Wouldn’t you want the former even though the possibility of your kid not being able to mix around later is high? What’s more important – being able to mix around or having the values and skills to be able to have a good career that could take you out of an increasingly hostile country?

Root out the illness, not the symptom

To summarise, the source of the problem is the Education System and its quality which affects the reputation of our National schools. The political climate and policies that are increasingly race-tinged and biased are secondary “viruses” threatening the Chinese community. Parents who insist on vernacular schools are just a symptom of the problem. The “illness” that is manifested are the children of these vernacular schools who are not able to function in society due to language proficiency issues.

If we want to treat the symptom, then, yes, just abolish the vernacular schools without doing anything else. If, however, we want to prevent the illness itself, we’ll have to go to the root of the problem, the source. We’ll have to revisit the medium of instruction for Math and Science. We’ll have to consider introducing Chinese and Tamil as subjects in schools. We’ll have to pay teachers a lot better, improve the selection criteria get good teachers – we’ll even have to review the teaching courses in our institutes and universities. And then some.

It’s sad that kids like Eu Jienn are destined to be another digit in our brain-drain statistic. It’s even sadder that he’ll grow up unable to mix with people other than his own race due to a language problem. That he is a foreigner in his own country. That, even if he ends up in Singapore or China, he will still be “middle-tier” even if he’s a genius back home because his academic performance may still not be as good as his regional counterparts. Whether partly by his choice, or his parents’, it doesn’t matter. Leaders have a great opportunity to shape the country, the pillars of society and bring out the best in its rakyat simply because they’re in power and they’re supposed to, well, lead. As a result, they are primarily accountable for the way things have turned out.

Too bad for Eu Jienn though.

Lisa Ng is a human being. She used to be a copywriter in the advertising industry. But now she just writes. For whatever helps us regain the lost art of “giving a toss” towards things that matter to the human race.

  1. #1 by waterfrontcoolie on Saturday, 14 May 2011 - 7:31 am

    Narrow-minded people from everywhere seem to think that learning another language will somewhat belittle their own standing in the world. There is only one result for such mind-set: Backwardness. for that matter, I used to tell the ardent Chinese-only friends that they were STUPID to take such attitude, no matter the Chines lingua maybe commercially useful, especially with the ascent of China in the world economy. Indeed I am ashamed of some Malaysian Chinese, those under 50, still could not speak Bahasa coherently! In Malaysia, if you can master Chinese, Bahasa and English; you have all the advantages in life; even at the Asean environment.
    To the die-hard, one language parents, your children may not forgive you when you figured out that their short-coming was a result of your myopic act. Just ask those parents whose children have the opportunity to take the world stage to compete! We all konw that in spite of all the local news media’s demands for Bahasa only, just ask the editors if they follow this recipe for their children; you do not need to ask the current leaders for sure. the policy of cowing the lesser section of the society is well-heeded by those staying in town with internet linkage but not the poor rural folks who seem condemned to elk their life in the same manner as their forefathers! The main motive is clear; keep them ignorant then it is easier to buy the votes!

  2. #2 by Bigjoe on Saturday, 14 May 2011 - 8:40 am

    Absolutely correct to view the problems of vernacular school as a victimisation of the Chinese and Indians rather than a disease. You don’t want to say its a symptom because some bit-knowledgeable ‘expert’ will tell you that doctors just treat symptoms only all the time.

    Coincidently, last night on TV, caught a glimpse of the debate by Wee Ka Siong on Bicara Rakyat and the way he had tried to explained it, in nothing less than perfect Malay, that its sanubari ‘inner self’ that is the issue of unity, just flew past the interviewers and the rest of the panel who obviously think the reason does not fit into any solution they are thinking of.

    My issue with unity in this country as it is with trying to eliminate the vernacular schools is that how sincere, given the Malay Agenda do they EVEN believe in unity or integration rather than assimilation. The likes of Perkasa, Pembela etc, obviously believes in assimilation and integration is an afterthought and more useful as an excuse for their agenda. AND its obvious they write the boundaries of UMNO/BN agenda

    The bottom line is this country when it comes to race, religion and language has been insincere, initially underneath the official stand and now in full view of public and official conduct but still not adimitting to it.

    There is little point in arguing about fundamental issues of ‘sanubari’ and unity when the official stand is inconsistent, its a lie. The Chinese will even give up their language – look at them in Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines where they are not discriminated – many have even given up their language even if what they get is the best that is available.

  3. #3 by MayaRae on Saturday, 14 May 2011 - 12:03 pm

    As much as some would like to keep vernacular schools, I sincerely don’t think it is healthy to have them in the long run if we were to promote integration among races. But mind you I say this with a caveat that the national education system has to be restudied and elevated to a respectable standard before we can even ask the People to give those up.

    So moving forward and assuming a better system is found; in matters of wanting to preserve the mother tongue of these races, why can’t we have language classes in schools. Perhaps the system can make it mandatory (aside from the national language) that a child must take up a language course in their mother tongue and a child can also elect another language if he or she chooses too. It would seem that there would be a good opportunity for Malaysian children to be multilingual and the opportunity can be opened to all regardless of race. Plus that integrated environment would be made part of it already.

    As for subjects like Sciences & Mathematics, lets just nominate a medium that enables students and teachers to also keep up with the other latest development going on globally. English seem to be the best bet at this point. Let’s not be taken by the emotions that we’re sacrificing a part of us that is Malay, Chinese or Indian. Let’s just be objective about it. It’s knowledge that we should be hungry for!

    As for History, I never thought this was an important subject when I was growing up but I think it had a lot to do with how it was thought at school. History in my time was never clearly made related to the times I lived in. I saw it more of just a subject with lots of memorizing of the names, places and God forbid years!

    But as I grew up and read more biographies which were clearly weaved into some history background, I recognized that there were more to the subject than mere memorization of names, places and years. I learn to understand why ideas of people of a certain times were such, and you know what – it is great when we can be allowed to have our own arguments of why we believed a person thought of an idea this way or even why a particular event happened or even why one situation gave rise to another. And like anything else this subject should be open to interpretations as History as a subject has many sides to it. It’s never black or white. Teachers and children alike will learn to accept that. In the long run we as a society can learn to see things from the perspective other than the ones we are used to.

    The subject need not be a linear one, but one which children can enjoy debating about. I honestly think if the younger generations are encouraged to question in school in subjects like History, we can develop a generation of students who would not be likely to take things at face value. Which is pretty much the system that I grew up in and I don’t really think much has changed even today!

    All these guilt that we are made to feel because we ask will naturally fade away because we will then be immersed in a society who believes that it is always our right to ask and it is our right to be given intelligent answers.

    Somehow or rather, (and I would like to believe), we don’t always have to feel afraid once we can be encouraged to accept the tolerance to discuss sensitive issues. I think this is particularly important for a multicultural society like ours.

    It’s been too stifling in the past and it will be nice if our society as a whole can be given the chance to express freely – and we ought to start this culture in school if we are going to want a better tomorrow.

    At the end of the day we all strive for this – Principles of Fairness and that can only be One for all races. And if we were to start thinking for ourselves, we sure as hell should be ready to be unselfish to think for the others too. No buts.

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