Fairer deal needed for all races in education

A PAS delegate at the party’s recent muktamar called for the abolition of Mandarin-medium schools and proposed Arabic as the language of instruction. The delegate also said she did not want to see Mandarin taking position as a second language in the country.

In Malaysia, however, Mandarin and Tamil are only used as the medium of instruction in national-type schools at the primary level. When students enter secondary public schools, they are taught in Malay, the national language. Those who wish to continue their secondary and tertiary studies in Mandarin enrol in private schools. Likewise, those who opt to continue their studies in Arabic enrol in learning institutions that use Arabic as the medium of instruction.

PAS may not be cognisant of the fact that Saudi Arabia – the cradle of Islam – has decided to introduce Chinese into the curriculum at all education levels in the country. Saudi Arabia is beginning to see the importance of this language in its business dealings with China. Even Russia and many European countries have embarked on the same line.

These countries see the promising business opportunities that accompany the ability to communicate in Chinese. PAS, on the other hand, is in regressive mode and is looking at the language from a narrow, nationalistic perspective. PAS could at least have proposed that the Chinese language be taught at national schools for commercial reasons, as this could give students better prospects when they seek jobs in the private sector after completing their studies.

Make learning mother-tongue language compulsory at national schools

Be that as it may, it will not be easy to abolish some non-mainstream schools favoured by Malaysians. Vernacular, religious, private and international schools are here to stay as long as national schools are not the schools of choice for parents. It is therefore the role of the new government to make national schools more attractive to all Malaysians. Only with some proactive measures taken by the government to this effect will parents have confidence in national schools, prompting all other types of schools to gradually fade into oblivion.

Our neighbour, Singapore, has made national schools the schools of choice for its people since 1965. English is the medium of instruction at these schools and learning the mother-tongue language is compulsory for all students. This resulted in all vernacular schools being phased out gradually and without any coercion.

In the Malaysian context, it may not be acceptable by the majority for English to be made the medium of instruction in national schools. It would become a major political issue and no politician would dare tread on this path. However, national schools can still be made attractive to all Malaysians through other realistic means.

Some parents send their children to vernacular schools so that their children can acquire their mother-tongue language, be it Mandarin, Tamil or Arabic, even when Arabic is not a mother-tongue language in the Malaysian context. If only national schools were able to offer and make it compulsory for children to learn mother-tongue languages, then some parents might think twice before sending their children to vernacular or religious schools. Besides the national language and English, children are then exposed to a third language. Students should be allowed to learn a third language of their own choice which does not necessarily have to be their mother tongue.

Obsessed with religion

Beyond that, national schools should not be obsessed with religious frills. Many parents have the perception that national schools have become more religion-centric. This concern does not seem to have died down despite schools being reminded of the flaws of some political leaders and even the prime minister himself. Too many religious activities and religious dos and don’ts in national schools have made non-Muslim children feel alienated.

As long as this show of focus on religion goes on, non-Muslim parents will find it tempting to send their children to vernacular schools. The ministry should look into this matter seriously. The rich, of course, will resort to private or international schools. Many parents living in southern Johor have another choice: they send their children to Singapore to be schooled.

Ironically, despite national schools being too religion-centric, many Malay parents find these schools “less religious” and prefer to send their children to the private and government-aided religious schools that are sprouting like mushrooms in the country.

On the face of it, it seems like national schools are shunned by all the major races in the country. As such, vernacular and other non-mainstream schools cannot be easily phased out. For this reason, it is hard to achieve racial integration in the diverse education structure in which the country has been entangled since independence.

Schools staffed with teachers of a single race

The composition of teachers at national schools does not reflect the population of the country. This is quite undesirable in a multiracial country like Malaysia. When schools are staffed with teachers of a single race, parents will have the perception that these schools are more meant for a single race. The schools will become less attractive to some parents.

The standard of English language learning and acquisition in national schools is notably not up to mark. It’s not that the standard of English is superior in vernacular schools, but if parents were to find national schools generating children who are more proficient in the language then these schools, it would obviously become more attractive to them. Wealthy parents, for this reason, would prefer to send their children to private and international schools where English is used in the curriculum. Some even have the means to send their children overseas.

Of late, there have been fierce polemics concerning the teaching of Maths and Science in English. However, most enlightened parents would prefer if these subjects were taught in English. If the Dual Language Programme (DLP) were to be introduced at all national schools, this would be an attraction to parents. The ministry certainly has the means to do this. If teachers are not ready to teach these subjects in English, they could hire retired or foreign teachers on a contract basis until the bulk of the present schoolteachers are trained to handle these subjects.

However, it should not be made compulsory for all parents to make their children study these subjects in English if they do not wish to do so. Just make it optional. They can be given a choice if they prefer their children to be taught these subjects in Malay. This move would then not irritate some of the language zealots who have erroneously felt that the DLP will erode the status of the national language.

A fairer deal for all races

The ministry could even consider privatising some of the premier national schools and giving them the autonomy to meet the demands of the present society. Some non-Muslim parents feel that even if their children were to study at national schools, opportunities for them to further their studies at some of the premier schools in the country such as MRSM and the science schools are limited.

For instance, only a small percentage of non-Malays students are accepted into MRSM or even the pre-university matriculation programmes. They feel that despite studying at national schools they are still “discriminated” against. This thought has made parents feel that even if their children were to attend national schools, at the end of the day they would still be considered as “second-class citizens”.

To fulfil the needs of all the races in the country, the new government has to take another look at the education system. The system should be fair to all citizens. For instance, for entrance to premier schools, pre-university matriculation programmes and even up to university level, the ministry could set a new quota system based on the country’s population ratio.

Equitably, by population, 65% or so of places at these intuitions could be allocated for Bumiputeras, 20% for the Chinese, 10% for the Indians and 5% for the others. Students would have to compete among themselves to be accepted into these schools and institutions. This would be a fairer deal for all the races in the country, and parents would start having more faith in national schools and the national education system.

Moaz Nair is an FMT reader.

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