A consideration of the debate on vernacular schools, and the important roles that both national and vernacular schools have to play in Malaysia.
The debate on vernacular schools in Malaysia is often misleading, unconstructive and damaging. I say this because much discourse and opinions about vernacular schools have a dangerous tendency to suffer from oversimplification; you are either for the vernacular school, or you are for its abolition. This is little more than politicised banter — on one hand, it preaches to the choir; but on the other, it unnecessarily stirs up divisive communal frustrations. We must acknowledge that this recurring controversy is deeply-rooted in the convoluted web that is the fabric of Malaysian society — some of which our own doing, others an indirect result of British colonialism. Either way, its complexity demands greater attention and certainly, deeper analysis.
To be clear, this article will advocate no position for or against the vernacular school; rather, it aims to highlight three key issues that matter — culture, nation-building and general quality of education — and to finally assess what they mean for the vernacular school (and indeed, its counterpart: the national school) in the future of the Malaysian educational landscape.
When discussing any Malaysian affairs with ethnic undertones, we must keep in mind one key thing: as much as an idealist would like to believe otherwise, the current Malaysian society does not yet view itself as a collective; rather, we identify ourselves — both consciously and unconsciously — as distinct entities which make up a whole. As such, our perspectives on issues that affect us are often viewed through communal lenses, depending on which entity we believe we belong to and our communal upbringing. This context rings strongly for the issue of vernacular schools, which is why culture should be at the crux of any discussion regarding its condition.
In particular, the survival of the vernacular school is often strongly associated with the survival of the minorities’ culture; in this case the Chinese and Indians. Traditionalists, especially those from previous generations, are usually quick to defend the vernacular school with the idea that it represents their identity as a people. The use of the mother tongue as a medium of instruction is seen to keep the young connected to their cultural roots, and the lessons culturally enriching through history, literature and ethics, all of which are believed to be exclusive to the vernacular system. As such, an attack on the vernacular school is held to be tantamount to an attack on culture.
There are two dimensions to this association.
The first one is politically and emotionally charged. Passionate defenders of the vernacular school will not hesitate to express their fears that without vernacular education, the younger generation will slowly forget their own culture and thus their identity. Coming from a national school, I can see where such fears come from: after all, when I compare myself to my peers who underwent vernacular education, they are clearly superior in their cultural awareness. The combination of passion, pride and fear creates an incredibly fragile atmosphere.It necessitates discourse that rises above the aforementioned for-and-against positioning; it calls for empathy and acknowledgement of these cultural insecurities. Put simply, taking this into account, an outright advocacy for abolition is politically unfeasible and counterproductive to the national cause, as it will exacerbate social discord.
The second dimension is more moderate and encompasses both cultural and quality concerns: some segments of the minorities associate the survival of culture with the survival of the vernacular school simply because they lack faith in the state’s ability to effectively protect (let alone execute) the education of culture through the national school system. When juxtaposed against the firmly established and time-tested machinery of the vernacular institutions, some are unconvinced that the national schools can even compete on the grounds of cultural education, let alone provide a superior option. To add further detriment, proponents of vernacular schools are quick to point out that the general quality of education in vernacular schools is simply higher, as evidenced by better results.
While traditionalists and the older generation are concerned with cultural politics, the second dimension is much more reflective of most parents today — they demand a quality, wholesome education for their children, and their children will be sent to institutions that meet that demand. The current status quo — with 90% of Chinese children and 60% of Tamil children attending vernacular schools — suggests that the vernacular school offers just that. Being a student from a national school and a firm believer in nation building, this is personally disappointing but the fact of the matter is, I have little reason to dispute the decisions of the parents.
However, the cause of national schools is all but lost. Merit must be given to national schools because they are potentially superior for nation building purposes. Nation building is a desirable goal because it lays down the appropriate social, cultural and political foundations upon which a country can effectively and efficiently utilise its resources. While the extent to which education systems can be relied upon as the state’ s instrument to shape society is a debate in its own right; what is certain, though, is that education systems are a strong reinforcing agent of values and perspectives. In the pursuit of nation building, the kind of values and perspectives we should seek to reinforce in schools should be those which celebrate diversity and recognize each ethnic community’s cultural complexities and nuances. In other words, our schools should be a microcosm of the real Malaysian society.
This idea of nationhood goes beyond sentimental patriotism; from a practical standpoint, the inability of a nation’s own citizens to feel a sense of belonging and a sense of shared destiny can lead (and in Malaysia, has led) to an outflow of human capital. In the domestic economy, lack of a “collective” view can be an impediment to fulfilling our full economic potential as we allow diverging communal interests to constantly act as a destabilising force — this is becoming increasingly relevant in Malaysia.
With these values and perspectives in mind, the national school is clearly superior. Albeit all its imperfections, the main positive of the national school, as it stands — from both a national and parental viewpoint — is that it serves as a much better platform for a child to grasp the idea of the Malaysian society; that is, the racially and culturally diverse Malaysia. If we accept that the environment is very capable of influencing the beliefs and behaviour of children, then we must accept that children who grow up in national schools are less likely to grow up in ignorance of their ethnically distinct peers. Consequently, with cross-cultural experiences, they are more likely to develop crucial skills in effectively engaging and communicating with a wider mix of people.
Based on experience of my own and my peers, this is a compelling argument which goes beyond rhetoric, especially when we look at less urbanised parts of Malaysia, where physical communal separation is relatively significant. Again, returning to the idea of schools as a reinforcing agent of values and perspectives, an arguably more “Malaysian” environment is primarily absent in vernacular schools. As a result, those who come from communities with a more monolithic cultural background (a highly common phenomenon in less developed areas) and go to vernacular schools are more likely to reinforce the biased cultural lenses through which they view the world.
Drawing upon these two fundamental elements of culture and nation building, there are important practical considerations for both national and vernacular schools. As national schools are essentially under the aegis of the state, their responsibility cannot be excluded from this discussion. The first step for Malaysian politicians and educationists is cease thinking about what to do with vernacular schools; rather, they should worry more about what to do with the national schools. Even if a one-school system, presumably under national schools, is the final goal, staunch opposition is not constructive.
Instead, a market-oriented view must be adopted; in layman’s terms, since parents dictate the terms of what they demand from the education system, the state must be responsive to these demands. If the state can rise up to the challenge, then surely, on a behavioral level, parents will be incentivised to send their children to national schools. As it stands, there are two primary demands from parents: one, they want cultural education; two, they want quality education. The state must seek to incorporate effective teaching of Mandarin and Tamil alongside the national language, and perhaps even compel every student to master all three languages from a primary level. It cannot afford to attempt to relegate cultural education to the household and assume that it will be sufficient; parents are clearly sending a different signal. In fact, instead of viewing vernacular schools with hostility, the state can be proactive and see how things are done differently in vernacular schools; surely, there are valuable lessons to be learnt by the national school system.
With regards to improving the general quality of education, the state needs to go beyond the idea that more spending is better; in fact, a reconsideration of the way funds are allocated and managed is required. There are two reasons for this.
The first is political; given the delicate state of affairs and the relatively low funding for vernacular schools, pumping more money into the national schools may serve only to galvanise the convictions of proponents of vernacular schools — particularly pro-vernacular parents — that the government cares little for their respective communities. What matters is not whether these claims are real, what matters is that they exist and that they are very legitimate in the minds of pro-vernacular parents, a formidable interest group in its own right. And because of that, the ignorance of these conditions — by increasing spending on national schools while starving vernacular schools of funding — will only widen the wedge between communal and national perspectives. The state’s aim of nation building that strives for a society that is able to view Malaysia as a collective whole will fall on deaf ears if the state itself will not listen to these political fears.
The second involves the systemic problems of our national schools. The state needs to deal with a multitude of things: various incentive problems within the teaching profession, the selection and training of our teachers, national schools which don’t really seem “nationalised” — the list goes on. These problems reflect much wider concerns about the implementation of our educational policies and can only be effectively elaborated in an article of its own (perhaps even that would not suffice). The truth is, many of the less traditional-minded parents would send their children to national schools — if only it would not compromise their children’s quality of education.
As for the vernacular schools, they are clearly in a better standing at the moment. Despite the little funding that they receive from the government, they continue to thrive and attract new students. This displays remarkable resilience on the part of the vernacular schools; their strengths as well as their unique educational culture are valid calls for preservation. Assuming that national schools do rise up to the occasion and eventually provide enviable standards of education, it still does not mean that vernacular schools will become an anachronism in Malaysia.
Having said that, the vernacular schools — as part of our nation’s education services — still have a responsibility in nation building as well. In the collective interest of the country, vernacular schools should detach themselves from their perceived role as the stalwarts of Chinese and Indian identity. Vernacular schools should not be on the defensive; they enjoy success and are very reputable academically — they should exploit this. To be more precise, they should thus actively pursue a wider demographic mix that is more reflective of the national population. Increasingly, more Malay parents are beginning to send their children to vernacular schools — vernacular schools should welcome this.
This strategy projects an important idea: that vernacular schools — contrary to popular belief — are not exclusive to those of a particular ethnic origin. This is important because it would represent a significant paradigm shift: no longer will vernacular schools be viewed as institutions that propagate and defend culture. Rather, they become institutions that are inclusive and offer a unique educational experience.
Ultimately, with regards to the issue of vernacular schools in Malaysia, the onus lies on the national schools (and thus the state) to prove itself as a better option to the general public. The idea of forcibly imposing one-school system under the name of nation building is out of the question, at least until the immense popularity of vernacular schools diminishes — and that is extremely unlikely. Thus, the government today has a clear ultimatum: it can either rebuild the good reputation that our national schools used to carry proudly; or, it can choose to allow that to remain as a forgotten relic of the past. For our country’s sake, I pray it does the former.
Zhi Wei is big fan of music, big ideas and enjoys a good debate every now and then. He believes in the power of the simpler things in life, and expresses them vicariously through daily doodles of a fat penguin at www.afatpenguin.tumblr.com