Born and bred in Batu Pahat, Johor, I grew up in a Mandarin speaking family and went to SRJK(C) for my primary studies. My dad was a former primary school headmaster, hence the importance of getting good grades had been very much instilled in my head since I was very young.
I did exactly just that and never failed to obtain top 3 placing in all my six years of primary school. I did well in other aspects, too, winning first place in public speaking and an opportunity to deliver a graduation speech witnessed by the then assemblyman, Tan Teck Poh, when I was 12. I scored well in my UPSR and was my teachers’ pride and model student.
It took a massive turn when I progressed to secondary school and joined an SMK. In the first week, I was automatically assigned to the last class of Form 1 despite my UPSR results. The sole reason, I learnt later, was the school intended to group all the minority SRJK(C) students into one class to be assigned with specific teachers.
My confidence was severely shaken because I could barely utter a proper sentence in Bahasa Malaysia, when my Malay classmates spoke, or English, when the Chinese students from SRK spoke. I was completely lost academically and socially, and incapable of fitting in anywhere or learning anything in the first few months of my Form 1 studies.
I remember receiving an E or F grade for almost every subject, and my form teacher told my dad during the Parent-Teachers Day she thought I was one of the worst in the class and had little hope of improving. All she hoped was for me to not drop out of school and join a gang.
I remember going home and watching my parents break down in tears when they asked me why I did not work as hard as I did before. My only answer was that I was working very hard but I simply could not understand anything being taught in school because of the language barrier. I had become the laughing stock of the class, especially when I stuttered badly whenever I tried to speak a language I barely knew.
I remember using the word “aku” when speaking to my form teacher, and the whole class would burst into laughter, and the teacher got so angry, but I did not know what was wrong.
The Parent-Teachers Day was a turning point. I started making efforts to master my Bahasa Malaysia and English, and I eventually got into better classes and scored A1 for both subjects in my SPM. I never stopped my lifelong learning, obtaining my MBA at 28 and am now pursuing my DBA.
Not all were lucky like me though. I remember at least five classmates who started out as good students in SRJK and dropped out a few years into secondary school. They ended up in gangs or illegal jobs on the street like selling VCDs.
Even back then it occurred to me that using different languages in primary school had made it extra challenging for us at that young age. Why didn’t we get to have the same learning experience as others? Many of us were not stupid, but to be able to master multiple languages academically is not something for everybody.
All these were merely my personal experience from my early years of education. We have not even started on how the language barriers have created an entirely different pool of job market with language proficiency as one of main criterias.
Why can’t we all have one unified education system? Why have we been divided since before we knew how to differentiate each other?
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in his 2019 National Day rally that since the 1950s, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) had officially classified Chinese descendants from around the world as “Oversea Chinese nationals” and “Chinese people”. The former refers to Chinese descendants born anywhere but choose to retain their PRC citizenship, while the latter refers to those who have chosen citizenship in the country of their residence. Then premier of PRC Zhou Enlai had urged all the Chinese descendents who had chosen citizenship elsewhere to be loyal and prioritise their respective countries. Using this reference, Lee concluded his National Day rally by urging his fellow Singaporean Chinese to continue to do the same.
I will forever be one of the “Chinese people” as it is my ethnicity, but as my ancestors had made the choice to be Malaysians, it is my fundamental civil duty to support any positive policy towards greater national unity.
This does not mean we need to neglect or abolish the use of Mandarin for education and other purposes, it simply means to ensure that Bahasa Malaysia is prioritised as our national language.
I hope we can, for once, not think of this as a racial issue. It’s simply a suggestion to strengthen national unity for generations to come.
Marc Chua is a 35-year-old entrepreneur who founded a Malaysian sports brand now exporting regionally, holder of two national records and a TEDx speaker.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.