Hornbill Unleashed

July 22, 2017

Can and should vernacular schools be abolished?

Filed under: Politics — Hornbill Unleashed @ 8:02 AM

Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin Abu Bakar opened an old can of worms when he asked at a question-and-answer session whether “anyone in politics dared abolish vernacular schools, even if it was a popular proposition to promote unity in the country”.

In case anyone is wondering why the sports minister is engaging in this dialogue, remember that he was given the task of coming up with TN50, a plan to transform the future of Malaysia during the period 2020-2050.

There are two parts that need to be answered here. First, how is it possible to abolish vernacular schools, and also by extension religious schools, so that there is only a single educational system in the country which is taught in the language the government decides and a curriculum it sets?

Two, is it really desirable at this stage to ban vernacular schools?

Let’s take it in turn. While many seem to be under the impression that vernacular schools are guaranteed under the Federal Constitution, that apparently is untrue.

Constitutional scholar, Shad Saleem Faruqi, in his book Document of Destiny, says on page 361: “The educational landscape of this country has, since colonial days, been dotted with vernacular schools conducting instruction in Malay, Chinese or Tamil. Some of these schools have very fine reputations indeed. They are open to all races and many Malays and Indians are known to enrol their kids in Chinese vernacular institutions.

“Whether vernacular schools are part of our rich cultural mosaic or a hindrance to national unity are open questions. What is important is that though not provided for in the constitution, they are recognised by the Education Act 1996. The Act in Section 28 allows ‘national type’ schools to exist and to conduct instruction in a language other than Malay. The Act also allows private educational institutions to exist under section 73 and gives them considerable autonomy.”

That means vernacular schools can be abolished by an amendment to the Education Act which requires just a simple majority of the legislature compared to the two-thirds majority required to amend the constitution.

In theory, that is easy to do, but it will face considerable opposition not only from Chinese and Tamil educationists but also from Malay groups as Malay and religious schools would have to be closed as well.

Which brings us to the question of whether vernacular schools should be abolished. That will hinge critically on whether they are a hindrance to national unity. Considering that an estimated 90 percent of Chinese in Malaysia send their children to Chinese primary schools, the answer has to be yes.

Malaysia is probably one of the few countries in the world, if not the only, which has four parallel education systems – Malay, Chinese, Tamil and Islamic. The attendance of these schools is divided along almost exclusively racial and religious lines, artificially separating different members of key communities in their formative years.

That results in alienation among young Malaysians against one another and lack of understanding and of embracing wholeheartedly the different cultures, religious practices and way of life of the various communities that can come only from close personal interaction. Without a doubt, vernacular schools hinder national unity.

Political minefield

It is a political minefield, especially among the almost extreme Chinese educationists who have opposed even “vision schools” where it is envisaged national and vernacular schools are in close proximity to encourage interactions among various races and religious denominations.

The alternative is to guarantee mother-tongue education for major races as Lee Kuan Yew did in Singapore where he dismantled Chinese schools (despite a Chinese majority of over three quarters) and put in one single educational system taught in English. In Malaysia’s case, mother-tongue education can be guaranteed too and a system devised whereby there is a transition from vernacular to national schools over, say, five years.

Going back to Khairy: “To abolish vernacular schools, who has the political courage to do that? It’s an ideal because you want to have everybody going to the same school as an element of unity… but it’s a tough one. At the moment, I don’t see either side (of the political divide) doing this,” Khairy said during the TN50 session organised by Petronas staff in Kuala Lumpur.

Abolishing vernacular schools was a popular idea among the estimated 250 Petronas employees present, with a majority of them in favour.

Said an audience member who identified himself as Azlan: “I am passionate about having a united Malaysia and I feel that one of the most effective ways to achieve this is for us to abolish the current vernacular education system, and replace it with one national education (system).”

But Khairy, the Oxford graduate who believes maths and science must be taught in Malay to Malays, never mind that it handicaps them by restricting their competence in English, used the race card yet again to pour cold water on enlightened idealism: “The moment you say close down vernacular schools, the other side of the argument is what about your fully residential Malay schools? That have to go also, to be fair. It’s rewriting the social contract, (it’s) a big deal. Are we ready for that?” he asked. His question was met with silence from the audience.

It’s really not about rewriting the social contract – we all know there was no such document. It is somebody’s idea of what was agreed upon informally among the various communities at the time of independence and is commonly used to extinguish progressive ideas, especially among Malays themselves. It looks like we know who lacks moral courage.

One thing more. Vernacular schools have existed since independence but they have become a disunity problem only more recently. Why? Because they were not popular before – people sent their children to national and mission schools of repute because that was where educational quality was high. And there were no or few Islamic elements in schools.

But that has changed – the quality of schools has dropped precipitously and Islamic elements have crept into all areas of national schools, including dressing, curriculum and content. The last of which has been rewritten to obscure and even delete historical facts while increasing Islamic content in various subject areas.

The government allowed this to happen. If it can now systematically change all this to make the education system purely secular and improve quality, then more people will send their students to national schools, improving national unity. That requires moral courage.

Since the government has been in charge of education since independence, we can then safely infer that positive changes to the education system are being prevented by lack of moral courage of the government first and foremost.

Source : Malaysiakini by P Gunasegaram
P GUNASEGARAM taught physics and maths at a national school in 1977-78 before becoming a journalist. By merely changing seat positions, putting different races side by side, he saw a near miraculous positive interaction of Chinese and Malay students in his class then. He hopes against hope the government will somehow get some moral courage from somewhere.



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