Why proposal to abolish vernacular schools is irresponsible and unfounded

We have seen renewed calls for the abolition of vernacular primary schools in Malaysia.

This is a drum beaten periodically by Malay leaders – most recently Perlis mufti Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin and PPBM Youth chief Wan Ahmad Fayhsal – who seek to remove the ability for native Mandarin- and Tamil-speakers to be educated in their mother-tongues.

As a social psychologist who has studied and written on national integration and race relations in Malaysia for the last 15 years, I believe these periodic calls are neither pragmatic nor do they contribute towards nation-building and mutual respect within a vibrant multicultural country.

Instead, they might be interpreted as assimilationists – an attempt to subsume and erase – under the seemingly benign and exalted guise of integration.

Given that we have an enormous investment – economic, cultural, psychological and political – in primary vernacular education in Malaysia, Asri and others who echo his proposal for single-stream primary education and some possible vernacular secondary education need to answer a basic question: What is the evidence that single-stream primary education leads to more integration compared with single-stream secondary education?

Is interracial, inter-religious mixing and schooling at the primary school level likely to produce citizens who are more open-minded and focused on integration compared with having such mixing at the secondary school level?

This is an empirical question, which we in Malaysia do not have the data to answer.

I have not come across evidence from any country that the period of childhood between the ages of seven and 12 (primary school years) is advantageous to promoting racial integration over the ages of 13-18 (secondary school years).

In fact, there is strong psychological evidence that shows how adolescence is a critical period for identity development, which would include national identity.

Further, minority groups have a reason to prefer vernacular education at the primary level because there is extensive global evidence, including from Unesco, that mother tongue education (for example, Mandarin or Tamil) makes it easier for children to pick up and learn other languages (such as Bahasa Malaysia), develop their personal and cultural identities, help develop their critical thinking and literacy skills, and also leads to higher enjoyment of school and academic performance.

An obvious fact that we often neglect in the furore over vernacular education, is that single-stream Malay-medium schools are essentially vernacular, or mother-tongue schools for Malay children.

Pretending that Malay schools are somehow not vernacular, but are “purely national” or “culture-free”, is either ignorant or disingenuous.

This is not to deny the value of a national language that unites us and educational opportunities that allow students from different backgrounds to mingle. But how we marry the legitimate cultural needs of different groups is a challenging question that we need to seriously work through, rather than seeking to flatten the diversity that our nation contains.

Based on the available evidence from educational and psychological studies, it seems that vernacular education should be available at the primary school level, while secondary school might be a particularly good place to encourage interracial and inter-religious mixing and co-education, potentially leading to greater racial integration.

This is largely what we are seeing in the current educational landscape, that is, based on the education ministry’s 2018 data, students educated at Mandarin and Tamil vernacular primary schools migrate to “mainstream” Malay-medium secondary schools.

However, we see an opposite, separating pattern among Malay students, more of whom migrate to mono-religious secondary schools instead.

There is also the simple question of pragmatism, in that we already have multiple long-standing vernacular primary schools in Malaysia, some of which have a multicultural student body.

So, even if you agree with Asri on single-stream primary schools, his particular proposal for vernacular secondary education only works if he persuades the government to provide high quality and widely available vernacular education at the secondary school level, such as currently enjoyed by Muslim students in Islamic schools.

Otherwise, I think it is fair to wonder whether such proposals are little more than an excuse for covering the final goal, that is the abolition of vernacular education, and the resulting erosion of the culture and identity of Mandarin- and Tamil-speakers. All the while beating the beguiling drum of integration.

Ultimately, this is an empirical question.

Had Asri and others called for a careful study to be conducted to assess whether vernacular schools necessarily produce less patriotic students, and whether primary or secondary schools should be single-stream, this would have been a responsible way to proceed.

In the absence of such data, it is irresponsible and majoritarian to strongly recommend the abolition of vernacular schools.

 

Ananthi Al Ramiah is the founder of Dataluminescence Research and holds a PhD in social psychology from Oxford University.

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