UEC itself is not the problem

Exactly 34 years ago, I accompanied a fellow student who was rejected by my alma mater to see the admission director of the American university. We were surprisingly told that she was rejected because she had not sat for the UEC despite having completed 12 years of primary and secondary Chinese-medium education, which is the usual and minimum requirement for entrance into most American universities.

We were actually shocked by the fact that the UEC, just a few years after its inception, was already recognised as a mandatory admission requirement by this particular university for graduates of Chinese independent secondary schools in Malaysia.

I was even more surprised when the admission director agreed to admit my friend conditionally based on her secondary school results. She would automatically be considered a normal admission if she obtained a GPA of 2.0 or above in her first semester.

This small incident showed how a highly competitive, state-run American university treated education as an opportunity to prove one’s capability and willingness to learn instead of discriminating against potential students to prove their worth.

The major reason for getting local public universities to accept the UEC is to prove the government’s determination to do away with its own ignorance and racial prejudice that (all) Chinese students can afford to study at local private or foreign universities. It is also an inevitable part of the process of democratising and decentralising our education system, in which diversity will enhance the competitiveness of our students in the job market, especially the Malays and those from less privileged social groups.

In the cornerstone case of Merdeka University Bhd vs Government of Malaysia (1982), both the High Court and Federal Court ruled that Article 152 (1) of the Malaysian constitution merely maintains the use and learning of mother tongues in schools, but they are not to be used as mediums of instruction in learning any other subjects.

Article 152 (1) of the Federal Constitution expressly states that it is a right to learn one’s mother tongue but the government of the day is not obliged to allow any other subjects to be taught in one’s mother tongue or any language other than the national language. Our Federal Constitution does not affirm that one’s right to learn in one’s mother tongue is a constitutional right.

The courts further ruled that no language other than the national language can be used “as a medium of expression or communication for the nation as such but only to the extent of preventing the erosion of their use as a medium of expression within their respective communities”.

It was apparently ethnocentric to classify all other “non-national” languages as communal or tribal, distorting the fact that languages are tools for communication in today’s ever-globalising society. Non-Chinese can speak fluent Mandarin and vice-versa. Some Chinese can speak Tamil, English, Iban or Kadazan. One has to accept the fact that the constitution drafted by an elite Reid’s Commission composed of foreign judges and law experts is basically dysfunctional in an increasingly diverse Malaysian society in terms of education reform.

Peninsular Malaysia has never stopped being a multiethnic society. One can hardly imagine that 110 languages were actually spoken among the traders in Melaka 600 years ago. Malay has naturally been the lingua franca. There was no legal restriction on the use of other languages to make Melaka an international entrepot then, neither was there a need to make Malay the national language to make it the most prominent language. This history tells us our Federal Constitution in regards to preserving a fair and multicultural society is now outdated in bringing Malaysia forward as an advanced nation.

The High Court and Federal Court’s decisions in Merdeka University vs Government of Malaysia (1982) prompted the constitutional experts for post-apartheid South African constitutional reforms in the 1990s to be specifically inclusive of 11 official languages, notwithstanding an individual’s right to learn in his mother tongue, as opposed to two official languages during the apartheid rule – that is, Afrikaans (practically a Dutch-based creole) and English.

Nonetheless, our policymakers’ perception towards language is still highly communal, tribal and nationalistic. English became an international language after the rise of the British empire and colonialism, and it has maintained its status as one of the world languages for science, technology and socio-economic advancements. No one would treat it as the language of a single race or give it a communal identity. For the same reason, Mandarin, Japanese and Korean have become important languages in many countries due to those nations’ increasingly leading role in science, technology and socio-economic advancements.

In Malaysia, many non-Malays speak Malay fluently and the number is rising. The number would rise even faster if Malaysia and Indonesia became newly industrialised countries. Like any other world language, Malay would become a popular choice for a second language in the future if Malay internationalist views rebranded it as a language of socio-economic importance worldwide.

Many have misperceived the US as a monolingual country where English is the only “official language”. They argue that English being the only medium of instruction in the American education system has elevated its leading role in science and technology advancements. It was even cited as a vital piece of evidence by the author of “The Malay Dilemma”, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, for his argument that since the US is a great monolingual nation, Malaysians would be great and united as a nation if we embarked on a Malay language-only education policy and “satu bangsa satu bahasa” as a slogan in his Umno’s propaganda.

In reality, one-language policies and race-based nationalism do not unite any multiracial, multicultural nation. Instead, they often divide nations severely as evidenced by the civil war in Sri Lanka. On the other hand, South Africa, Switzerland and Canada rescued their nations from civil war with constitutional reforms by permitting multilingualism and multiculturalism.

Switzerland went through a 400-year civil war before various “tribes” agreed on a constitution permitting four official languages and a multilingual education system. Similarly, Canada faced separatism from French-speaking Quebec until both divides agreed on peaceful referendums to decide on Quebec’s independence and to form a bilingual government. South Africa went through a civil-war state under the apartheid regime based on Afrikaner Nationalism and Afrikaan-language dominance until the situation was resolved through democratic constitutional reform instilling equality, multilingualism and multiculturalism constitutionally.

The US Federal Constitution has never defined English as the only official language although English is the de facto language of documentation for all state and federal governments. There is an English-only movement to make English the only de jure official language despite the fact that 13% of Americans speak Spanish as their native or second language and 7% speak a language other than English and Spanish.

Furthermore, Spanish is granted a special status in education in the state of New Mexico. In fact, the power to administer the education system is under the jurisdiction of state governments in the US. Even though the language used in government documentation in 32 states is English, the American courts view the language of government documentation as a separate entity from the use of language in education, which is seen to be more of an individual constitutional right that cannot be entirely dictated by the state.

There are examples showing that state governments which administer a diverse education system produce more competitive public education systems. Besides being known for “public Ivy-League” universities such as UC Berkeley and the University of Minnesota, California and Minnesota administer competitive public education systems by investing in multilingual and diverse public school systems.

There are even state-administered “immersion schools” in Minnesota that teach all subjects in Spanish, Chinese, Japanese or Korean. Some are bilingual schools. The public education system is not confined to the purview of “tolerance towards diversity”, but instead utilises diversity as a strength to make the public education system more competitive. It is factually wrong to view the US as having a monolingual education system even though it is predominantly in English.

Our leaders should view our language policy from an international perspective instead of a race-based nationalist perspective. In regards to an international perspective of our language policy, we could view ourselves as respective governments in resolving peaceful constitutional reforms with southern Thailand and the Philippines’ Moro separatist movements. Perhaps both countries should adopt the Canadian approach in resolving Quebec separatism and consider a constitutional reform which admits the language and culture of Patani Malay Muslims and Mindanao’s Moros as the constitutional rights of the respective countries rather than suppressing them.

If Patani Malays and Moro Muslims as minorities in each of their respective countries should be allowed to have their languages and cultures constitutionally recognised in order to bring about the peaceful settlement of a long-standing civil war, can local Malays be open-hearted enough to allow other native cultures and languages to be officially and constitutionally recognised? This can happen only if they view themselves as Malay internationalists rather than narrower race-based Malay nationalists.

Strictly speaking, it is a dysfunctional, unrealistic constitution more than the UEC itself that is causing the actual problem. Not only are we a multilingual and multicultural nation, the ever-changing world scenarios have made us learn languages other than English and Malay in order to catch up with the latest tide of globalisation. The UEC represents the foresight of those who created it as it has become a well-recognised alternative pathway to both English and Mandarin-medium international universities for even Malay and other non-Chinese students.

There are myths about the UEC which should be clarified before any further meaningful discussions can take place:

  1. UEC subjects are conducted not only in Mandarin but also in English and Malay;
  2. UEC English grading has been pegged with GCE O-Levels English;
  3. Initially, UEC Chinese language grading was not recognised by universities in PROC, and UEC holders had to sit for Han Yu Shui Ping Kao Shi or Mandarin Standard Examination like any other foreign students who spoke a second language. As a modus operandi, UEC Mandarin was recognised as a direct admission standard after some years of pegging study.
  4. Interestingly enough, GCE O-Levels Bahasa Melayu as either a first or second language is recognised by Malaysian authorities as on par with SPM Malay despite all other subjects being conducted in English, notwithstanding the fact that UEC’s Malay papers are tougher than that of GCE O-Levels.

The former administration’s refusal and the present Pakatan Harapan government’s reluctance to peg UEC Malay to SPM Malay reflects the very much ingrained racial prejudice and politically motivated ignorance of the powers that be towards the multilingual UEC, the sociocultural and economic values of which have been recognised by many foreign universities.

It is its investment in diversity that has made the US stay ahead of many other nations in terms of technological innovation and economic advancements. As Mahathir’s beliefs have had great influence on the highly centralised Malay nationalist education policy implemented so far, it is important that we correct certain misperceptions and misinformation in “The Malay Dilemma” before we move forward with a far more effective and long lasting education reform.

Dr Boo Cheng Hau is Taman Ungku Tun Aminah DAP branch publicity secretary.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.