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Why vernacular school issue keeps resurfacing

 | June 23, 2012

The controversy with regard to Chinese education arises at practically every general election.

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Rather than recycle the pros and cons of mother tongue education streams, let’s instead look at why the issue has again surfaced at this particular juncture.

Answer: The socio-political climate of the day. This being so, tracing the timeline will help put things in better perspective.

When Mandarin as a medium of instruction is perennially politicised, the big picture indicates that this factor is closely tied to the position of the Chinese as a whole in Malaysia. At the heart of it is race, far more than the overt subset of language.

It has been the policy not to allow additional Chinese schools to be built. At Independence, there were 1,350 Chinese primary schools. By 1970, the number had dwindled to 1,346. In 1980, there were 1,312 SRJK (C). In 1990 (1,290); in 2000 (1,284) and today there are 1,280 – a decline all the way.

Educationist Kua Kia Soong points to these statistics as an Umno holding pattern manoeuvre, adding that controversy with regard to Chinese education arises at practically every general election and reflecting “the politics of race and assimilation in this country”.

Kua makes a reference too to Chandra Muzaffar as “the most recent apologist for the government” in the latter’s highlighting of this recurrent issue.

In his indirect salvo against Chinese schools, Chandra cautioned that an exclusive Chinese education would create an ethnic silo and asked what would be its “notion of a Malaysian identity”.

It is safe to say that Chandra represents an establishment viewpoint by virtue of his position as Yayasan 1Malaysia chairman.

Meanwhile, it’s also fair to characterise Dr Mahathir Mohamad as an Umno hawk given his position as patron of Perkasa.

On June 20, Mahathir was quoted by national news agency Bernama as saying: “If we recognise Chinese education and their certificates, etc, we will have three different people, each talking in a different language. I think we will not be able to even live together if we don’t understand each other.”

However, it is not only the Umno right-wingers who question the wisdom of vernacular schools.

No 1Language to bind us all

Farish Noor, writing in his NST column on March 30, 2012 – a week after the Dong Jong rally took place in Kajang – talked about the need for Malaysians to share a common language.

Farish also conceded to the conventional wisdom that “one cannot help but feel that the issue [of vernacular education] has been raised by some parties for the sake of gaining the popular vote above all”.

He went further to say that one would be hard-pressed not to “draw an association between the proponents of vernacular schooling and the opposition parties”.

What Farish wrote about the various communities “living side-by-side but never really communicating or understanding one another” is echoed three months later by Mahathir although both men are at opposite ends of the spectrum – one a cosmopolitan liberal and the other an ultra.

For Farish, “smart politics” would be for the political parties to “lend their support to Malaysians who want there to be a national language, a national educational system and a national culture that everyone can identify with”.

The way Farish phrased his proposal requires clarification: Malaysia’s national language is already stipulated in the Federal Constitution (Article 152) and the national educational system is the Sekolah Kebangsaan under the Education Act.

Therefore, it is really identification (pillars “that everyone can identify with”) coming into play when Farish is discussing the centripetal forces in nation-building.

Since it is not the Malays who fail to identify with the national language and the national educational system, then by default Farish’s finger is pointed at the Chinese who are outside the education mainstream in the largest percentage.

Although there is a flux wherein the popularity of Chinese schools has ebbed and flowed, the rejection of Sekolah Kebangsaan is nonetheless nothing new. This returns us to the pivotal question: why is it that this topic is being dredged up again and why now?

The main reason is the stridency of the opposition political rhetoric.

According to Farish, it is difficult to disassociate proponents of vernacular schooling and the opposition parties in the renewed debate. In reality Farish can only mean opposition “party” in the singular – the DAP.

Key question Part 2: Similarly, SRJK(C) polemics is nothing new. So how come the objections have become more vocal and vehement?

FMT columnist Zaidel Baharuddin puts his finger on the Malay pulse when he said, “Why should the national language of China be the primary language of education for schools in Malaysia”?

Zaidel describes it as “ironic” when one proclaims to be Malaysian First and yet refuses to acknowledge the requisite standing of the national language in Firster ideology.

His invocation of Bahasa Malaysia as an integral part of national identity is akin to the “national culture” mentioned by Farish as the axis of the nation-race concept.

The term “ironic” used by Zaidel to describe the DAP contradiction is diplomatic. Most other Malays have vented, “what *#%@?! hypocrisy is this”.

It’s about Chinese adults

If more Chinese independent high schools were permitted, according to the Mahathir diagnosis, “we will not be able to even live together”. The ex-premier drew his conclusion on the premise that students at such schools would only communicate in Mandarin and thus would not “understand” the national language.

Mahathir further theorised that the separate education streams would produce three different peoples – Malay, Chinese (Mandarin speakers) and Indian (Tamil speakers) as per the medium of instruction in the schools.

He, together with Chandra and Farish, contend that with this scenario, there could be no national unity in the offing.

Why does their fault-finding exercise pin the blame exclusively on vernacular school pupils?

Unless they can cite studies conducted to test the level of “unity” among seven to 12 year olds nationwide and tagging these children into adulthood, their theses remain a mere presumption.

Flipping the proposition would present us the question of what is the level of “national disunity” among schoolchildren.

Chinese schools are only the convenient proxy when it is the Chinese adults, and some would even say the Chinese as bogeyman, who are the real targets of race politicking.

Complaint to Education Minister

Why do Malays – they are the ones protesting the continued existence of Chinese schools – feel that the Chinese community is not inclined to national unity?

We are greatly helped in our examination into this matter because the complainants running the Satu Sekolah Untuk Semua campaign have stated their case in written form to the Education Minister.

Their petition says:

“Vernacular schools (SJKC dan SJKT) are the main cause of disharmony and racial tensions in our beloved country.

“This phenomenon is unique in the world and has become a cancer spreading through the Malaysian polity where community relations are already fragile. If left unchecked, it will take us to the brink. Destruction awaits the country.

“A reassessment of the education system must be made in view of the phenomenon of racial polarisation that is increasingly acute. This symptom is most clearly present in the cyber world where the anti-national sentiments of a segment of the community have become ever more pronounced and widespread. It is clear that these elements do not respect the principles and the foundation of the Federal Constitution, have no love for the country and are the authors of significantly seditious writings that so evidently spark racial sentiments.

“This group loudly disputes all the components that symbolise the sovereignty and that make up the core values of our beloved country.

“We call for vernacular schools to be totally abolished.”

From the wording of the petition, it is obvious that the miscreants characterised as “selfish, irrational chauvinists” by the Satu Sekolah Untuk Semua (SSS) campaign cannot possibly be the seven or eight year olds presently studying in SRJK(C).

Chinese as society’s cancer

As the SSS memorandum was successful in getting the ear of Deputy Prime Minister and Education Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, its merits have to be carefully assessed.

The memo had labelled vernacular schools as a malignant and spreading “cancer”.

How did the petitioners arrive at the findings that vernacular schools are a potentially fatal disease? Answer: Through their nasty experience of Malaysian cyberspace.

The petition unequivocally fingered “seditious writings” online as the basis for their contention that a segment of the population is manifestly anti-national.

Drafters of the SSS memo are guilty of a fatal flaw in their equation of cause and effect.

Needless to say, online commenters disrespectful of the Federal Constitution and who “have no love for the country” are not aged between seven and 12, which is the SRJK(C) cohort. After all, which kid that age is a keen advocate of changing the government at the next general election?

The remarks could have come from those in their 20s as well as the middle-aged crowd but it is most probably older Malaysians (45-65) who role-play as keyboard warriors.

A 50-year-old who is responsible for “seditious writings” would have been in primary school 40 years ago. A 25-year-old anti-nationalist would have enrolled in Standard One in 1993.

On the other hand, any symptoms of “anti-nationalism” as conjectured by the SSS memo were most likely observed only post-2008.

To make a convincing argument against Chinese schools, the SSS petition drafters would need to cite long-term studies done at least some 30 to 40 years ago on SRJK(C) pupils – now matured into the adults – accused of being anti-national elements.

There is no solid research data to support any such purported link.

English mother-tongue in New Media

Those demanding the closure of vernacular schools claim that Malaysians from the Chinese medium end up communicating wholly in Chinese. This does not square with the fact that the anti-Malay sovereignty comments which prompted the SSS memo were found in English.

The petition drafters are Malay bloggers who have put up the SSS badge in their websites and whose emphasis has been on the Chinese rather than the Tamil schools as the supposed cause of disunity.

Both the blogs “Demi Negara” and “Pure Shiite” – respectively first and second signatories of the petition – are written in English and do not contain bits of writings in Chinese characters.

From this, one would infer that the two bloggers are not conversant with hanyu (Chinese language). Therefore, whatever seditious and anti-national comments they and their friends may have come across in Malaysian cyberspace, would be those written in English.

Products of SRJK(C) mostly participate in Chinese language portals, Chinese language social media and Chinese language forums. Hence their paths are quite unlikely to cross that of Malay bloggers who do not read hanzi (Chinese writing).

The upshot is that the SSS petition calling for the abolishment of vernacular schools has made a grave mistake in connecting the alleged “anti-national seditious writings” to SRJK(C) graduands.

Nonetheless, there is still a vital lesson to be learnt from the movement to do away with vernacular schools.

The SSS memo had correctly observed that bigoted comments permeate Malaysian cyberspace. My own observation is that the authors of these comments, according to their Facebook network status, are from a convent, Christian brothers and mission school background.

These foul-mouthed and belligerent commenters who are culpable in inflaming Malay passions (a vast majority of the signatures on the SSS petition bear Malay-sounding names) are creating a misplaced backlash where Chinese schools have been made the unwitting scapegoat.

If the Umno hawks gain ascendency and the right-wing faction wins enough clout to force the shutdown of Chinese schools, then all Chinese parents should know who exactly it is they have to thank for rousing the Malays to embark on this course of action.

The writer blogs at http://helenang.wordpress.com


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