Education is the basis of constructing and developing a nation. Since independence, Malaysia’s multi-ethnic society has been buttressed by its education system; an education system with one special feature – various stream schools that allow the main ethnic groups to retain their mother-tongue education throughout at least the primary level.
On one hand, critics view this as one of the main hindrances toward realising national unity. On the other hand, supporters argue that language is intrinsic in retaining our respective cultural identities and is uncorrelated with the formation of national unity. Here, it is said that it is not the issue of language use that could lead to national disunity, but rather discrepancies in ideology.
Despite the controversies surrounding the issue of vernacular education, Malaysia needs a shared consensus to its approach towards its education system. However, what are the positions we should be taking to satisfy all parties? Drawing upon current and past experiences will help us to find the best-practice and feasible solutions here.
The failure of the Teaching of Science and Maths in English (PPSMI) policy that advocates English as the language of instruction for science and mathematics has indirectly demonstrated the importance of learning in a mother tongue language in laying the foundations. In addition, the long-standing existence of different streams of education has never caused any form of major conflict that has harmed national unity. Quite the contrary.
Vernacular education also promotes harmony by instilling moral values in children.
Vernacular schools, however, do need to change their approach to diversify and be inclusive of students from different ethnicities in order to break the social perception that vernacular schools are labelled with members of their own ethnic groups.
Fortunately, national-type Chinese primary schools have shown improvement by having more than 10 percent non-Chinese students in recent years. In order for it to continue to be successful, this will gradually have to become the trend in preserving and sustaining vernacular education in Malaysia.
If this trend does continue, one may wonder why not abolish vernacular schools altogether and establish a single standardised system to accommodate the learning needs of different languages under the same roof? While this sounds ideal in providing multiple options of language learning, one must take note that language is not simply a means of communication but also highly associated with its cultural values.
Although they accept students of varying races, this does not mean that the essence of vernacular schools is destroyed in the pursuit of inclusiveness and unity. While adjusting to the national curriculum, vernacular schools preserve a cultural environment and heritage for students to immerse themselves in.
The provision of such a cultural environment has nothing to do with one’s ethnic identity, but rather, welcomes everyone who intends to experience and learn in a particular cultural setting.
As argued by Samuel Huntington in his seminal Clash of Civilizations thesis, cultural assimilation can no longer be the only instrument used to achieve unity. Rather, it has become a new source of tension in many examples where there is conflict based on cultural and religious identities.
Increasing incidences of IS-related attacks and rising Islamophobia have exacerbated the misunderstandings between East and West which must be reconciled. Such trends are matters of concern for us in Malaysia. Only by recognising, understanding and accepting differences in cultural identities wholeheartedly, and applying these values to our education system, will Malaysia continue to thrive and prosper.
However, it is of major concern as to how this will be realised in practice. In reconciling public opinion and expectation towards the education system, the government bears the largest responsibility and will be expected to play the leading role.
Maintaining rather than developing national-type schools
In scrutinising the Malaysian Education Blueprint 2013-2025, one can come to the conclusion that the government merely intends to maintain current national-type schools rather than to develop them. This is vividly embodied in the following passage:
“in encouraging the voluntary conversion of government-aided schools into government schools, the Ministry will take special care to maintain the existing governance structure, identity and heritage of these schools” (Education Ministry Blueprint 2013-2025, p.7-17).
It can be surmised that the government still aspires to achieve the “ultimate goal” suggested in the 1956 Razak Report, which is to convert national-type schools into national schools where only the national language is the main medium of instruction, though no form of compulsion will be used.
There is inadequate government support to develop our cultural heritage within the vernacular school system, leading to disparities in public opinions towards vernacular education.
Without full backing from the government to develop different cultural learning environments and complete knowledge about vernacular schools, some people will perceive a ‘one-size-fits-all’ teaching medium policy as the best solution for the development of our education system, assuming that these schools are creating barriers in the society.
There is no way to have open, yet healthy competition among the various streams of schools without the government’s dedication to support them altogether. Competition amongst these schools can guarantee improvements toward multiple aspects, including teaching quality.
Within its ministerial purview, the Education Ministry, as well as Education Performance and Delivery Unit (Padu), should carefully identify the strengths and weaknesses of different schools so as to promote the spirit of learning from each other in ensuring quality education.
We should not aim for single standardisation as the final target of our national education system, but for the inclusiveness of multicultural school settings. This has to be realised by every Malaysian within the alignment of our multi-ethnic identity as Malaysian citizens.
A top-down initiative by the government is undoubtedly the most efficient way to form and circulate such ideology in the country. One also needs to bear in mind that national unity comes from understanding each other’s cultural values, but never from language itself.
MICHELLE CHAN is studying Economics and Finance at the University of Hong Kong and was a summer research intern at the Centre for Public Policy Studies (CPPS)