AN ALL too familiar and a recurring accusation is, that vernacular schools – in particular Chinese schools – are the cause of national disunity and as such they should be abolished in favour of a single school stream.
No surprise that at the recently concluded Malay Dignity Congress, one resolution was the abolition of vernacular schools by 2026, because “vernacular schools cannot unite the races for the sake of unity.” What a load of nonsense!
It is well worth repeating and reminding the ignorant: national schools were once schools of choice for all.
Even the Chinese, in particular the middle-class Chinese, chose and preferred national schools over Chinese schools for their children.
In fact, some Chinese schools had falling enrolment and were on the verge of closing, if it were not for Chinese students from Phuket and Medan.
Today, Chinese student enrolment in Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan Cina (SJKC) has gone from 92% in 2001 to 96% in 2011.
Even the enrolment of Tamils students had gone from 47% to 57% during the same period.
As such, today 97% of students studying in national schools are Malays.
Sadly, national schools have changed and become Malay mono-ethnic Muslim-centric schools.
Those demanding the abolition of vernacular schools and closure of Chinese schools never ever ask what really caused the exodus of non-Malays from national schools and why Malays are abandoning national schools in favour of Chinese schools.
In fact, the mushrooming and growth of tahfiz schools, gives rise to the conviction that the preferred choice of schools for Malays is no longer national schools.
Based on the statistics from the Education Ministry, the percentage of non-Chinese students, in particular Bumiputera-Malay students, in SJKC has reached 18% out of the total 520,000.
In numbers, almost 90,000 are not Chinese, the overwhelming majority of which are Malays.
Malay parents have made Chinese schools their school of choice for their children.
What is certain is that year on year, the Chinese schools are going to see the growth of non-Chinese, moreover Malays, in Chinese schools.
There are already some Chinese schools where the majority of the students are Malays, while Malays account for almost half of students in others.
Thus, Chinese schools have transformed and have become the real “national schools”.
Those making spurious allegations against vernacular schools, saying that Chinese schools in particular are the cause for the disunity and polarisation are simply making a false narrative premised on fallacious arguments.
Worse, they offer no empirical evidence that national schools, which have become Malay-Muslim-centric, on the other hand play a role in national unity.
The fact that Malay parents send their children to Chinese schools debunks the myth that Chinese schools are a cause for disunity.
Studies conducted by Unesco and other international organisations have shown that students learn best when initially taught in their mother tongue.
Perhaps that is why Chinese schools are far ahead of their peers in national schools in subjects like maths and science.
Switzerland debunks the myth that multiple education streams cause disunity.
In Switzerland, education is largely decentralised where each of the 26 cantons are responsible for developing language region curricula for compulsory education.
Thus, depending on the ethnic predominance of a canton, the language of education can be in German, French, Italian and Romansch.
Additionally, every student has to study one of the other four languages taught in the schools and another foreign language.
Despite the multiple education streams, there is no issue of national disunity.
If studying in a single school system instils unity, then Pakistan and many countries in the Middle-East has proven otherwise and failed miserably.
Despite a single school system, Urdu in Pakistan and Arabic in Middle East countries, common religion and culture, school children have instead grown up hating each other and living in enmity to the extent of waging wars and killing each other.
So much for the “Perpaduan Ummah” there.
The proponents of a single education system always give the example of Singapore and claim that Singapore has just a single education stream.
However, they are ignorant of the fact (or perhaps intentionally hide the fact) that even in Singapore there are exclusively Chinese schools.
The Special Assistance schools (SAP schools) were established in 1979 to preserve the learning of Chinese language and culture.
Today, there are 26 SAP schools in Singapore: 15 primary and 11 secondary schools. So, it is a fallacious argument to give Singapore as an example.
Add to the “exclusively Chinese schools”, for Muslims students there are the madrassahs.
As of 2017 there are six full-time madrassahs all offering a dual education system.
The blue-ribbon Madrassah Aljunied now even offers the highly acclaimed International Baccalaureate Diploma.
For Muslims, post high school there is Institut Pengajian Tinggi Al-Zuhir offering Diploma in Islamic studies, which is recognised by 11 universities in Malaysia.
Another institute offering the same is Muhamadiyyah Islamic College. So, with the different education streams, is unity in tatters in Singapore?
So, in Malaysia are (vernacular) schools causing disunity or perhaps it is politicians and political parties.
The role of a school is to create a learning atmosphere and, importantly, to provide quality education.
In a multicultural and multireligious Malaysia, schools have an added responsibility in that it ought to also be a place where students are taught to value, respect and celebrate diversity.
Students should be taught to acknowledge and respect each other’s culture, language and religion and to be imbibed with a sense that each other’s cultural, language and religious diversities are part and parcel of our national heritage and this uniqueness should be treasured and protected.
Schools must teach multiracialism, multiculturalism and multireligionism.
The exodus of Non-Malays from national schools and now Malays (now) also abandoning national schools in droves, would not have happened had the government acknowledged the problems at the earliest, been farsighted and quick to arrest the problem.
Just why did the government wait until 96% of non-Malays exit the national schools and more than 90,000 Malay children making Chinese schools their school of choice before waking up and realising that vernacular schools are now the new national schools?
The exodus of non-Malays from the national schools is a testament of the failure of the national school system to create a one school system for all and acceptable to all.
Having changed the character of the national schools, it’s no use now to yearn for a return to the past or race-bait demanding for closure of vernacular schools premised on false fallacies and skewed reasonings.
In 2002, Dr Mahathir gave a damning verdict of national schools when he said without mincing his words that the national school system had been hijacked by obscurantists interested in Islamic practices that emphasise form over substance.
While Razak Baginda, then the executive director of Malaysian Strategic Reserach Centre, was quoted in the International Herald Tribune on June 6, 2005, as saying that religious teachers inculcate very negative views of other religions and that they always have a “them and us” attitude that is very destructive.
For non-Malays, what was said by them forthright is what non-Malays lament in private.
What is required is an honest introspection to find out where did it all go wrong for national schools and why did the government allow such a situation to grow.
Thus calling for abolishing vernacular schools is premised on jealousy and hatred, unable to accept that despite so many limitations and restrictions Chinese schools can still provide quality education to both Chinese and Malays and even offer an examination certificate that fulfils admission to some of the world’s top universities.
Thus, in the guise of national unity, every devious attempt is now made to close down vernacular education and Chinese schools.
However, all is not lost for the national schools. If the government can take the necessary steps to overhaul standards, enhance the quality and standard of teaching, ensuring schools are free from zealots and racists, employ teachers who teach and not preach, and school administrators without a covert agenda but truly subscribe to multiracialism, multiculturalism, national schools could revert to its old glory.
When there are schools and colleges exclusively for a single race, religious schools for a particular religion, universities exclusive for a single race and single religion, all not objected to by non-Malays, Malays should learn to accept that vernacular schools are also part of Malaysian education system and part of the social contract.
Learn to acknowledge and accept, and not succumb to hatred, jealousy and surely not weaving falsehoods.
* Norman Fernandez reads The Malaysian Insight
* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight.