Is Malaysia’s education system responsible for the current political situation?

Vernacular schools are a controversial issue because of language and racial unity. (Bernama pic)

The history of vernacular schools, also known as Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan (SJK), is incredibly rich.

The vernacular school system was introduced during the British colonisation, when the Chinese and Indians were brought to Malaya and a demand for education opportunities arose.

Due to the mass immigration of Chinese workers in the nineteenth century, Chinese schools began as private home schools, while the early development of Tamil schools were by the Indian workers themselves.

Vernacular schools in Malaysia translate to a school in which the instructional language is not Bahasa Malaysia – hence for SJKC, the instructional language is Mandarin while SJKT will use Tamil.

Same old, same old

It is no secret that vernacular schools are a controversial issue especially regarding language standardisation and racial unity.

Some Malaysians believe that the use of either Mandarin or Tamil to teach all the subjects in vernacular schools will threaten the status of the national language and unity. Loyalists raise the argument that vernacular schools help preserve minority culture and identity.

It’s an interesting debate and is described by Schmidt (2000), as “the advocates for minority language equality speak in the language of justice, while proponents of national unity speak in terms of national good”.

Let’s look into both sides of the argument.

Dissecting the vernacular school argument

“The vernacular school system goes against the promotion of national unity.” A widely used stance, this particular argument is supported by decades-old educational reports.

Case in point, the Razak Report cites, “The ultimate objective of the education policy in this country is to bring together the children of all races under a national education system in which the national language is the main medium of instruction.”

You’ve all heard this before but whether you understand the root of the argument remains unclear. Why does the insistence that only a specific language can promote unity among citizens arise? What’s the science behind that?

This actually relates to the social identity theory, introduced by Henri Tafjel in 1979. Social identity refers to an individual’s sense of membership to a particular group.

Vernacular schools help preserve minority culture and identity. (Rawpixel pic)

There’s a certain “us” versus “them” mentality in Tafjel’s social identity theory, and language plays a part in it.

If the mother tongue and ethnic identity of the minority group are strong, it suggests a strong group identification. This makes any chance to integrate with other cultures and adapt to another language more difficult.

No evidence to show that vernacular schools cause disunity

PPBM Supreme Council member Tariq Ismail refutes the argument, saying, “It takes more than just the school for unity to prevail. It is the attitude and a willingness to learn from others and accept them for who they are without force feeding them what you think is right.”

In addition, there are many non-Chinese that attend Chinese vernacular schools which rebuts the stance that vernacular schools do not support multi-nationalism. The United Chinese School Teachers’ Association of Malaysia reported that 18.7% of pupils in Chinese primary schools are non-Chinese.

However, a 2013 research titled The Impact of Chinese Vernacular Medium of Instruction on Unity in Multi-ethnic Malaysia, indicates that students in vernacular school choose English over Bahasa Malaysia as the unifying language, thus fuelling the resistance to vernacular schools.

What can be done to solve this issue?

In 1995, the Rancangan Sekolah Wawasan was introduced with the purpose of gathering three streams of school to share the same facilities.

Unsurprisingly, it was met with criticism and protest by the non-Malays. In 2019, however, Dr Mahathir Mohamad once again urged the revival and acceptance of Sekolah Wawasan as a way to combat the nation’s racial issues.

The introduction, or reintroduction in this case, of a new type of school sounds great on paper. But satisfying all the minorities and cultures is not an easy task. It’s almost impossible, really, so a standardised school system seems like a distant dream.

And with the current political situation, can you really depend on the government to decide on what’s right for your children’s education?

Only time will tell.

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